The Regional Municipality Of York

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Recycling and Blue Box

Recyclable materials like cans, bottles and paper products go into the blue box. Your local town or city manages the curbside collection of your blue boxes from your home and then delivers the materials to the York Region Material Recovery Facility (MRF) where they are sorted into the various material types (e.g. paper, cardboard, aluminum cans, steel cans, plastic containers, glass, etc.). Once sorted, they are ready to be sold and shipped to various companies or end markets to be recycled.  
To see if a specific item can be recycled in the blue box, please use Bindicator.


What CAN go in the Blue Box

What is allowed in the blue box is largely determined by the end markets that purchase the sorted blue box materials, and also by the ability of the Region’s facility to efficiently separate and sort these materials from other packaging types.

Everything placed in the blue box needs to be loose (not in bags or inside other containers) and empty, clean and free of food.

Here are some items that are accepted in the blue box. To see if a specific item can be placed in York Region’s blue box, use Bindicator.

  • Aerosol cans (empty, lids separate)
  • Aluminum foil, trays and plates
  • Boxboard (cereal, cracker, tissue boxes)
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Egg cartons
  • Glass bottles and jars (lids separate)
  • Metal food and beverage cans
  • Metal paint cans (empty, dry, lids separate)
  • Milk and juice cartons, juice boxes (no straws)
  • Newspaper, household paper and envelopes
  • 100% paper cups (with no plastic or wax coating)
  • Paper-based cans (e.g. frozen juice, cookie dough containers, coffee cans, chip cylinders – lids separate)
  • Plastic bottles, drink containers (no straws), jars and jugs (used for food or beverage)
  • Plastic food tubs (e.g. yogurt, margarine, sour cream, cottage cheese, or ice cream containers)
  • Plastic pails or bottles  less than five litres in size (e.g. laundry soap bottles, dish soap containers)
  • Plastic, rigid, clear fruit and vegetable containers / clamshells
  • Plastic, rigid, clear take-out containers / clamshells (no Styrofoam)
  • Plastic, rigid, clear bakery containers / clamshells

 

NOTE: All containers must be empty and clean, free of food or any other residue. Cardboard and boxboard must be flattened and bundled.


What CANNOT go in the Blue Box

Anything placed in the blue box that is not found on the accepted list is considered contamination.  This includes plastic bags (e.g. grocery / retail bags, plastic bags full of recyclables or newspapers still in their plastic sleeve). Other items that should not go in your blue box include Styrofoam, black plastic, take-out cups, and any food left in containers. 

Recently, the end markets that purchase and recycle our blue box materials have become more and more restrictive on what they will accept and the level of contamination they will tolerate. Therefore these contaminating items can jeopardize the success of the blue box program.

To see if a specific item can be placed in York Region’s blue box, use Bindicator.

Items not accepted in the blue box include:

  • Plastic bags of any kind (refer to Bindicator for plastic take-back options)
  • Black plastic (including black plastic take-out containers)
  • Batteries (do not put in garbage,  refer to refer to Bindicator for safe drop-off locations)
  • Coat hangers, mirrors, window glass and light bulbs
  • Coffee pods
  • Cookie bags and potato chip bags
  • Drinking glasses, cups, dishes, pots, pans and utensils
  • Drink pouches, food wrappers
  • Facial tissue, paper towels (these can go in green bin)
  • Flat take-out cup lids
  • Food soiled paper (e.g. dirty paper plates, pizza boxes)
  • Large Styrofoam used as protective packaging (e.g. used with electronics). These can be collected at a Community Environmental Centre
  • Condensed Styrofoam used for take-out containers, meat trays, cups and plates (place in garbage)
  • Household hazardous waste like paint, motor oil, needles, cleaners, compact fluorescent light bulbs (take to a Household Hazardous Waste Depot)
  • Lawn furniture, garden hose, string and rope
  • Motor oil containers
  • Newspapers left in plastic sleeves (remove and discard plastic sleeves bags before recycling your newspaper)
  • Paper Cups (coffee and soft drink cups)
  • Plastic bags from bread, produce and frozen vegetables
  • Pill bottles (less than two inches or five cm in diameter)
  • Plastic re-sealable zipped food bags
  • Plastic food wrap, wax paper, parchment paper
  • Plastic packaging for toys or electronics
  • Plastic pails, bottles and jugs larger than five litres in size
  • Plastic straws and cutlery
  • Plastic toys (take reusable items to a reuse donation centre)
  • Propane tanks or cylinders (take to a Household Hazardous Waste Depot)
  • Shoes, clothing, linens and towels (take reusable items to a reuse donation centre)
  • Shredded paper (take it to a Community Environmental Centre or place in the green bin)
  • Take-out cups (coffee and pop cups)

How are my Blue Box Recyclables sorted?

