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Green Sweep

Cleaning up Whistler's recycling


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Have you ever wondered where to put your empty ice cream container — Paper? Plastic? Garbage?

What about that empty bag of chips or your dog food bag with its waxy finish? Or, dare you admit, your disposable coffee cup?

And, when you're elbow deep in the peanut butter jar, scraping off gooey remnants in what has to be one of the worst kitchen tasks (aside from the relentless stream of dirty dishes), do you ever wonder how clean it really needs to be?

After a lifetime of weekly recycling, how can there still be so many questions about what to do with packaging leftovers in that no man's land between what is very clearly garbage and what may, or may not, be recycled?

Those niggling questions are all set to be answered in Whistler as the gates come down on the recycling depots this week, and the municipality gets into the swing of a controversial province-wide recycling program organized by Multi-Material BC (MMBC).

Our laissez-faire attitude to recycling — just peak into one of those green bins and see how well we're doing — is all about to change with an ultimate goal of seeing B.C.'s recycling rate, pegged at 53 per cent today, rise to 75 per cent.

"Not only will we have to report how much we collect, which is pretty standard information, but we'll actually have to report how much is recycled," says MMBC managing director Allen Langdon. "And do that, not only on a province-wide basis, but in each regional district. And then we'll also, to the greatest extent possible, need to report on final disposition — where is this material going? So, it's not enough just to say we've recycled it, but what's happening to it when it's recycled. That's the type of information that residents/consumers have never had about the recycling. I think it will really inform a very productive discussion going forward about what's happening with this material."

To that end, the Nesters and the Function Junction depots in Whistler will no longer be open 24 hours a day, allowing a free-for-all dumping ground of sorts.

The new gates will now be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and a paid Carney's attendant will be on hand to help answer those eternal recycling questions.

"That's really going to help people figure out what they need to do," says James Hallisey, Whistler's manager of transportation and solid waste.

The municipality is bracing for pushback as it ushers in the new rules, which ultimately requires residents to change their behaviours. The same was true when it closed the town landfill in the years before the 2010 Olympics.

The program is designed to pass on the costs of packaging and printed-paper recycling (known as PPP) to the companies that produce it in the first place.

But it's also set up to, not only get us recycling more, but to make us more savvy about how we're recycling, making it easier to move our waste into a new life cycle, rather than just simply shipping it to China, which has long been our far-flung dumping ground.

Written right into the new MMBC contract, the same for every municipality that has joined in, is a clause that will see Whistler fined for contaminated recycling — no more than three per cent contamination. The penalties are $5,000 per truckload with a "limit" set at $120,000.

Langdon explains that the fines would only kick in after audits and working with the collectors over a period of time, about a year or so, to try to fix the problem.

"When there's no track record, there's always some angst," he says of the worry of potential fines.

He doesn't anticipate it being a problem, particularly in Whistler where there will be oversight at the depots.

Still, the penalties are outlined in black and white.

The fact remains: you need to know where to put your ice cream container, your chip bags, and your clean peanut butter jars. You can't just dump and run — out of sight, out of mind, somebody else's problem.

Whistler's contamination rate is higher than three per cent.

Colleen Carney, of Carney's Waste Systems, says she pulls out about three tonnes of garbage a week from the corridor's recycling.

"And that's just what we catch," she says.

Hallisey adds: "It's going to be interesting to see if we can make the three per cent. We're going to need everyone's cooperation to make it work."

 What is MMBC?

The "NEW" signs have been up for weeks heralding the changes coming to the depots. Likely residents have paid little attention — until the gates came down, that is, on Monday, May 19, ushering in the new recycling era of MMBC.

At its core, and in its simplest terms, it is the idea that the businesses, which produce the paper and packaging materials, must pay to get rid of them. It's called Extended Producer Responsibility. Businesses pay based on how much they contribute to the residential sector. Every business is on the same fee schedule — the more you produce, the more you pay on a per-kilogram basis.

Companies pay into MMBC — now operating with an $85 million budget — to manage the program.

"This is intended to relieve municipal governments of the financial burden of having to pay for these systems," says Langdon.

The new program spans 88 communities across the province, providing service to 75 per cent of residents in B.C. — some 1.25 million people. Not everyone has been convinced it's the right thing to do.

It has been a whirlwind 12 months of negotiating contracts with municipalities and, more recently, blitzing the public with information about what this means to them.

All eyes are on B.C. and this $85 million program, which is breaking new ground.

