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Taxpayers will pay for B.C. recycling system, cities warn

Empty blue box and green wast recycling containers are strewn along Steveston highway in Richmond, Sept. 16, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

B.C. cities say taxpayers could end up covering the costs of a new provincial recycling system instead of those who were meant to pay for it – the businesses that generate packaging waste.

At the moment, cities pick up recyclables along with garbage and deliver that material to companies that buy the used glass, metal, paper and plastic. Under the new program, Multi Material BC, a non-profit created by provincial businesses to help them meet new provincial regulations, will either organize a pickup with new contractors or give some money to the cities that want to continue to do it themselves.

But city officials say both options have so many grey areas that they fear cities, and their taxpayers, could end up paying a big part of the cost that is supposed to be carried by businesses.

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"There's just so many unknowns in the current proposal that it could dramatically increase our costs," said Vancouver's chief engineer, Peter Judd. He sits on a regional committee of engineering directors that has been tussling with the province and businesses for three months over the terms being set for the new program.

"It presents an unacceptable risk to our taxpayers. They will end up bearing the price, instead of the producers, which is the opposite of what was intended."

The issue is being fought out in private meetings and conversations at the Union of B.C. Municipalities annual convention this week, as cities grapple with Multi Material BC's proposals.

As well, an emergency resolution, asking for 90 extra days to negotiate a first contract, is coming up for debate Thursday.

The issue has come to the fore because the province is requiring all producers of paper and packaging – everyone from newspaper companies to wine makers to grocery stores – to take responsibility for those materials by May, 2014. The idea was that if businesses had to be financially responsible for disposing of their own packaging, they would have a huge incentive to look for ways to reduce it.

That's a move that city representatives, from Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer to Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore, say they support unreservedly.

But they say the proposed new system could end up costing B.C. residents twice. They'll pay a fee to cover the cost of recycling every time they buy something. And then they'll end up paying again, through their taxes, for the actual pickup.

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MMBC gave cities a Sept. 16 deadline to decide what option they wanted under the new system.

Under one option, cities could choose to continue picking up glass, paper and other packaging with their own city crews or existing private contractors and get an "incentive payment" – or compensation – for that, but deliver the loads to companies that MMBC designated to handle the recycling.

But Mr. Judd and others say that the compensation being offered doesn't cover existing costs. The MMBC payment would cover only 80 per cent of Vancouver's budget for recycling pickup and only 40 per cent of Port Moody's.

That's even before MMBC potentially imposes new demands, like saying that all residents have to separate their glass from plastics and metal. That requirement for an extra box for every household would make the pickup process more time-consuming and expensive.

Cities also have the option of letting MMBC-designated contractors take over pickup, which would remove that part of the cost from their budgets and give them no compensation.

However, city representatives say they aren't getting much information about how that will work and they are worried the new system will undermine two decades of success in getting residents to recycle. Those efforts have resulted in Lower Mainland residents recycling up to 70 per cent of what used to go in the garbage.

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"If you just turn your back and let MMBC do it, you lose any semblance of control over service levels," said Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie.

Mayors said they're concerned that MMBC may choose to only pick up recycling once every two weeks or pick up on a separate schedule from garbage collection. Those kinds of small changes could make some people decide it's easier to throw their wine bottle into the garbage.

Most B.C. residents didn't know much about the issue until recently, because city politicians and staff had to discuss it privately, since it involved contracts.

But late last week, Vancouver announced publicly that it was unhappy with the proposed contract and started a public campaign to demand better terms. Surrey and Richmond have also been active in mounting a resistance campaign with Vancouver.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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