Janice Lee at the Nyle Ludolph Materials Recycling Plant with Region of Waterloo staff recycling expert Kathleen Barsoum.

Disclaimer: While most of the information in this post is widely applicable, the specific recycling capabilities of your municipality may differ. Most municipality websites offer detailed lists of what can and cannot be recycled in your area.

The Blue Box recycling program has always felt like magic to me. I was told if I put recyclable materials in there, they would be taken off and remade into something new. I trusted it was true, but I was curious to see how it all happened. So I did!

Region of Waterloo staff recycling expert Kathleen Barsoum
Kathleen Barsoum displays great sorting.

I visited the Nyle Ludolph Materials Recycling Plant in the Region of Waterloo where the Blue Box program originated. I was shown around the plant by staff recycling expert Kathleen Barsoum. In the video above you can clearly see how passionate Kathleen is about recycling. Now we all need to channel her energy!

Nyle Ludolph was the father of the Blue Box. He championed recycling through working for Laidlaw Waste Systems and a city-wide program began in Kitchener, Ontario, in the Region of Waterloo in 1983.

Yes, you do need to sort your recycling

Any poor sorting at the residential level will end up creating more work at the plant. The best way to sort is to use two blue boxes: one for flat paper and plastic bags, and one for all containers. Plastic caps to containers can be recycled. Even dog food bags, road salt bags and ziplock packages can be recycled, just be sure to cut off the plastic zipper; it is made of a different plastic so needs to be removed and thrown out.

You can see in the video of my visit that every unsorted piece of recycling is sorted by hand on the sorting line. Every plastic yogurt cup and pop bottle and piece of aluminum foil is sorted by workers and sent off to be remade into something new.

I did find out that sorting line workers are often temporary workers, so turnover is high. It is difficult work to use a flicking motion with your wrists for hours at a time on a fast-moving conveyor belt. I did it for barely one minute and my eyes were dizzy. So think of the workers and rinse your recycling and sort it well.

Don’t forget the first two “R”s – reduce and reuse first!

So many plastic bottles!
So many plastic water bottles!

It was striking to see how abundant plastic water bottles still are. You might think most people have switched to carrying around reusable canteens, but the convenient, disposable nature of plastic water bottles is still prevalent.

When I visited the landfill, it had just rained and the smell was stronger than usual. It smelled like a mix of sewage and petroleum. It was super unpleasant. I had a moment realizing that this pile in front of me was the dregs of humanity’s living habits. It was gross and sad. It made me want to never send anything to that pile.

Recycling is a great program, but it still uses a lot of energy to transport materials and remake them. The more we pay attention to the waste we create, the better we can be at reducing our waste in the first place and reusing what we can.

What questions do you have about recycling? Ask below and we'll get them answered!

Janice Lee 
Janice Lee and the great blocks of crushed plastic.
The styrofoam pile
Styrofoam is not recyclable.

Janice is a spoken word artist, musician, community organizer and Waterloo Region’s resident “poet-provocateur.” Janice hosts a video blog series about how you can be a do-it-yourself (DIY) environmentalist.
janicejolee.ca | @JaniceJoLee

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