Watch our video to learn what happens to your blue box recyclables.


Drop-Off Locations

Residents can drop off blue box recyclables at:

  • East Gwillimbury Household Hazardous Waste and Recycling Depot
  • Elgin Mills Community Environmental Centre
  • Georgina Transfer Station, Hazardous Waste and Recycling Depot
  • McCleary Court Community Environmental Centre

Frequently Asked Questions and Tips

My blue box was missed for collection, who do I contact?

Curbside collection, including the blue box is managed by local municipalities. Please visit your local municipal website or see your waste collection calendar for information on your blue box collection schedule.

Why can’t plastic bags, wrap and film go in the blue box?

York Region’s blue box system allows residents to set their blue box recyclables at the curb unsorted, saving time and reducing collection costs for local municipalities. Blue box materials are then sorted at the Region's Material Recovery Facility.

Plastic bags, wrap and film get caught in our equipment, resulting in the equipment shutting down and the possible risk of fire. Plastic wrap is also a source of contamination in the final sorted products.

Reuse your plastic bags or take them to one of the local participating retailers in the plastic bag take back program to be recycled.

Why can’t shredded paper go in the blue box?

Shredded paper is very difficult to manage at the Material Recovery Facility. This facility sorts recyclables manually and mechanically by using equipment that separates the materials by size, shape and weight. Shredded paper is too small and light, so it ends up passing through the mechanical screens and contaminating the glass stream.

To reduce the amount of shredded paper you produce, consider shredding only the small portion of the document that contains personal or sensitive information.

Shredded paper can be placed in backyard composters, in your green bin (in small amounts) or dropped off in clear plastic bags at the Elgin Mills Community Environmental Centre or the McCleary Court Community Environmental Centre.

Why is Styrofoam packaging not accepted in York Region’s Blue Box program?

Foam packaging used to package and protect electronics for example, is difficult for curbside collection. It is a lightweight, high-volume material that quickly fills up collection vehicles, resulting in higher shipping costs. Additionally, processing foam packaging at the Material Recovery Facility (MRF) with other Blue Box recyclables can be challenging as it tends to break apart and can develop a static charge. This makes sorting very difficult and contaminates the other recyclable material types.

There are limited end markets available for recycling foam packaging at this time. York Region staff continues to monitor market conditions for this material.

Are there any depots in York Region that accept Styrofoam packaging for recycling?

Yes, large, clean foam packaging typically used to package TVs and large electronics is accepted for recycling at the following depots:

  • Elgin Mills Community Environmental Centre
  • Georgina Transfer Station, Household Hazardous Waste and Recycling Depot
  • McCleary Court Community Environmental Centre

FAQs on Contamination and End Markets

How is recycling handled at York Region?

Your blue box is collected from your home by contracted collectors coordinated by your local town or city. Currently, Miller Waste collects for Markham, Richmond Hill and Vaughan, while GFL collects for Aurora, East Gwillimbury, Georgina, King, Newmarket and Whitchurch-Stouffville.

These recyclables are then delivered to the Region’s Material Recovery Facility (MRF), which is operated by Miller Waste Systems, where they are sorted by both manual and mechanical means into the various material types (i.e. paper, cardboard, aluminum cans, steel cans, plastic containers, glass, etc.). Once sorted, the materials are baled and ready to be sold and shipped to various recycling markets.

What is contamination?

Contamination is anything put in the blue box that should not be there. York Region has a list of acceptable items (found below) and anything not on the list is considered contamination. This can include many things such as plastic bags (e.g. grocery / retail bags, plastic bags full of recyclables or newspapers still in their plastic sleeve). Other contaminants can be Styrofoam, black plastic, take-out cups, food left in containers, liquids left in bottles, garden hoses, wires, string, etc. Every two years, the Region conducts audits on the blue box materials received at the MRF. We have seen contamination levels increasing year over year with the greatest increases coming from plastic bags filled with recyclables, food waste left in containers and plastic bags full of garbage.

