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Vancouver leaves residential recycling to the private sector

October 3, 2016
What bluebox pickup may have looked like today.—YouTube

What blue box pickup may have looked like today.—YouTube

This morning, Monday, October 3, residents of single-family homes in parts of Kitsilano, all of Fairview and Kerrisdale—all the way from the south side of False Creek to Marpole—may have noticed that their curbside recycling blue boxes were collected, not by white City of Vancouver recycler trucks, but by baby blue Smithrite trucks.

That’s because the industry-based stewardship group Multi-Material B.C. (MMBC), which was created by provincial law in 2011 to assume responsibility for recycling all packaging and paper, has, as of today, finally taken over all residential blue bin and blue box recycling collection from the City of Vancouver.

And Coquitlam-based Smithrite Disposal, acting as the contractor for MMBC, has taken over collecting all curbside recycling blue box pickup in Vancouver’s single family residential neighbourhoods.

Earlier this year, Smithrite won similar MMBC contracts for Coquitlam, Anmore and Pitt Meadows.

In its September 26 press release on the recycling changeover in Vancouver, Multi-Material B.C. indicates that there will be no changes to the types of materials collected. Any residents who do not already have segregated glass bins will receive them and “a small number of residents will see their collection schedule change”.

Otherwise, as far as the city’s new recycling overlord is concerned, residents of Vancouver single-family homes should see few other changes in their recycling routine, beyond the change in the colour—from white to blue—of the Top Select recycler trucks in their back alleys.

Residents of multi-unit buildings in Vancouver should see no difference whatsoever. Waste Management, the company with the green trucks, which has been, for several years now, collecting apartment building and condo blue bins under contract to the City of Vancouver, will continue to do the same under contract to MMBC.

And for the time being, the single-family recycling collected under contract to MMBC will continue to be processed in City of Vancouver facilities.

According to an email reply from Allen Landon, managing director of MMBC, arrangements have been made for Smithrite to use the City of Vancouver’s Transfer Station at 377 West Kent Avenue as its receiving facility for curbside/multi-family packaging and printed paper collected from the city.

Landon says that Multi-Material B.C. expects to have its own post-collection receiving facility for Vancouver recycling up and running sometime in 2017.

The City of Vancouver has also endeavoured to put the changeover in the best possible light, saying that no city jobs will be lost as a result—that workers will simply be re-tasked to focus on “street hygiene”, such as collecting the growing amounts of over-sized garbage being dumped in Vancouver alleys.

The good news for ratepayers, says the city, is that they will see an end to the recycling charge of $13-18 per household.

This last bit especially tries to put the best face on what has been a difficult situation for the city.

The City of Vancouver gets an offer it can’t refuse

For over 20 years the City of Vancouver, along with other municipalities in the Metro Vancouver region, have developed urban recycling systems that have helped grow today’s stable, mature (and lucrative) recycling industry.

However, just as these municipalities may have expected to begin reaping the profits from their years of hard work, the provincial government stepped in and legislated the creation of Multi-Material B.C., an industry-based, ‘non-profit”, “self-funded” stewardship group, intended to manage the collection and recycling of packaging and paper, virtually province-wide.

It must be said that the creation of such industry-based product stewardship groups, or extended producer responsibility (ERP) groups, has been British Columbia’s preferred solution to recycling going back to the creation of the original bottle deposit system in 1970. Depending on who’s counting, there are currently between 15 and 19 such ERPs in B.C., which are responsible for collecting and recycling everything from light bulbs to paint to thermometers.

Such an industry-led, product-based approach to recycling has both advantages and disadvantages.

If nothing else, it appears that the B.C. government’s creation of MMBC is serving to force the hand-over of residential recycling revenue streams to private industry—something that the governing B.C. Liberal party, at least, would definitely consider an advantage.

The choice given to Vancouver was no choice after all

B.C. municipalities have been allowed, if they want, to continue collecting the recycling—but only as contractors for MMBC, which still controls any profits from recyclables.

Vancouver signed on as a MMBC contractor in 2014. One of the city’s major acts in this capacity was to introduce a  segregated glass blue bin/box at the instigation of MMBC. This was because the glass of food jars is virtually worthless to MMBC and the profit-minded czar of B.C. recycling doesn’t want pickle jars and the like polluting the more valuable mixed plastic and metal containers.

Unfortunately, the deal that Vancouver had to accept as a contractor for MMBC not only saw it lose any profits from selling the recyclables it collects but MMBC didn’t even pay enough to cover the city’s collection costs, according to a city staff report produced last year.

That November 2015 report, from the general manager of Engineering Services, recommended that the city hand over all responsibility for recycling collection to MMBC, for both Vancouver and the Musqueam Indian Reserve No. 2, no later than January 2, 2017.

The main reason given was the disadvantageous contract that Vancouver was forced to accept from Multi-Material B.C. which was costing the city $4.1 million every year and would only rise, as the report explained:

“There is a funding shortfall between MMBC’s financial contribution and the City’s recycling program costs, which is subsidized by ratepayers through the Solid Waste Utility. The current shortfall is $4.1M per year, and is projected to rise to at least $5.4M per year, predominantly as a result of replacing the City’s recycling fleet and providing City-wide separate glass collection, should the City continue to deliver the service under contract to MMBC.”

It was the shortfall of MMBC funding that necessitated the $13-$18 recycling charge on Vancouver households.

And it was particularly the looming expense of replacing the City’s aging fleet of Top Select recycler trucks, under the one-sided MMBC contract, that made it imperative for Vancouver to get out of residential recycling altogether.

In the 1990s, the city’s fleet of recycler trucks was a calculated investment in the future. In time (it may have been thought) the investment would pay dividends in the form of a new and lucrative stream of revenue from the sale of recyclables—such revenue as could more than pay for the upkeep and replacement of a recycling fleet.

But there will be no recycling revenue stream to buy recycling trucks or fund programs or anything else. The City of Vancouver will not be able to look to residential recycling as a goose that lays golden eggs.

You might say that as soon as Multi-Material B.C. was created Vancouver’s goose was cooked—recycling revenue-wise.

But however you look at it, whatever the lost opportunities one can point to, the city’s 20-plus-years of residential recycling have still been a great success and have left the entire Metro Vancouver region far better off, with smaller and more sustainable waste streams overall and a population that willingly (if not always enthusiastically) participates actively, each and every day, in recycling everything from beverage containers to big screen TVs.

Moving forward, it has to be hoped that Multi-Material B.C. turns out to be a good steward of provincial recycling, rather than some sort of TransLink 2.0, as some may fear.

And then there’s that elderly fleet of snow white, hard-driven Top Select recycler trucks, which the City of Vancouver has also been left with but no longer has any use for.

You would think that Multi-Material B.C., or one its contractors would want to buy these useful relics workhorses, purpose-built as they are for curbside recycling pickup of either blue boxes or bins, eh?

No, said Allen Landon, managing director of MMBC, in rely to my emailed question. There were no plans to acquire the trucks, which, he added, were near the end of their life.

Nothing personal Vancouver, it’s just business. But ouch all the same. Click the image to enlarge it.

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