The stewardship fight heats up in BC


An article in the Campbell River Mirror (updated March 25) neatly sums up the showdown developing in British Columbia over complex issues related to that province’s extensive producer responsibility program for end-of-life management of packaging and printed paper. If your company produces packaging or printed paper, or distributes goods in packaging anywhere in Canada, this subject should be of immense interest to you, as it signifies what could become a trend across the country. The subject should also be of keen interest to anyone involved in waste collection and recycling, whether you work in the public or private sphere.

BC’s government-mandated program takes effect this spring and makes producers responsible for the full costs of diverting these materials from disposal and for their reuse or recycling. Under the legislation, individual companies or whole industries have the right to establish their own separate collection and processing programs to manage discards such as old corrugated cardboard (OCC), old newsprint (ONP), and such Blue Box staples as used beverage containers (UBCs) and plastic containers for such things as yoghurt or peanut butter.

Producers (sometimes called “stewards”) also have the right to form voluntary collectives to manage these materials, i.e., to defray costs and bring economies of scale to the logistical challenge of collecting and processing the materials. The companies or collectives are allowed to contract with municipalities to collect the materials for them, thereby taking advantage of the robust municipal door-to-door collection infrastructure that predates the stewardship legislation.

Not surprisingly, industry in BC formed a collective known as Multi-Material British Columbia or “MMBC” for short. This stewardship body assumes responsiblity for member companies in organizing and paying for the collection and recycling of its packaging and printed paper materials. MMBC has signed contracts with most BC municipalities to perform the collection function.

The thinking behind BC’s program is that by making producers responsible for end-of-life management of their packaging and printed paper materials, they’ll be incentivized to reduce packaging in the first place, redesign it for reuse or ease of recycling, and to use only materials for which recycling markets exist. By ending the taxpayer subsidy to industry’s wastefulness (and its adoption of difficult to recycle materials, such as plastic laminates), it’s assumed environmental improvement will occur, and at least costs are assigned where they belong, following the “polluter pays” principle.

That’s the theory but of course the real-world implementation of these ideas was never likely to be a smooth road. As the Campbell River Mirror article indicates, various stakeholders and groups are lobbying hard against the program, for a variety of different reasons. One could be forgiven for imagining that public unions are behind at least some of the opposition, as municipal members are afraid that an industry funded and managed recycling program poses a threat to their jobs. Hence the “fox and the henhouse” refrain that municipalities have been doing a great job for all these years, and now corporations are being entrusted to take over this important public service. (Atop this some are voicing a kind of geographic concern that it’s Toronto-based multi-national corporations being put in charge, and not local businesses.)

There are arguments about “red tape” and “higher costs for consumers” which, frankly, don’t carry much weight with me. There’s already an exemption for small businesses (out of deference for their apparent inability to fill out the paperwork), but the fact is, if society is going to make producers responsible for their packaging waste, it’s to be expected that costs and prices will be affected in the marketplace. The good thing is that the marketplace is much better, over the long haul, at realizing efficiencies than central-planning schemes run by government. (That’s not to say there won’t be many problems to sort out, some of which may require further regulation or standard-setting and enforcement from government, but at least the energy and investment will be where it belongs, in the private sphere.)

One objection, that has been voiced by Buddy Boyd of Zero Waste Canada (in a comment to the article that you can read under the article on the Campbell River Mirror website), is that in the BC Lower Mainland all this MMBC stuff is somehow linked to Metro Vancouver’s plans to build one or more waste incinerators. The incinerators have yet to be built (and might never be) but it’s fair to say that Metro Vancouver’s published plans allow for the utilization of some amount of recyclable materials as feedstock for the burners. In fact, incinerators are only viable if at least some of the feedstock has BTU value, and nothing burns better than paper and plastic, so this concern is well founded, and is mentioned in the cover story I wrote for the February/March edition of Solid Waste & Recycling and is also the subject of my forthcoming page 4 Editorial in the April/May edition that goes to press within a week or two. However, how Metro Vancouver’s incineration plans really involve or are affected by the MMB situation remains unclear to me.