What happens with our blue box recyclables?

Once sorted and baled, recyclable materials are sold to companies, referred to as end markets that turn these materials into new products. Miller Waste Systems is contracted by the Region to sell and ship these materials to end-markets for recycling. Miller operates several municipally-owned MRFs in Ontario, and is highly knowledgeable and experienced in working with brokers and buyers of recycled materials. They are committed to consistently and responsibly sell the Region’s recyclables to reputable North American and international markets.

In general, approximately 30% of the Region’s blue box materials are marketed overseas. Overseas markets are used mainly for paper commodities as there are limited domestic markets available. Paper refers to polycoat (milk cartons), mixed paper (flyers, pamphlets) and newsprint. Paper products are marketed to brokers and local paper mills when available. The remaining 70% of the Region’s blue box materials are marketed to recycling facilities within North America. These North American markets are monitored and tracked. Miller Waste coordinates site visits and inspections with North American end markets to ensure materials are processed and recycled responsibly.

Why did China and other countries stop taking recyclables? 

On January 1, 2018 China began to enforce restrictions under its National Sword policy, limiting the import of recyclables (both paper and plastic) containing contaminants (or unwanted materials found in the bales). The National Sword policy was introduced to address growing environmental and health concerns. These unwanted materials (contaminants like plastic bags, drink pouches, coffee cups) coming in with the recyclable materials were filling their landfills and polluting their waterways.

As well, with paper consumption in China increasing, they no longer have the same need to import as much paper to support their own paper mills.

Some of the materials that get put in the blue box that need to be removed include:

  • Plastic bags of any kind
  • Plastic food wrap / cellophane
  • Recyclables in plastic bags
  • Coffee pods
  • Garbage in plastic bags
  • Pill bottles
  • Styrofoam containers
  • Coat hangers
  • Food left in containers
  • Shredded paper
  • Black plastics
  • Oversized pails / water jugs
  • Coffee cups and take-out cups
  • Hoses, rope, string
  • Drink pouches
  • Plastic toys
  • Re-sealable zipped food bags
  • Clothing
  • Frozen food bags
  • Food soiled paper

 

This is not a complete list, but it is very difficult - even impossible - to remove everything that doesn’t belong. In order to sort and prepare the amount of blue box materials we receive each day, the facility has to move at a fast pace, therefore is it difficult to spot and remove all these unwanted materials.

The Region and Miller Waste continue to make operational adjustments to tackle the blue box contamination challenges. However, the best way to get high- quality recyclables is to not have these contaminants in the blue box at all. To reduce these unwanted items York Region is working to educate residents on how best to use their blue box and the importance of only putting in what we can recycle.

With China closing its borders, what is happening to our recyclables now?

Miller Waste, on behalf of the Region has been able to sell most of the Region’s blue box materials to end-markets for recycling. In 2019 to date, as a result of these end market challenges, and increasing levels of contamination, a small percentage of material has been sent to an energy from waste facility to be converted into energy (800 tonnes; this is out of approximately 83,000 tonnes of recyclables we process each year). No blue box materials have been landfilled.

Is it just a problem with York Region’s blue box?

These restrictions have impacted the global recycling market. While York Region only sends paper recyclables to overseas markets there are many other regions and countries sending plastic as well. Recyclers are seeking new places to sell their materials. In turn, these other markets are now being saturated with these materials. India is now imposing higher restrictions on what it will import as well.

What should go in the blue box?

What is accepted in the blue box is determined by the end markets, as well as the facility’s ability to efficiently sort out marketable material from other packaging.

Everything placed in the blue box should be loose (not in bags or inside other containers) and empty, clean and free of food. Containers should not be flattened.  What is accepted is listed above under What CAN go in the Blue Box.

What shouldn’t go in the blue box? What’s causing all the problems?

