After a talk I gave not long ago, an enthusiastic woman came up to me and divulged that she was an avid recycler and put absolutely everything in her blue bin. My heart stopped. "Everything?" I asked. Yes, indeed, everything.
In Ecoholicland, anything for sale on shelves would be indefinitely recycled until the end of time. Unfortunately, that recycling plant is only run by the oompa-loompas of my mind.
In the real world, municipalities will tell you that just because something has a Möbius-loop mark on it (you know, those triangular recycling symbols) doesn't mean it's recyclable everywhere. Without a market that wants to turn a particular plastic into something else (like a plant tray), many items have nowhere to go but landfill. So the short answer to your question is that there just isn't enough demand for some recycled plastics.
Some - like polystyrene, aka styrofoam - are often contaminated and difficult to handle, and local recycling plants can't figure out how to make them profitable. So at best, they get shipped offshore.
You really have to read the city's waste calendar like a Bible scholar to keep track of what goes in the blue bin and what gets the boot, especially because the rules keep changing.
Nonetheless, I'm happy to report that the list of items does keep growing in Toronto. I've been telling people for years that clear hinged clamshell plastic food containers (for berries, salad, takeout) don't go in the blue bin, but as of last month, praise be to the recycling gods, T.O.'s finally caught up with Calgary and Ottawa by saying yes we can.
And if you're casting a guilty sideways glance right now, thinking, ‘Hmm, I've always put them in the recycling bin,' well, keep on keepin' on, sister. The city has caught up with you, too. Now plastic egg cartons, empty CD cases, plastic plates/glasses, takeout sushi and moulded muffin trays can all be recycled.
Why now? Because Canadian grocers finally got on board with using one single type of plastic for all these products, making it much easier to recycle.
Still, I ain't giving you a golden pass to use all these plastics guilt-free. That's virgin petroleum in those containers, people (a whole 2,000 tonnes' worth in Toronto alone). And in most cases, plastics are still only downcycled rather than recycled, meaning they get used once in dead-end products rather than again and again, the way the aluminum in cans and glass in beer bottles do.
That means, whenever possible, skip the boxed mesclun mix and buy loose lettuce instead. Forgo the takeout sushi plastic by bringing your own takeout container from home.
And, yes, there's still a lot of plastic that can't go in the recycling bin. It mostly varies from town to town, but #3 vinyl plastic (PVCs, as in some water bottles, some shower curtains, spray bottles, etc) is a straight-up no for curbside recycling no matter where you live.
What should you do with such unrecyclable stuff if you find it in your house? Because vinyl is often softened with hormone-disrupting phthalates (many of which are now banned from kids' toys), I won't suggest you reuse it. Toss it and avoid it from here on in, unless you want to use vinyl containers to organize stuff like nails and screws.
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