It’s a complex situation in BC, which is implementing bold strategies that have never been tried before in North America, at least not on this scale and for such an extensive array of materials. The plan is vaguely like the product stewardship program in Germany, which had a lot of problems (high costs, monopoly behaviour of collectives) at the start, many of which have been overcome according to a presentation I attended at the Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO) AGM last month, made by a gentleman from the competition bureau over there.

I’m strongly in favour of producer responsibility but aim not to be naive about how it might unfold in British Columbia. Whatever happens, I’m excited that this experiment is underway so that we can all observe what goes down and measure the results over time, which I will report in this space and in the print magazine. I’m listening to the different voices and objections, but reserving judgement until I see how this plays out and what the experts conclude in the months and years ahead.

Anyway, the article can be read at the Campbell River Mirror website here and I also reproduce it in full below. (Note that the newspaper website offers a 14-minute video from the BC legislature in which an NDP caucus member challenges the MMBC plan.)


NDP takes aim at Multi Material BC recycling ‘failure’ (with VIDEO)

By Campbell River Mirror
Published: March 24, 2014 06:00 PM
Updated: March 25, 2014 01:91 PM

The NDP is accusing the provincial government of handing over control of B.C.’s blue box recycling system to Toronto-based multinational executives who will be unaccountable while B.C. businesses and households pay higher costs.

Opposition small business critic Lana Popham raised the issue of Multi Material BC in the Legislature Monday, calling on the province to change course before the agency’s new system for recycling packaging and printed paper takes effect May 19.

“If government doesn’t take a step back, B.C.’s recycling system is going to end up in a giant dumpster,” Popham said.

“The control of recycling should never have been outsourced to the large corporate interests based in Ontario and abroad. This is a profound failure. This program needs to be paused and the entire concept reconsidered.”

Popham’s comments follow the launch earlier this month of a campaign against MMBC by a coalition of business groups, including the newspaper industry, who say they can’t afford to pay high fees imposed under the new system.

The provincially mandated system is designed to make generators of packaging and paper pay to collect and process it, but business critics contend it will be onerous due to high costs, paperwork and reporting obligations.

“The Liberal government loves to claim they’re getting rid of red tape,” Popham said in an interview Monday. “So it’s quite ironic because MMBC is a Godzilla-sized red tape monster.”

Although MMBC is registered as a society, Popham called it a “dummy corporation” because two of its three directors are Toronto-based senior executives with Loblaws and Unilever, while the third is MMBC managing director Allan Langdon.

Popham said the province should force MMBC to give B.C. stakeholders majority control.

The Saanich South NDP MLA said the MMBC system will be “dangerously close to monopoly” resulting in less competition and innovation in recycling.

She also said municipalities have been pressured into signing contracts with inadequate compensation for their costs, the threat of penalties for contamination and a gag clause.

MMBC’s new recycling fees on businesses will be passed along to consumers through higher prices, Popham said, calling it a “hidden tax” that won’t be transparent to consumers.

Meanwhile, she says cities that the government says will save money are unlikely to reduce property taxes that households already pay for recycling.

“The slogan for MMBC should probably be ‘Recycle once, but pay twice.'”

In some cities where MMBC won’t provide services, such as Kamloops, residents will pay for nothing if retail prices rise broadly, Popham added.

MMBC says it will take new types of containers and packaging not collected in B.C. before.

But Popham noted glass will no longer be collected curbside in many cities and there’s little evidence the system will improve recycling rates overall.

She said a smarter approach would have been to extend the beverage can deposit-refund system to more containers, such as milk cartons and laundry detergent jugs.

Liberal MLA Eric Foster (Vernon Monashee) responded in the Legislature, saying the province made changes to exempt most businesses from MMBC fees and paperwork if they earn less than $1 million in revenue, generate less than one tonne per year of packaging, or operate as a single outlet.

“We’ve got all kinds of validation on this — chambers of commerce, local government, opportunities for local government to either continue the way they’re doing it or to have MMBC put their contractors in there to pick up,” said Foster, who serves on the government’s environment and land use committee.

“MMBC came forward as an opportunity to change people’s way of doing business and to put the onus on the original producers of the waste product or the recyclable product to reduce.”

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