In the world of waste disposal recycling has always been touted as the lesser of two evils, some might even call recycling the most glamorous form of waste disposal (in light of the new Zoolander movie this is known as “Derelicte”). Many of us understand the need to save those precious plastics, fibres, and aluminum. Those materials that took so much time, energy and resource to extract and manufacture the first time around, are reincarnated as opposed to being laid to rest in the landfill. But how exactly is it done?

We here at Green Action Centre always stand strong behind the recycling campaign in an attempt to be good to the world (and not so selflessly boost our own karma just in case we too get recycled!), but admittedly many of us had never seen the nitty gritty details of the recycling process. Now being an advocate of certain practices is much easier when one knows the details, as a result we gathered the troops and bussed our way to due diligence i.e. the Emterra recycling plant, which is contracted to do all the recycling for the City of Winnipeg.

The walk up to facility is laid out by sea of curbside recycling bins, followed by oversized bales of recycled materials, sorted by materials; fibers on the left, number 2 plastic and HDPE on the right, aluminum the take a sharp left at the chain link fence lined with memories (i.e. lawn campaign signs) of candidates who didn’t win in past federal election. Regardless of their location and composition all the bales are geared to be sold to the highest bidder on the fluxing recycled materials commodity market, similar to stocks, bonds and soon to be carbon credits in Manitoba.

Despite my allusion to recycling being glamorous, the fact of the matter is that recyclables are nothing more than sorted garbage, as a result walking into the facility became a very stark reminder of how much waste we consume as a city. And while recyclable material is only a small fraction of the waste material we produce, the mountains of it accumulated are without a doubt visually daunting, and a stark reminder of why Reduce and Reuse (and Re-think?) should be prioritized. However on the bright side, these mountains are being diverted from the landfill, and they are not stagnant; they are sorted, baled and shipped out the door, re-finding their nascence in the wonderful world of industrial processing. This replaces the need for brand new resources to be scavenged from the earth anew, a process that is fossil fuel intensive and contributes to the global concern of resource depletion.

The Emterra facility in Winnipeg possesses myriad scientific and technical gadgetry, nothing shy of monstrous rare earth magnets and lasers (Near Infrared Spectroscopy, for those science types who are interested), all of which help the facility process single stream materials. Single stream processing is not available at all recycling facilities, but it enables us to throw all of our recyclable materials in one single blue box, regardless of whether it’s composed of glass, cardboard, or plastic. Don’t worry; they got you covered. Emterra will sort it for us. This method is shown to increase participation in recycling as it decreases the amount of thought that is required to recycle. This can be a good thing for those ‘material blind’ individuals (myself sometimes included), who assume the primary difference between glass and aluminum is that while they both can hold beer, only one holds wine (conventionally).

Despite the single stream processing capabilities of Emterra’s Winnipeg facility, as consumers of the system we still have to be aware that regardless of how much we want to recycle everything, we need to know the limits of this system. Plastic bottles-yes, aluminum cans-yes, extension cord-no, those unfortunate smelling runners-no, last week’s veggie spaghetti- compost! (alright that was a trick). If you aren’t really sure Emterra has a list of acceptable materials. Not all facilities are the same, rural facilities may not process the same materials as Winnipeg, and different provinces are also a whole different ball game as well, so make sure you do a bit of sleuthing if you are unsure!