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Where your stuff goes from the bin onwards, in photos
When photographer James MacDonald moved to Victoria from Toronto three years ago, he was struck by the cities’ different curbside recycling programs. In Toronto, he could just toss everything into a bin and forget about it. In Victoria, as he quickly learned, residential recycling required some thought and effort—namely, cleaning and sorting recyclables according to their material. Do it wrong, and you’ll find a sternly-worded rejection sticker.
Hoping to gain a better understanding of what seemed like a complex system, MacDonald set out with his camera to document how the system works. He tagged along with teams as they collected recyclables from around the city and also spent time inside a receiving facility in Burnside, discovering that BC has an intricate residential recycling operation that relies on many contractors and streams of collection (curbside, depot, multi-family).
It’s a system that’s unique in North America, as it holds producers fully responsible for managing all the packaging and paper products that come with their goods, even after the goods are sold and used.
In 2014, through an amended regulation to its Environmental Management Act, the province shifted the entire cost of recycling from the taxpayers to the product producers. The extended producer responsibility for managing the collection and recycling of materials, or EPR, applies only to high-volume producers—manufacturers, distributors, and retailers that annually bring in at least a million dollars and put 1,000 kg of packaging into the BC marketplace.
After the regulation was amended, approximately 1,200 producers banded together to form Recycle BC. The not-for-profit organization then created a program to collect materials on their behalf. Recycle BC contracts with both private waste management companies and local governments.
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The Capital Regional District subcontracts with private companies to collect recyclables from residences on behalf of Recycle BC. Once the materials are collected, they’re dropped off at a receiving facility and then transported to one of two material recovery facilities on the mainland, where they’re sorted and baled with like materials before beginning their next iteration.
According to Recycle BC, 90% of the materials collected from residences end up being recycled; 7% go to landfill, either because the material itself can’t be recycled at scale or is contaminated; and 3% (including plastic jars with peanut butter still stuck on them) are turned into an engineered fuel and sold to industrial companies in lieu of coal. Almost all recycled plastic from residential collection programs (98%) winds up in local end markets.
After materials are collected from curbs and depots in the Capital Regional District, they’re dropped off at a receiving facility before being shipped to a material recovery facility on the mainland for further processing.
The Cascades Recovery+ facility in Burnside acts both as a receiving facility for residential recycling and a material recovery facility for ICI (industrial, commercial, and institutional) recycling programs. In the latter case, the materials are loaded onto a conveyor belt for additional sorting, both by specialized machines, such as magnetic separators and eddy currents, as well as manually.
The ICI recyclables are compressed into bales and shipped to the mainland to be broken down into raw materials for the creation of new products.
Operating in tandem with the CRD’s collection program is the City of Victoria’s ZeroWaste program, which went into effect last fall with the goal of reducing landfill disposal by 50% by 2040. As part of its ZeroWaste effort, the city placed 25 three-bin disposal units (for garbage, recyclables, and compostables) in well-trafficked spots around the city, each replacing roughly three smaller-capacity garbage cans. The swinging door on the recycling bins is purposely left unlocked to accommodate people who collect cans and bottles for deposit refunds.
Each month, ZeroWaste disposal units divert about 750 kilograms of organics and recyclable material from the landfill, according to Rory Tooke, Victoria’s manager of sustainability. The city plans to place an additional 10 to 20 of the units in parks by the end of the year.
Certain materials that aren’t collected at curbs can still be recycled in BC if they’re taken to depots. This includes Styrofoam, which can easily break apart and contaminate other materials, and flexible plastics—both the soft kind, like a plastic bag, that you can push a finger through and the tougher kind, like a soup pouch, that’s made from more than one kind of plastic.