Then & Now: How Kitchener’s Blue Box Program Launched Modern Day Recycling

Is it time to recycle how we think about recycling?

Why It Matters

Recycling has been seen as the perfect solution to our wasteful woes. But as news of plastic waste issues take over headlines, journalist Bill Bean dives into this through a historical look at the origin of Canada’s innovative household Blue Box Program — and how it continues to evolve today.

Welcome to our new series, Then & Now, featuring modern takes on historical Canadian innovations that have shaped our lives today—and play a role in reshaping our lives tomorrow. We kick-off the series looking at today’s global plastic waste problem through the origins of Canada’s innovative household Blue Box Program.

Recycling has rarely been so prominent in the news. Signs of trouble first started brewing six years ago, when some 70 Canadian shipping containers sent to the Philippines full of recyclable material turned out to be contaminated with non-recyclables. The issue made its way into nightly news reports as Ottawa and Manila tussled over what to do with the rotting recycling rejects. The material was returned to Canada, at a cost to Canadians of $1.14 million.


Plastic waste


It wasn’t just about the Philippines. In 2018, China announced it had had enough of Western trash and that it would be introducing strict protocols on imported recyclables, aiming to take only high-value, untainted material. Not long after, a Global News special report on recycling found that China — which until recently had taken easily half of Canada’s exported recyclables — had actually been burning much of the “low-value” material.

Outside of China and the Philippines, some of Canada’s blue box bounty was getting shipped to Malaysia, but the small southeast Asian country — along with Indonesia — this year imposed tough guidelines on what materials they will take from the West. Vietnam toughened its rules in 2018, and Thailand plans to ban foreign plastic waste by 2021.

And that leaves Canada, along with many other countries, scrambling to find alternatives.

Almost 40 years after the ubiquitous blue box first disrupted the way that garbage was collected — an optimistic story that starts in Kitchener, Waterloo — that familiar plastic container is on the verge of disruption itself.


The blue box in the 1980s: an environmental victory

It is likely that few Canadians had an inkling back in the 1970s that they would ever need more than one or two garbage cans per household. At the time, some municipalities were experimenting with recycling — newspaper and bottle drives were commonplace as charity fundraisers, and many communities had bottle and can depots or neighbourhood compost heaps — but most household waste went straight into black plastic bags destined for a landfill site.

But as we continued to toss our trash, many landfills became landfull, and municipalities struggled to find new land to bury garbage. Pollution Probe, one of Canada’s first environmental NGO, was an early advocate for recycling after it was founded in 1969. Close to a decade later, the federal government began experimenting with curbside recycling at Canadian Forces Base Borden in Ontario, using milk crates for the recyclables.

The pieces were falling into place for an innovation that would come to impact every household in Canada.

There were several creators involved in the blue box campaign. Jack McGinnis, whose fledgling environmental group collected recyclables from the homes at CFB Borden, designed a recycle-specific box and emblazoned it with the slogan “We Recycle.” He then presented his recycling pickup experiments at the awareness-raising Garbagefest in Kitchener, which was organized by Eric Hellman, of Pollution Probe’s Kitchener office, in 1977. (The two co-founded the Recycling Council of Ontario a year later.) And McGinnis and Ludolph’s efforts wouldn’t have been complete without the help of an employee with waste management and transportation company Laidlaw International in Kitchener who embraced Garbagefest and urged his company to expand to include household recycling.

For them, and many others, the time was right for a change. With Ludolph’s encouragement, Laidlaw launched the first blue box pilot project in Kitchener in 1981. It was enthusiastically received by the 250 households involved in the pilot, which ended up collecting three times the amount of steel cans, glass jars, and newsprint it had first anticipated.

In 1983, Kitchener issued a tender for bids for garbage collection, without requiring that the Blue Box recycling program be part of the bid. According to reports at the time, Laidlaw’s bid, which included the Blue Box program, was $40,000 more costly than the lowest bidder. And although councillors in almost any municipality see themselves as the stewards of the public purse and tend to vote for the lowest bid, this particular meeting featured a council chamber packed with citizens, vocally and passionately committed to recycling.

The councillors could read a crowd, and voted to accept the more expensive, recycling-inclusive bid. The Blue Box Program was rolled out for the entire city.

