The University of Toronto recycles approximately 1,550 metric tons of recyclable material each year. The process involves more than a dozen companies and hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

The Varsity investigated how effectively U of T recycles and where the university’s recycling ends up.

Recycling process

Recycling is the process of taking discarded products, breaking them into their component materials, and using those materials to produce new products. Governments and companies collect waste from recycling bins and deliver it to sorting facilities, where the waste is sorted based on material, including cardboard, glass, metal, and rigid and soft plastics. The facilities then package similar materials together and sell them to end markets. 

An end market is a company that takes the items that are recycled and transforms them into raw feedstock in the manufacturing process. This process is also known as ‘chemical recycling,’ where collected items are broken down into monomers and other basic chemical elements. The goal of this processing is to create material for new products. 

Problems of plastic

According to the Canadian government, residents produce more than three million tonnes of plastic waste each year. Nine per cent of this plastic is recycled, and the remainder is sent to landfills; converted into energy; or released into the environment through burning or other means, threatening the health of people and ecosystems. 

Rafaela Gutierrez is a social scientist specializing in waste policy. In partnership with U of T’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, she co-founded the U of T Trash Team, a community education and outreach organization focused on increasing waste literacy. In an interview with The Varsity, Gutierrez highlighted the particular environmental challenges plastic waste poses. 

It is common for items to consist of multiple types of plastic that cannot be processed together and are difficult or impossible to separate and recycle. Gutierrez also noted that, unlike metal and glass, which can be recycled indefinitely without reducing the material’s value, plastic products can only be recycled a limited number of times. Plastics tend to be downcycled — converted into a product of less value.

However, Gutierrez highlighted that recycling limits the extraction of fossil fuels used to create plastic, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, and diverts plastic from landfills where it might contaminate water and soil. “If you compare recycling with landfill, recycling alone will definitely not solve our plastic pollution problem,” she said. “But it definitely helps.” 

Recycling rates at U of T 

Each campus at U of T commissions an annual waste audit, where a third party reviews the amount and types of waste generated and diverted from landfills. The Ontario government requires each educational institution to conduct a waste audit annually and prepare a plan to reduce waste. 

Each of U of T’s campuses — St. George, Scarborough and Mississauga — is required to conduct their own waste audits. According to each campus’ most recent waste audit, U of T generates an estimated 3,181 metric tonnes of waste each year across the three campuses, equivalent to the weight of 17 empty Boeing 747 planes. Approximately 1,047 metric tonnes of this waste consists of recyclable material correctly deposited in the recycling. 

The 2022 UTSG waste audit surveyed 16 buildings across the downtown campus, including Sidney Smith Hall, Chestnut Residence, and Robarts Library. The audit found that U of T diverted 70.6 per cent of its waste from landfills. In comparison, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks set a province-wide waste diversion target of 60 per cent. 

Across the downtown campus, U of T captured 75 per cent of all recycled material, with the remainder relegated to landfills. The report noted that paper towels, mixed papers, and electronic waste disproportionately ended up in landfills; for instance, almost 30 per cent of all solid waste deposited in landfills consisted of mixed papers, which are recyclable. 

The report also found that “some members of the University cleaning staff may be placing full bags of recyclables into the garbage compactors rather than the appropriate recycle bins” and advocated better training for staff to prevent such occurrences.

The most recent UTSC waste audit took place in 2022. According to the report, UTSC’s diversion rate is substantially lower than UTSG’s, amounting to 45 per cent. UTSC captured approximately half of the materials that could have been diverted from landfills. The report noted that 4.3 per cent of the waste collected consisted of mixed recycling, which could have been diverted if placed in the correct bin. 

UTM’s most recent waste audit, which took place in 2021, found that the campus diverted approximately 29 per cent of its waste, despite determining that almost 44 per cent of material could have been diverted using current programs. Papers accounted for 42 per cent of waste sent to landfills, while recyclable plastics accounted for four per cent. 