The top three offenders when it comes to the blue box are:

  1. Plastic bags full of recyclables (recyclables need to be placed in the blue box loose)
  2. Plastic bags full of garbage (these do not belong in the blue box)
  3. Food waste (containers must be clean and empty when placed in the blue box)

Some other materials that do not belong in the blue box include:

  • Plastic bags of any kind
  • Re-sealable zipped food bags
  • Newspapers left in plastic sleeves
  • Frozen food bags
  • Styrofoam containers
  • Plastic food wrap / cellophane
  • Styrofoam cups and plates
  • Coffee pods
  • Greasy, cheesy pizza boxes
  • Pill bottles
  • Black plastic of any kind
  • Coat hangers and wire
  • Coffee cups and take-out cups
  • Shredded paper
  • Cup lids
  • Oversized pails / water jugs
  • Drink pouches
  • Hoses
  • Dishes, glassware
  • Rope, string
  • Plastic cutlery
  • Food soiled paper
  • Plastic cutlery

 

This is not a complete list – anything not found on the acceptable list or Bindicator is considered not acceptable and therefore is contamination.

Why is recycling so complicated?

More complex packaging (using multiple material types in one package), has entered the marketplace, which is challenging to sort and market. As an example, packaging that blends two material types such as paper and plastic (e.g. coffee cups, plastic lined take-out containers) is very difficult to separate back into paper and plastic, therefore the end markets don’t want these products.

The Region is seeing an increase in the wrong materials being placed in blue boxes, which impacts the quality of material we are trying to market. Each Region’s blue box program is potentially different so it’s very important to refer to your town, city, or the Region’s waste information to make sure you’re putting the right items in the blue box.

Items placed in the blue box that don’t belong are considered contaminants such as plastic bags, Styrofoam and shredded paper, and cause disruptions in the sorting process as well as the potential to damage the sorting equipment.

Other contaminants impacting the blue box quality include recyclable materials placed in plastic bags, rather than the blue box, and food waste left in takeout containers. In the sorting process recyclables get mixed with these contaminants reducing their value while increasing operating costs.

Why don’t we all recycle the same things from region to region, province to province?

Each municipality across the province leads its own recycling program, which may include collection, processing / sorting and marketing of the materials. What is accepted in each blue box program depends largely on the availability of a stable, consistent end market to purchase and recycle the materials. Materials like Styrofoam have unsteady markets that can close and open with little to no notice, which is one reason we have not added that material to the blue box. Other factors include geography, transportation costs and the infrastructure in place. This involves parameters set around collection (whether collection is contracted versus municipally run), the state of the MRF (is it municipally owned and operated or a contracted service), as well as the investment in technology within the MRF and of course how and where the materials are marketed. All of this impacts what can and cannot go in each municipality’s blue box.

In York Region we are a two-tier system. The local towns and cities manage the contracts for the collection services, the Region owns the MRF, a state-of-the-art facility that sorts the materials, and contracts Miller Waste Systems to operate the MRF and market the sorted recyclables.

Why do we have to ship overseas at all?

Domestic paper markets demand high quality paper (i.e. free of contamination by food, plastic and wax liners). Over the years, with complex packaging being introduced into the market, more and more materials were being put in the blue box that doesn’t belong. China and other overseas markets were willing to take this lower quality paper, with fewer restrictions. With the decline in paper consumption here in North America, many domestic paper mills shut down while other newsprint paper mills switched over to produce other higher quality paper products, requiring less recycled materials. China became the world’s largest paper importer and manufacturer.

Should I even bother recycling anymore? Is it making a difference?

Yes. The Region and the local towns and cities are still successfully collecting, managing and marketing our blue box materials. Although, there have been recent challenges with end markets and increasing contamination levels coming into the blue box we are working diligently to reduce this contamination and to seek other markets for our materials. Only a small percentage has not been marketable to date.

How can I trust my recyclables aren’t ending up as litter in some small village overseas?

The Region has a legal contract with Miller Waste who markets our materials with the following clauses:

  • Miller shall provide the Region upon request with information about the purchasers of the recovered recyclable material arranged by Miller
  • Miller shall make commercially reasonable efforts to sell to reliable, environmentally and socially responsible end markets
    • To determine compliance with these requirements, Miller completes a questionnaire with each direct buyer to identify the manner in which the recyclable materials are being recycled
    • Every tonne of material processed at the sorting facility is monitored and tracked so the Region knows to which buyer the materials are going

In addition, the end markets we use in North America are monitored and tracked. Miller Waste conduct site visits and inspections to ensure materials are processed and recycled responsibly.

Does any of our recyclables get landfilled?

