Cities have plenty of unanswered questions about the future of curbside blue box recycling.

Cities await answers on business-led recycling plan

Blue box shakeup dogged by questions as deadline looms

B.C.’s newspaper industry, after threatening to bail out of a huge revamp of the blue box recycling system, is now back on board and the initiative may stay on track for a planned 2014 launch.

But cities remain deeply concerned about how the recycling system shakeup will unfold and councillors peppered industry reps with questions at a workshop session Thursday at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Victoria.

The province is requiring retailers, grocers and newspapers through the stewardship group Multi Material BC to take responsibility for collecting and recycling printed paper and packaging of every type.

It greatly expands blue box recycling and forces those producers who create all packaging waste to bear the costs of dealing with it, and hopefully spur them to design greener packages.

Multi Material BC officials say they don’t plan to create their own rival collection systems, but will likely contract with either cities, non-profits or private recyclers to use what already exists.

That still leaves civic reps wondering what the final system will look like and whether their budgets and citizens will make sacrifices due to unremitted costs or reduced curbside services.

“What I see here is a huge amount of instability,” New Westminster Coun. Bill Harper said. “It’s quite an untenable situation.”

His city has just paid for new trucks to handle single-stream recycling pickup – where all materials go in the same bin instead of being sorted by households – and wonders if taxpayers will be reimbursed for those costs.

“Who’s going to subsidize that? Probably nobody.”

Other questions voiced at UBCM include whether union contracts will be broken and whether recycling programs will all be forced to go to single-streaming or to separated systems.

“Who is responsible for illegal dumping?” asked Stacey Barker, the Fraser Valley Regional District’s environmental services manager and UBCM rep on the packaging issue.

“There are many questions.”

An added complication is the tight timeline for consultation.

Cities may see a draft by late October of the proposed system, leaving little time for input before the Nov. 19 deadline for Multi Material BC to submit its plan to the province.

The organization recently asked for a one-year extension but environment minister Terry Lake said he has not yet granted the request and wants to stick to the schedule.

Efforts were delayed because the Canadian Newspaper Association, whose members generate 30 per cent of the material collected via blue boxes, stepped away from Multi Material BC to consider whether it could mount its own program but is now expected to rejoin.

“There’s a desire to work together on a single plan, as opposed to have two different plans,” Multi Material BC chair Allen Langdon said.

Metro Vancouver board chair Greg Moore said it’s critical the material collected actually be recycled and not just become another garbage disposal system.

He said cities that have invested heavily in recycling to achieve a high diversion rate don’t want to see any backsliding.

“Many local governments have amazing recycling programs,” Lake said. “The last thing we want to do is upset the apple cart.”

Multi Material BC would target residential recycling first, then businesses, industry and insttitutions later.

It estimates 50 to 57 per cent of the material it will collect is now recycled and aims to boost that to 75 per cent, but has no specific timeline for doing that.

UBCM has pressed for a more ambitious target.

Some cities also want the new system to cover not just residential pickup but material dropped in bins in parks, sidewalks and other public spaces,

UBCM passed a Richmond-sponsored resolution Thursday urging the province to force the stewardship group to pay cities to provide the expanded blue box service for packaging.