Within a year, the Toronto-area community of Mississauga also embraced the program, becoming the largest municipality in North America to have household curbside recycling pickup. And while other cities in North America had already started curbside collection around the same time as Kitchener launched its pilot — Woodbury, New Jersey asked its citizens to sort their recycling into separate bins for glass, paper, and metal in 1980 — the Blue Box model of single-stream collection made recycling so easy that by 1989, the United Nations had recognized the Blue Box Program with an Environmental Award, and visitors came from around the world to learn more. It’s now worked as a blueprint for recycling for over 150 countries.


Plastic waste


Was the blue box a victim of its own success?

Now, the blue box campaign and its variations are common in the industrialized world. In many countries, what was once called “trash” is now seen as a resource, with its recovery a top priority. Ontario mandates that every community of more than 5,000 people must have blue box pickup. There is often supervision by senior levels of government, but household recycling remains largely a municipal responsibility — but that may be changing.

Ontario government statistics indicate that blue box compliance has stagnated at 60 per cent. For some hard-to-recycle items, only 10 per cent is diverted from landfills. Nationally, some 3.3 million tonnes of plastic are sent to landfills or incinerators annually — more than 10 times the amount that is recycled.

Contamination — the mixing of recyclables with non-recyclables — often makes plastic too costly to recycle. And in cities like Toronto, the contamination rate sits at a staggering 30 per cent. It’s this type of contamination that wound up in shipping containers in the Philippines and led China to impose a strict protocol for accepting recyclables. For municipal waste reduction agencies, contamination is an irritant to recycling operations hoping to sell their blue box “gold”.

Then there’s the falling demand for some recyclables. This relates primarily to plastic, but even the price per tonne of aluminum cans has dropped more than 20 per cent between 2017 and 2019. And the over-packaging of food, convenience, clothing, and household items have both swelled the blue box inventory and contributed new materials — ziplock bags, plastic film, polystyrene “takeout” boxes, black Styrofoam trays, and laminated items — that are either not recyclable or too costly to recycle.

No wonder there are household blue boxes as large as standard trash cans.


Fixing Canada's waste problem


Fixing Canada’s recycling problem

Governments have noticed: earlier this year, Ontario commissioned a Special Advisor on Recycling and Plastic Waste, David Lindsay, who put together a report on the state of recycling within the province. To fix the issue, Lindsay’s recommendations focused on transitioning the costs and obligations for recycling to manufacturers, as well as standardizing what items are allowed in the blue box and expanding blue box pickup to parks and public spaces. Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said in August that these changes will begin in 2023 and be completed by 2025.

Zooming out to Canada as a whole, the federal ministry for Environment and Climate Change this year released Deloitte’s Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste — also known as The Case for a Zero Waste Plastic Canada — which noted that while the plastics industry is worth $35 billion in sales and supports 93,000 jobs nationwide, the recycling industry is comparatively underpowered, with fewer than a dozen companies employing a combined workforce of just 500. 

The ministry’s report urged Ottawa to invest in up to $8.6 billion to, among other things, create new sorting and recycling facilities, which would result in 43,000 more direct and indirect jobs. By doing so, the report said, up to 90 per cent of plastics could avoid landfills by 2030. Although the federal government has yet to act on the report, it has joined with European nations in announcing a ban of certain single-use plastics, including straws, stir sticks, cutlery, and bags, to begin by 2021.

It might appear that the grassroots campaign that kicked off the Blue Box Program has transitioned to a government-regulated space. But those involved at the municipal level say that however the federal or provincial programs roll out, citizens are still vital for the success of blue box recycling.

Lindsay Davidson, Senior Issues and Media Relations Advisor at Ontario Ministry of Environment, says that all Ontarians are urged to seek ways to reduce waste, whether that’s by developing good recycling behaviours or choosing reuseable products. “Additionally,” says Davidson, “grassroots organizations can look for ways to educate and engage consumers in activities that lead to reduction, reuse and recycling opportunities.”

Davidson encouraged all citizens to get involved in the regulation development process, which will be developed over the coming year.

Susan White, manager of waste collection and diversion at the Region of Waterloo, reports that citizen involvement has driven overall household waste diversion from landfill from 52 per cent in 2016 to 60 per cent in 2017, with a record high of 65 per cent in 2018.

“This means that 65 per cent of their waste was sorted into one of the recycling programs and less waste was sent to landfill,” says White. “Individual actions do matter!”

And those actions especially matter when it comes to the kind of mindset shift that led Kitchener’s residents to pilot the blue box, pack the city’s council chamber, and scale change — a worthwhile innovation to remember for anyone in social impact.