What's going in and coming out of GTA blue boxes has changed amid COVID-19

To get a sense of how our lives have changed during the pandemic, we may not have to look much further than the curb.

"There's been massive shifts in the types of materials that are finding their way in to blue boxes as people change their lives around,” Mark Badger, the vice-president of GFL Environmental, told CTV News Toronto.

Inside Canada's largest blue box material recovery facility, located in North York, trucks arrive constantly, unloading a mass of paper, cardboard, plastic, and aluminum. The facility processes 250 thousand tonnes of material every year—that's 900 tonnes of recycling a day.

"Think of a ton as material that would fit in to a fairly large swimming pool," Badger said. "So picture 900 large swimming pools of material flowing through this facility on a daily basis."

The material comes from blue boxes and bins in Toronto, Halton, Woodstock, and Simcoe. It's sorted by a complex series of machines using infrared optical sorters, robotic technology, and the human eye. Badger says the weight of what's been processed during the pandemic hasn’t changed much, but the volume has—and so too has the content.

It's no secret that online shopping is up during the pandemic, and that can be seen on the waste side as well.

"The amount of cardboard, corrugated cardboard that we're seeing going through material recovery facilities like this is up 25 to 35 per cent since before the pandemic,” Badger said.

Badger says in the early months of the pandemic, when beer stores weren't accepting returns, they saw “a massive increase in the amount of beer cans, and beer bottles and wine bottles and so on going in to the blue box.”

“Now that's levelled off a little bit."

But they continue to see an increase in glass containers, up 25 to 35 per cent since before the pandemic, something they attribute to more people cooking at home.

According to Badger, paper use also has changed.

"We've seen massive declines in the amount of newspaper going through the blue box. We speculate people are reading more of their news online as they’re in front of the computer more. And we've seen massive increases in the amount of office type paper as people spend more time at home."

Lately, they've seen an increase in "ready to go" food containers, popular with restaurant takeout, and there's been a steady stream of pizza boxes. But Badger says people seem to be making better choices about what can, and what can't be recycled.

As for what happens to their household waste after it's sorted, Badger says people should realize that their waste can have a second life.

"Picture the cardboard box that may come in from an online retailer going on to become another box, or going on to become an egg crate. Picture an aluminum can going on to become some sort of trim on a car or even an aircraft part. Think of a glass bottle coming back in its second life as another glass bottle or even insulation. Think of an office paper going on to become insulation for a home."

Meaning what you use while you're staying home, could have a new home after you're done with it.

"'All of these materials have very, very valuable second lives."