"It's being viewed by many across North America, not just Canada, as probably the most progressive stewardship program that's been in place for printed paper and packaging," says Landgon. "There's a lot of interest to see — how does 100 per cent EPR work — Extended Producer Responsibility — for printed paper and packaging. While that type of approach has been tried in Europe, this is the first time this type of approach has been tried in Canada, or North American for that matter."

There's a lot riding on its success. There are 940 businesses signed up to the program and those that are not part of MMBC will need to coordinate their own recycling efforts.

B.C. has long had Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs in place, but nothing of this size and complexity.

Take the first EPR program in 1994 with the Post-Consumer Paint Stewardship Program Regulation, which required producers and consumers to take responsibility for waste paint. Enter paint collection depots.

Its origins are attributed to Sweden's Thomas Lindhqvist who defined EPR in a 1992 report:

"Extended Producer Responsibility is an environmental protection strategy to reach an environmental objective of a decreased total environmental impact from a product, by making the manufacturer of the product responsible for the entire life-cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal of the product."

Inevitably, though, there has been pushback, from those companies feeling the brunt of the new regulations.

Langdon notes, it's those medium-sized companies, not used to these kinds of regulations, that contribute a significant amount of printed paper and packaging in the residential sector, that are most effected.

"It's been a more difficult transition," he admits.

It's businesses like newspapers, agriculture and manufacturing, that will see direct increased costs to their business as a result of the program, which are pushing back. A coalition of businesses launched a campaign in March called "Rethink It, B.C." They include: BC Agriculture Council, BC Landscape & Nursery Association, BC Bottle and Recycling Depot Association and BC Yukon Community Newspapers Association. They have been calling on government to halt the program, asking for more consultation.

Its detailed website outlines its concerns, which include the fact that MMBC is not accountable to any government agency and is not subject to oversight by the Auditor General of B.C.

It is in fact governed by a Board made up of international businessinterests including Wal-Mart, Loblaw's and Procter an Gamble.

Rethink It B.C.'s leaders also question claims that the program will reduce packaging weight. For some businesses, the impact runs to tens of millions of dollars.

"Claims that the costs are taken 'off the general taxpayers and on to business' are inaccurate," states the website. "In the end consumers will pay, and receive no benefit in return."

On the eve of the changes several B.C. business associations wrote a letter to the minister of the environment, Mary Polak. They called on government to implement two recommendations:

• Require ministerial approval of MMBC's plans including the fee schedule and fines;

• Conduct anual public independent reviews of its economic impacts and environmental effectiveness.

"It's our view the government created regulations the at created MMBC and therefore there should be public oversight on this body," said Mike Klassen, director of provincial affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

This, they hope, will keep MMBC accountable to small businesses, local government and B.C. citizens.

Klassen is also concerned the changes could lead to job loses.

"There are a few sectors that are definitely going to feel the squeeze."

In the meantime, however, it's full steam ahead. Green By Nature EPR has been chosen to manage the post-collection system for MMBC, investing in two new facilities to deal with the recycling, estimated to be bringing in 185 tonnes of packaging and printed paper.

In the business for almost 50 years, Carney's Waste Systems has been subcontracted to manage the recycling in the Sea to Sky corridor.

 Carney's contract

 Behind the corridor's hub of recycling at Carney's Waste Systems in Squamish, Colleen Carney looks out on dozens of pallets of plastic, crushed and baled, and waiting for sale.

These days that's not an easy job. She isn't daunted by it; this is the business of recycling, the buying and selling of commodities. Cardboard is good money, plastic isn't — for the time being. The recycling-commodities market ebbs and flows.

Currently, the company is running at a loss in the recycling side of the business.

It's going to cost Carney about $100 per tonne to get rid of that plastic. And it's not as though brokers are knocking down the doors to buy it.

Her job today is to beg, and negotiate and wheedle a way to get it off site.

"No one really wants it," she says. "I will sell it to someone at a loss."

Gone are the days when North America's used plastic was simply shipped across the ocean to China — out of sight, out of mind.

Plastics used to be a positive market.

And then China wised up and up came with what's called the "Green Fence."

China was the world's largest importer of wastes. In 2011, for example, the U.S. sent 23 million tonnes of recyclables to China, about 40 per cent of all its recyclables.

But the world's waste wasn't clean. China got fed up with accepting dirty recycling and having to send North America's garbage to its own landfills. Operation Green Fence came into effect and China set a limit of 1.5 per cent of allowable contaminant for each bale of imported recyclables.

It was a huge industry wake-up call.

And Carney's in Squamish is still feeling the effects of the Green Fence.

"They just want the recyclables to be clean and source separated as best as possible," says Carney.

It's just what she wants too.

