Recycling re-think needed for Alberta, says urban municipalities association

Alberta needs a new approach to recycling — and must make big, waste-producing companies part of the solution —or more municipalities might step away from recycling programs that are not viable.

That was part of the message at the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association convention in Edmonton this week, where members are discussing on-going efforts to create an extended producer responsibility (EPR) program.

“There should be some user-pay mentality when it comes to recycling,” said AUMA president Barry Morishita.

“There needs to be money invested. It should come from people who use the packaging and use the stuff that can be recycled … . We’re the only province in the federation nation that does not have a program.”

The conversation comes against a backdrop of municipal setbacks in waste diversion. In June, the City of Lacombe discontinued its curb-side recycling program after it couldn’t find a contractor that could demonstrate materials were being diverted from the landfill.

Within the last year, Strathcona County, St. Albert and Spruce Grove have banned items —such as coffee cups, Styrofoam takeout containers and film plastics — from blue bags to keep the cost of sorting through materials low.

At the same time, China has started restricting what papers and plastics it accepts from countries looking to off-load their collected recyclable material.

‘Albertans paying twice for recycling’

In an EPR program, producers incorporate a small fee into their product cost to help pay for disposal. The fee might be sent to municipalities to help pay for their recycling programs. Or the fee might be funnelled to an umbrella organization that deals with blue bins and recycling, said Calgary councillor Peter Demong. 

“Producers across Canada paid into this EPR program — approximately $365 million — for which Alberta received absolutely zero because they don’t have an EPR program.”

Workers at Edmonton’s waste management facility sort through recyclable products on Dec. 28, 2017. (CBC)

“And yet we as consumers in Alberta are paying the same prices for the packaging as anyone else does across this nation. So, in effect, Albertans are paying twice for their recycling. They pay for it on your bill at the curbside. And they pay for it again at the till.”

Ideally, the umbrella organization that takes the recycling fee would be made up of representatives from major companies such as Kraft of Loblaws.

“So this umbrella organization will set up a company, so to speak, that will accept the revenues from the packaging and then they will send that revenue back out to deal with the blue bins and the recycling program.”

The idea is to get producers to think more critically about how to either reduce packaging, or use packaging that can feasibly be recycled or turned into another product. 

Needs provincial support

An EPR program in Alberta would require regulatory or legislative change at the provincial level. The AUMA has been been asking the province to change recycling policy since 2017.

According to the Recycling Council of Alberta, an EPR for packaging and paper products would save Alberta municipalities between $65 to 70 million. The amount is based on what Alberta municipalities currently spend on residential packaging and paper recycling programs.

The government has been receptive, Demong said, but it will take time to complete studies on what such a program could look like in Alberta.

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