Tuesday 9th August 2022

Keith Gerein: Will the economy or environment take priority in Alberta’s recycling

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If you’re anything like me, the pandemic has been a bit of a boon to the amount of recyclables that have come into your world.

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When I was away on a fellowship last year, the college where I stayed had to serve all meals in takeout containers.

Since I’ve been working from home, COVID-19 has pushed me into the frequently calamitous habit of cooking for myself, which has meant an increase in food packaging. More online ordering and delivery boxes have added to the total.

As a result, the blue bags I put out each Wednesday have tended to be far fuller, far more often.

Recycling is supposed to feel good, but questions that often come to mind when I’m lugging these sacks out to the alley focus on how much of this stuff is actually reused in productive ways, and how much really needs to be produced in the first place.

As I’ve delved into some research, I’ve come to learn there have been increasing issues with recycling costs and profitability, even as public demand to recycle remains strong and more companies are touting the use of recycled feedstock.

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And even though the pandemic has seemingly generated increased recycling, it’s not yet clear if this has led to any lasting improvements to the overall economics.

As such, in an attempt to change some of these dynamics, the provincial government announced earlier this month the initial moves in a plan to shift more recycling responsibility from government to producers.

Though the news didn’t get much public attention, moving to an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) model is something Edmonton and other Alberta municipalities have been championing for a long time. Depending on the design, it is a potential game changer in how we all recycle and how we pay for it — while also generating some potentially positive effects to the economy and environment.

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However, change of this scale always introduces complexity and risk.

Among the countless EPR systems around the world we can learn from, there are vastly different models and success rates . Even within Canada there is variability among the five provinces with EPR, featuring two provinces that have assigned full responsibility for recycling to producers, and three that demand differing degrees of shared responsibility.

Details on where Alberta might go with its framework aren’t likely to be revealed until mid-2022 at the earliest, though there are a few options for transferring costs and duties from municipalities to those who generate the recyclables.

Such producers could group together to establish their own retrieval systems and recycling plants. They could pay municipalities to continue providing those services. Or they could take over municipal fleets, workers and facilities.

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Theoretically, the switch should lead to a reduction in the monthly waste management fee Edmonton households pay through their Epcor bills. But don’t get too excited yet because at least some costs are likely to be passed onto us in a different way, as consumers, via price increases.

That said, companies are going to be cautious about hitting customers too hard. Which means the success of an EPR system ultimately turns on whether it provides adequate incentives to manage recyclables more efficiently.

In other words, new costs and regulations on producers must be behaviour changing, compelling enough that they will accelerate efforts to better reuse recyclable material internally, create new markets to sell it, or best of all, find workarounds to shrink how much is made in the first place.

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“You hope to see changes in product design and packaging and material choices, and investment in research into how to better capture the value of a product at the end of life,” said Jodi Goebel, the city’s director of waste strategy.

For their part, the province has been particularly effusive about the economic potential of the change, suggesting it would be the catalyst for new innovations and markets in the reuse of plastic, as one example.

That opportunity certainly exists, but we should be at least equally invested in whether the new system also leads to real environmental benefit. Diverting material from the waste stream to be reused is great, but think of the energy saved and emissions cut if it didn’t have to be used at all.

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In this sense, a properly designed EPR system could work as a complement to Edmonton’s proposed phase out of plastic bags, disposable Styrofoam cups and other single-use items — 450 million of which are estimated to be thrown out in the city each year.

“We know there are measures and targets that can be built into an EPR system that actually drive waste reduction and not just improve waste recovery,” Goebel said.

This leads to the other key question for Alberta’s EPR model, which is around accountability.

What targets should be set for producers to capture their recyclables before they become fodder for litter or landfill?

How will it be enforced? How easy is it to track which items belong to which producers? How will small businesses be included?

I have barely scratched the surface of the complexities here, but this is a policy Edmontonians should scrutinize, to demand that the new system offers recycling convenience, low consumer costs and real environmental progress.

EPR holds a lot of potential to accomplish all of those things, but success depends on the province carefully picking through the debris of other jurisdictions to ensure Alberta’s system doesn’t itself have to blue bagged.

kgerein@postmedia.com

twitter.com/keithgerein

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