"If I have more than five per cent contamination in any load, it's rejected. So we're talking big money in trucking. Source separation is huge.

"We try to source separate as much as possible because that's how you get more money for them."

Whether or not that goes to China, or gets transformed into something new in Canada, remains to be seen.

"I think that we'll have to be more sustainable in our own country for processing what we produce," says Carney, whose father Owen Carney started the garbage business almost 50 years ago. "I don't think we're going to have the option to ship to China as we did before, for a lot of products."

Now, however, Carney's will have a market for its residential PPP waste (about 50 per cent of what it collects) through the MMBC program.

This week it signed a $1.28 million contract with the municipality for its garbage services and new this year is radio-frequency technology in the garbage compactors that will alert Carney's when the garbage bins are full. This will cut out payments when the bins are not full.

This change, along with the anticipated reduction in garbage from the MMBC program, should reduce Whistler's servicing costs.


Whistler In/Squamish Undecided

Whistler is convinced that signing up with the MMBC program is in its best interests, while Squamish is still undecided.

"There are strong arguments on both sides," explains Christina Moore, communications manager at the District of Squamish.

"The MMBC program was developed with the best of intentions, but as the details become known, there are many questions to be answered before the District signs on."

One of the tasks for the district's newly approved Sustainability Coordinator will be to summarize the pros and cons of MMBC and deliver a report to council later this year with a recommendation. Squamish has until early 2015 to apply for the second round of processing.

Whistler detailed the pros and cons earlier this year.

In favour of joining MMBC is an estimated $125,000 in savings to its recycling program.

But saving money is not the only reason it signed on.

Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden outlined several points including saving money, the increased level of service, moving Whistler closer to its ultimate goal of zero waste.

"Ultimately, it is the right thing to do," she says.

The program also called for a manned depot site to keep the recycling stream clean. That prompted the installation of gates and having the depots opened at specific times.

"We're been looking at that for quite a long time," says Hallisey. "We get a lot of illegal dumping on the sites. We get contractors coming in, filling the compactor full of wood and drywall and stuff that, actually, on average we spend a few thousand dollars a year repairing them due to that."

Drywall and wood must to go to the Callaghan transfer station, at a cost to the person dumping it.

The other plus is that the program will standardize recycling across most of the province.

Hallisey says Whistler is better positioned than most communities to make the switch. The MMBC categories aren't drastically different than the way recycling has been done in the past. There will be a new container that will accept Styrofoam.

"Recycling really doesn't cost us anything now," he says. "And if we actually drive our rates up high enough, we're actually going to be making some money on it because now they're paying us per tonne. We want as much of that stuff out of the garbage and into the recycling as we possibly can."

Over the last three years, Whistler's recycling rates have remained relatively flat between 890 to 945 tonnes. Hallisey expects that number to go up in the new program.

What that means on the ground is that residents need to know what they're doing with those chip bags, the ice cream container, the dog food packaging and that dirty peanut butter container?

Chip bags are garbage.

Ice cream containers are paper packaging with liquids — a new category. Dog food in the paper packaging with dry goods.

"If it's packaging," says Hallisey, "you can recycle it."

Save a few exceptions.

Pay attention to your recycling, he suggests. Don't hesitate to ask questions of the new attendant.

As for that plastic peanut butter container — how clean are we talking?

"Clean," says Carney simply, and you know she means every scrap of peanut butter out of that tub. "If it's not clean, it's not recyclable."

And if it's not recyclable, well, you know where it's going.

Top ten common mistakes:

1) Don't put dirty, non-rinsed packaging/containers in the recycling. If it is contaminated, it is garbage. Rinse all recyclables — coffee cups, food containers, glass jars, tin/aluminum cans.

2) Myth — somebody will sort it out down the line. Follow the rule: IF IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT. If non-recyclable material is found, the whole load might get thrown out.

3) Biodegradable bags are NOT compostable or recyclable. As of now, they are garbage.

4) All beverage containers — plastic, glass, Tetrapaks, and aluminum cans — can be brought to bottle depots for refunds. Milk jugs and cartons can now be recycled with the "Paper, metal, and plastic containers" category.

5) Soft and hard covered books can't go into the paper recycling. Telephone books and directories can be recycled.

6) Cardboard boxes with wax coating (boxes that were used for transporting produce) aren't recyclable.

7) Padded envelopes CANNOT be recycled.

8) Bag your bags in clear plastic bags. The green ones get thrown in the garbage.

9) Styrofoam CAN be recycled

10) Glass containers — empty

and rinse, remove lid and put those in the aluminum/tin bin.