New concerns are being raised that the planned handover of the existing blue box collection system to private industry may undermine recycling in Metro Vancouver.
The provincial government earlier this year ordered industry stewards to start collecting all packaging materials by 2014 – a move expected to supplant existing blue box pickup and expand the materials collected.
It’s the latest in a series of extended producer responsibility (EPR) initiatives in B.C. that already cover everything from beverage containers to electronics.
And while industry stewards would have to collect the paper, cardboard and plastic packaging under the new program, critics warn there’s no guarantee they will actually recycle it.
Metro Vancouver deputy solid waste manager Dennis Ranahan said the packaging collected could, in theory, be shipped outside the region to be dumped, incinerated or exported overseas.
“We want to ensure the highest and best use,” he said. “That isn’t reflected by any firm targets in the regulation.”
Rather than separate and sell low-value plastic at break-even or a loss – which some city-run recycling programs do – the industry stewards may decide it’s more profitable to sell it as fuel to be burned in incinerators or in industrial plants.
“We do not want to see low-grade plastics that are now source-separated just go to a refuse-derived fuel (RDF) application when we could be promoting recycling,” Ranahan said.
Metro’s solid waste plan allows incineration of waste as an energy recovery option preferred over landfilling, but only for garbage that can’t be recycled.
“If you hand that over to the private sector, do they have the same motivations?” Ranahan asked.
He noted it sometimes takes time for markets and technologies to develop to make use of lower-margin recyclables, an incubation process that may be thwarted by a move to simply sell the material as fuel.
While Metro has its own waste-to-energy plant and plans to build more, there’s also plenty of demand for RDF in B.C. from cement kilns, pulp mills or else industries across the border in the U.S.
A stewardship group that includes retailers, grocers, the newspaper industry and others is consulting with cities and other stakeholders before drawing up a draft plan of how it wants to proceed.
The Regional Engineers Advisory Committee (REAC), representing senior engineers from cities across the region, has lodged its concerns, calling on the province to ban the dumping or incineration of collected packaging.
They also want to know whether the shift will mean breaking existing contracts with unionized or administrative staff at city-run recycling programs.
Since the change may effectively take cities out of the blue box recycling business, cities also want to know what would happen to their investments in buildings, trucks and equipment.
Ranahan predicts lengthy negotiations with industry to address those issues.
Surrey’s director of engineering Vince LaLonde suggests the stewards may simply partner with cities’ existing recycling operations rather than start their own.
The program is to cover all cardboard/plastic packaging that comes from stores, restaurant take-out containers, disposable cups and frequently discarded items like candy wrappers and cigarette packages.
It may also cover beverage containers like pop cans and bottles that already have high recovery rates thanks to the deposit-refund system.
It’s not yet clear whether that refund system will continue and some cities worry litter will increase if it’s abandoned.
The stewardship plan must be submitted to the province by November 2012.
Ranahan said Metro Vancouver and local cities support the intent of the initiative – making businesses bear the costs of recycling their packaging so they have more incentive to design their products for the environment.
Putting the costs back on industry instead of taxpayers should ultimately mean an overpackaged product will cost more than its greener competitor.
Cities initially feared stewards might scrimp on recycling pickup, but Ranahan said the province has signaled it wants collection service levels maintained and curbside pickup continued.
Another worry is that stewards may stop requiring separation of recyclables and just let residents dump them co-mingled into blue boxes.
Surrey already has single-stream recycling – its contractor uses sophisticated machinery to sort the co-mingled material at a central plant.
That technology has improved – LaLonde said Surrey’s experience has been good – but opponents contend separated recyclables are less contaminated, fetch better prices as a result and are less likely to end up as garbage or fuel.
The regional engineers also say the recycling program must ensure packaging is collected from local businesses, industries and institutions – not just homes.
Metro Vancouver is committed to increase its recycling rate from 55 per cent now to 70 per cent by 2015 and 80 per cent by 2020.
“Local government will be losing control over the prime mechanism for achieving 70 per cent or higher diversion,” the REAC report cautions.