I put together a recycling program at my work months ago, which involved printing lists and labels for the walls and bins, putting together a recycling presentation to educate my co-workers, and doing a lot of research on what you can and can’t recycle in Ottawa.

My conclusion: recycling sucks.

Okay, not really. Recycling is important and has its place in a circular economy. But our throw-away society designs things with one bin in mind – the garbage bin. It’s the one stop drop for all expired goods. Our recycling programs can barely compete with the convenience of the garbage and they can’t keep up with packaging innovation.

Recycling should be easy and from the outside it seems easy – paper in one bin; plastic, glass and metal in another; and organics in a third.

According to my research, here are just a few obstacles that make recycling go from easy to frustratingly complex in a matter of seconds:

  • Paper can’t be soiled
  • Plastic can only be rigid
  • Jars, bottles, cans and containers need to be rinsed
  • Black and dark plastics don’t recycle well
  • Plastic bags and plastic cling/wrap can’t be recycled
  • Take-away cups are lined with either plastic or wax and so aren’t technically paper or plastic
  • That little logo with three arrows and a number inside? That’s a resin number and doesn’t necessarily mean it’s recyclable
  • Tissues and paper towel are paper but not the right type of paper

While all the rules and considerations make recycling difficult, time-consuming and frustrating, there’s a point to them.

They separate “wishcycling” from recycling. Wishcycling occurs when a person puts something into the bin and hope its magicked away. In reality, that object, depending on what it is (I’ve heard about people trying to recycle bowling balls) could be costing the recycling plant time and money by damaging machinery or contaminating other perfectly good plastic and paper with food particles or debris, making it unsellable.

The more I read about recycling and the more I try and do it properly the more Bea Johnson’s 5 Rs make sense. Because it takes effort, thoughtfulness and a little bit of research to properly recycle products – especially plastic – refusing them in the first place simplifies life.

I encourage you to learn more about your city’s recycling program. Programs vary city to city so what works for me in Ottawa probably won’t work for you and your city.

If you live in Ottawa here are two online resources that I used a lot when putting together my work’s recycling program:

  • Waste Explorer – allows you to type in an object/product and it will tell you which bin (blue, black, green, garbage) is appropriate
  • Recycling – City of Ottawa – overview of what can and can’t go in each bin

I’m sure you can find similar resources for your city. If not, try calling your municipal government to find out who picks up the city recycling and then contact whoever that is directly.

Even though I used Ottawa’s online services, I still contacted the businesses that pick up my compost and recycling to try and get some answers (with varying degrees of success) for specific items I couldn’t find on any list.

Picture credit: Luka Siemionov/

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