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Cities in revolt over demands of new recycling bosses

Cities and newspaper companies are balking at arrangements proposed for them to participate in a new industry-led recycling organization to collect packaging and printed paper.  - File
Cities and newspaper companies are balking at arrangements proposed for them to participate in a new industry-led recycling organization to collect packaging and printed paper.
— image credit: File

Cities across B.C. are crying foul over the rollout of a new recycling agency that the provincial government has put in charge of blue box pick up.

And Metro Vancouver mayors want B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak to intervene to keep their curbside recycling programs from being thrown into chaos from the changes coming next year.

Multi-Material B.C. (MMBC), an industry stewardship group made up of major retailers and producers, is set to take responsibility for collecting and recycling packaging of all sorts by next May as a result of new provincial regulations.

It has promised to let interested municipalities continue to run their own recycling operations by acting as contractor, if that's what they prefer.

But the cities say the prices offered by MMBC are far too low to cover their costs and that other terms are unreasonable, starting with a take-it-or-leave-it signing deadline of Sept. 16.

"I've never seen a contract come through as one-sided as what they've done with this," Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said.

"The idea you're going to come in and replace our programs and take over recycling is out of line – most municipalities are really concerned about that."

Cities fear they'll lose money if they continue providing the service their residents expect under the pricing structure MMBC has offered for recyclables.

They can opt to decline a contract and MMBC will contract recycling pick up out as it sees fit, but mayors fear that may be at reduced service levels, with public anger directed to city hall.

With those choices unappealing, many cities are expected to instead pick a third option for now that lets them keep running the blue box recycling system without compensation from MMBC.

Keeping the status quo is less than ideal, Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said, because the industries responsible, not cities, are supposed to pay the costs to collect and recycle packaging under the government's plan.

Effectively, their residents will pay twice – once on their property taxes and again at stores because retailers will build their costs of supporting MMBC into prices.

Both mayors predict many cities will reject the deal as offered now and demand action from provincial government ministers at next week's Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, which opens on the day of MMBC's deadline.

Prince George has already refused MMBC's contract offer, as has Coquitlam, where Mayor Richard Stewart warned in a letter to Polak that "Coquitlam council is gravely concerned that no reputable collector would concede to these conditions and this would inevitably lead to an unacceptable degradation of the existing quality of service."

One objection is MMBC's requirement that loads of recyclables contain no more than three per cent contamination of other materials.

Several cities say their blue box pick up runs above that level of contamination, meaning MMBC can hit them with heavy fines of $5,000 per truckload.

Port Coquitlam estimated that could add up to $3 million per year in their city, although MMBC says fines will be capped at 24 per year, or $120,000.

But Brodie, a lawyer and the chair of Metro Vancouver's zero waste committee, said some of the fine print in the offer is even worse.

"MMBC can change the terms of the contract unilaterally," Brodie noted. "They can assign the contract so we're not even dealing with MMBC. Those are the sorts of provisions that make it very untenable for us."

If MMBC takes over, cities face the prospect of terminating contracts with either their unionized staff or an outside contractor, and potentially being on the hook for unrecoverable capital costs for trucking fleets and other infrastructure.

Brodie said it may be workable in more rural areas of B.C. where no blue box pick up exists, suggesting the program be first piloted it in those regions ahead of urban areas.

MMBC managing director Allen Langdon rejects claims the proposed contracts short-change cities on collection costs, adding programs in 23 cities were reviewed to determine fair pricing.

"We think those costs, based on our research, provide for compensation for an efficient and effective system," Langdon said.

He said cities that don't like how the system unfolds can terminate their contracts without penalty on six months notice, or opt for dispute resolution.

Langdon also defended the short notice for cities to sign up, saying timelines are tight to identify collectors and line up processors in time for a May 19 launch.

The Vancouver-based Centre For Civic Governance has warned recycling could backslide under the new model.

It has also argued that the failure to apply eco fees directly to products based on how heavily they're packaged means there's little direct incentive for producers to reduce packaging.

Newspapers balk at MMBC plan, eye own system

It's not just cities resisting the new recycling system for packaging coming to B.C.

The print newspaper industry – which is supposed to be part of the expanded blue box system – is also at odds with MMBC after a falling out last year over how they would pay their share of the costs of collecting old newspapers and flyers.

Newspapers Canada president John Hinds said the newspaper firms originally intended to make their contribution through in-kind advertising.

But he said MMBC has since demanded they pay 75 per cent in cash – potentially draining $6 million a year from the print newspaper industry, which has already reduced staff to cut costs in the current economic environment.

Newspapers Canada represents the three main publishing groups – community newspaper publishers Black Press (owner of this newspaper) and Glacier Media, as well as Postmedia, owner of the Vancouver Sun and The Province.

Hinds said the entire industry pulled out of MMBC last year and is re-evaluating its options, which could include having newspaper carriers take back newsprint for recycling, or hiring other contractors to create a new collection or depot system.

"Our real option is to do our own system," Hinds said. "We have a very sophisticated one-way delivery system that nearly goes to every house in B.C."

He said MMBC has sought to shift costs to newspaper firms because it's "very much biased" in favour of huge retailers like Walmart and Loblaw and other multinational producers of packaged goods that are solely interested in minimizing their outlay, not best environmental practices for B.C.

Hinds said newspaper publishing representatives continue talks with MMBC while lobbying the province.

A splintering of the system with newspaper firms trying to retrieve newsprint could have wider implications, because newspaper is among the more profitable materials to recycle, unlike some other packaging materials.

The estimated cost of MMBC's system is $110 million but Hinds warns that could run higher, especially if it leads to inefficient parallel systems being run by MMBC, some cities and perhaps newspaper groups.

"The sad part about this is you're going to recreate a whole new system," Hinds said.

"You're going to dismantle a system that works. You're not going to save the taxpayer any money. And you're going to spend $100 million in industry money that's going to be taken out of the pockets of consumers. And at the end of the day, you're not going to move the marker one bit on environmental goals."

Environment Minister Mary Polak said she's watching to see how talks unfold between MMBC and both cities and publishers.

"We have to recognize that some of this is a negotiation," Polak said.

"We're not blind to the concerns that are being expressed. We've heard them and we're certainly urging MMBC to work with those parties to try to address the concerns they have."

Unlike existing stewardship programs, the packaging and printed paper industries are much more diverse, she said, making the new system more complex.

MMBC aims to raise overall recycling rates in B.C. from 53 per cent to 75 per cent.

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