In recent years, you may have heard that only nine percent of plastic gets recycled. Wide misrepresentation of this statistic, among other reasons, has led many people to question whether the plastics they put in their blue bins are getting recycled. Some have even stopped recycling as a result, believing their recyclables (and their efforts) are going to waste.

Plastic items move quickly along a conveyor belt toward an optical sorter at a Material Recovery Facility (MRF)

Plastics move quickly along an optical sorting system, which uses light and a spectrometer to automatically sort different types of plastic.

The reality is, nearly all recyclable plastic collected in Manitoba is recycled. Let’s look at what the 9 percent statistic really means, how much plastic Manitobans are recycling, and why plastic in the recycling stream occasionally can’t be recycled.

Is it true that nine percent of plastic is recycled?

In 2017, a study found that nine percent of plastic produced globally has been recycled. It gained a lot of media coverage and left many with a misunderstanding of what it means.

The statistic refers to all plastic ever made—recyclable and non-recyclable. Most plastics aren’t accepted for residential recycling due to the lack of end-markets or because they’re not recyclable. Although nine percent is a low number, it represents millions of tonnes of plastic annually that are kept out of landfills and environments across the world. As technology, public policy, and education improve, so will these numbers.

The next phase of Canada’s federal ban on several single-use plastics comes into effect in December 2023. Retailers and restaurants will no longer be able to offer plastic straws, food containers, stir sticks, and other single-use plastic items. The government estimates the ban will reduce Canada’s total annual plastic waste by about three percent. Other environmental groups estimate about a five percent reduction.

For now, the best way to eliminate plastic waste is to reduce consumption or reuse/repurpose items. But when that’s not possible, recycling accepted materials will keep them out of landfills.

What happens to my recycling in Manitoba?

Bales of PET #1 Plastics, aluminium cans, and cartons stacked in large rows at a Material Recovery Facility in Manitoba

After being sorted, recyclables are compacted into bales before being transported to end markets.

Any accepted materials collected from your blue bin will get recycled unless they’re contaminated. Recycling contamination can occur in many forms. Thankfully plastic is much harder to contaminate than other materials. There are three main causes of plastic contamination:

  • When containers contain excessive amounts of food or liquid.
  • When recyclables are placed in opaque plastic bags or nested together.
  • When unaccepted plastics are placed in the blue bin.

In Manitoba, there’s a 10-15% contamination rate in residential recycling. This means that 85-90% of materials collected are recycled. To avoid contaminating your recycling, it’s crucial to follow recycling guidelines in your area.

Like any other accepted material, once plastics have been sorted and baled, they’re shipped to an end market. MMSM monitors where communities are sending their recycling. They must ensure recyclables go to an acceptable end market to receive funding from MMSM—burning or sending materials to landfill is unacceptable . Recycling from Manitoba is shipped to end markets in Ontario, the U.S. and sometimes exported overseas depending on market conditions. Where they get sent depends on market conditions and can change daily.

The plastic collected from blue bins will get recycled, but we can only recycle as much as we collect.

How much recyclable plastic is recovered in Manitoba?

MMSM tracks recovery rates for all accepted materials in Manitoba each year. In 2020, Manitobans recycled 10,878 of the 23,692 tonnes of plastic packaging that entered the province. That’s a recovery rate of 45.9 percent—nearly double what it was 10 years ago at 23.3%.

2020 material recovery rates in Manitoba.

Recovery rates for accepted paper and packaging in Manitoba residential recycling programs.

While there have been steady increases in recovery rates, there’s still lots of room to improve. Keep a recycling bin close to your garbage can, and if you’re unsure whether you can recycle something, look it up in the Recyclepedia. You can also view or print a recycling guide with common materials if you scroll past the Recyclepedia search tool.

Please recycle whenever you have the opportunity and encourage others. You can rest assured knowing that the items you roll out to the curb each week are being recycled.

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