Gutierrez highlighted the problem of recycling contamination, which occurs when non-recyclable material or garbage ends up in the recycling system. The most common objects that cause recycling contamination include plastic bags, shredded paper, scrap metal, caps of lids, and liquids.

According to the Mississauga campus’ audit, four per cent of material placed in the recycling did not belong there, leading to contamination. The UTSG waste audit did not report contamination rates. Across the City of Toronto, 13 per cent of the waste placed in the blue recycling bins is incorrectly placed there. “If you put in something that is too contaminated, too soiled, that can ruin the rest of the material,” Gutierrez explained. She mentioned the Waste Wizard, an online service that displays how one should dispose of items.

Where does U of T’s recycling go?

Gutierrez noted that many items can be recycled in theory. However, these items are only recycled when “you prepare them well, separate them well, and if you pay enough money to put it through the recycling process.” 

In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson wrote that the university spends $588,867 on recycling each year — roughly 0.0002 per cent of the university’s total operating expenses. U of T contracts with more than 15 haulers and end markets, depending on “market conditions” according to the spokesperson. By 2030, the recycling market is projected to be worth $88.01 billion.

Gutierrez noted that sending recyclable material to local end markets offers environmental and economic benefits, such as lowering emissions from transporting material and keeping recycling jobs local. U of T contracts with many Ontario-based and nationwide organizations, such as Waste Diversion and the Region of Peel. However, some of these contractors send materials overseas. For instance, the university contracts with the City of Toronto, which on average sends 14 per cent of its recycled material to markets outside the US and Canada. 

Beyond traditional recycling programs, U of T also hosts a swap shop, where community members can claim or donate items. 

Currently, at UTM, the UTM Hospitality & Ancillary Services has introduced the OZZI reusable container program, which helps students on and off campus stop the use of traditional disposable take-out containers. These containers are completely recyclable, which implies that once one of the containers has become worn down, it is able to be melted down and remade into other products. Each container is able to be reused approximately 300 times. Students in residence receive a token to exchange for a container, whereas commuter students pay a five-dollar deposit to get one. 

The U of T trash team provides education to a variety of audiences, including both kids and adults. Gutierrez encourages individuals to make small changes in daily life by reducing one item at a time, carrying reusable cutlery, or choosing to purchase non-plastic items.

Areas for improvement

Within Canada, recyclers must compete against producers of new material when marketing the material they extract. For plastics in particular, “it’’s really hard for recyclers because usually it’’s cheaper to make plastic from virgin oil,” said Gutierrez. She advocated that the government increase support for the recycling industry – for instance, by requiring plastic manufacturers to include a certain quota of recycled material in their products. 

Gutierrez also said that the government should end subsidies for oil and gas companies to level the playing field between virgin plastic producers and recyclers. According to an article in CBC News, estimates of the financial support given by the Canadian government to oil and gas producers in 2020 range from $4.5 billion to $81 billion. 

U of T’s waste audits advocate a variety of solutions to reduce trash and channel waste away from landfills. All three audits recommend a focus on educating U of T community members. “I think education is key,” said Gutierrez. “It’s important to spread the word and let people know that they all have a power or have a voice, and we all can do things to change and to reduce plastic pollution.” 

All waste audits also recommend that U of T improve signage so that students and staff properly separate their trash. Gutierrez also noted the importance of reducing contamination and told The Varsity that governments and institutions such as the university should make the decisions of where to put one’s waste easier. 

The UTSC waste audit recommended that the campus establish a “Green Team,” with management representatives, staff members, and students, that would focus on administering education. The UTM audit suggested that the campus take advantage of programs to recycle non-conventional materials currently landfilled by the campus. 

The UTSG waste audit noted the importance of reducing non-recyclable waste by purchasing more sustainable products. Gutierrez agreed and called on universities to limit single- use food ware and implement systems where students can reuse cups or cutlery. According to the U of T spokesperson, the university is in the early stages of developing a sustainable purchasing policy for the downtown campus.