No blue box materials have been landfilled. As a result of end market challenges and increasing levels of blue box contamination, a small amount of material (less than 5%) has been sent to an Energy from Waste facility in 2019.

The Region and the nine local municipal partners have the highest rate of diversion from landfills in the Province (94%). Most items that cannot be recycled or composted are managed at our Energy from Waste facility rather than landfilled. These energy recovery facilities incinerate your waste to generate electricity and heat for use as power.

What is York Region doing to fix the problem?

Beyond educating residents on what can and cannot be placed in the blue box to reduce contamination, the Region is also working hard to improve recycling processes, seek new markets, and push for producers of products and packaging to by fully accountable for what they produce.  

Asking residents to do their part

  • Engage public on the challenges we are facing and ask them to be mindful of how they use their blue box
  • Provide education on how best to use the blue box to ensure we reduce the amount of contamination received.
  • We specifically need residents to:
    • Place items loose in the blue box (not in plastic bags)
    • Empty and clean food out of cans and containers before placing them in the blue box
    • Leave blue box materials separated and in their original shape (i.e. do not crush plastic bottles or aluminum cans)
  • York Region and the local cities and towns will address blue box contamination through enforcement at the curb, education on social media, webpages and at community events
  • We ask residents to refer to their waste calendars, town/city websites or York Region’s waste directory, Bindicator, for more information on accepted items and blue box guidelines

Operational improvements

  • The Region and Miller Waste continue to make operational adjustments to ensure we are able to produce marketable high-quality recyclables; in 2018 the Region invested approximately $8 million to upgrade the sorting and screening technology
  • Continue to meet international industry standards
  • On behalf of the Region, Miller Waste obtained ISO 9001:2005 registration of the Waste Management Centre (that contains the MRF) in 2013. This standard ensures the facility maintains a high-level of processing efficiency and quality with a low percentage of rejections from recycling end-markets. In 2018, Miller successfully registered the Waste Management Centre to the new standard, ISO 9001:2015

End-market improvements

  • York Region and Miller Waste staff continue to closely monitor the state of global end-markets for blue box recyclables 
  • Oversee contracts to ensure recyclables go to ethical end markets

Support the move to Full Producer Responsibility

  • The Region and local municipal partners are advocating the Province to make producers fully responsible and accountable for the products and packaging they produce; this will help develop better product design as well as more recycling markets 
  • Producers have the power to change the recycling landscape and can create packaging that is more durable, reusable and recyclable

What can I do to help solve the problem?

Some things you can do to reduce Blue Box contamination which will help improve the marketability of the blue box materials include:

  • Don’t put recyclables in plastic bags – our facility isn’t equipped to manage these bags so they get sorted as garbage; if bags get missed they get caught and tangled around the machinery, sometimes causing damage
  • Empty and clean containers, removing all food, before putting them in the blue box; this is especially a problem when food is left inside take-out containers
  • Don’t put items such as re-sealable food bags, drink pouches, wrappers and Styrofoam cups, plates and take-out containers into the Blue box; these are not accepted
  • Don’t put plastic coffee pods in the blue box – these items are not accepted and are too small to be sorted
  • Avoid using single use items (like coffee pods, plastic bags, plastic straws and take-out coffee cups); try reusable pods, bags, straws, mugs and cups

Why don’t they just change everything to compostable packaging?

Switching packaging to be compostable is a complicated solution for several reasons:

This packaging would be more expensive to produce so the overhead and bottom line of smaller businesses would be negatively impacted

It’s not always obvious if something is compostable or recyclable (both with plastic and paper packaging) and we would likely see these compostable items enter the blue box system which would further erode our quality of recyclables

The blue box program is funded in part by producers of the products and taxpayers, however the green bin program if fully funded by municipal tax dollars. The green bin program is more costly to run, therefore with more materials being added to the green bin it would end up being a greater burden on municipalities and potentially costing the tax payers more money to operate.

The province is looking to eventually move to full producer responsibility for the blue box where producers will be mandated to pay for the entire blue box program. If producers change all their packaging to be compostable, it would be managed through the green bin, and producers would not be accountable for the disposal and processing of their packaging.

As well, compostable packaging is currently problematic in the green bin system and should be placed in the garbage. If they go in the green bin they do not break down fast enough in our accelerated process and are screened out as garbage.



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