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B.C.'s bluebox recycling shift may bring some confusion

What is allowed to go in curbside recycling bins and what isn
What is allowed to go in curbside recycling bins and what isn't is changing under the Multi-Material BC system that launches May 19.
— image credit: Boaz Joseph / Surrey Leader

B.C.'s new industry-funded recycling system debuts May 19 and the main change for residents is the ability to put many more types of containers and other packaging in the bluebox.

Milk cartons, coffee cups, aerosol containers, aluminum foil packaging and plant pots are just a few of the new items accepted curbside under the Multi-Material BC system.

But figuring out what can go in will be tricky.

Just about all plastic jugs, bottles, jars and clear clamshells can go in the blue box.

But plastic foam trays from the grocery store meat counter have to be taken to a depot, as does the plastic shrink wrap on top of it, grocery store plastic bags and various other film plastics and styrofoam.

And there's a long list of other items that either aren't accepted or can only go to depots. (A full list is at recyclinginbc.ca.)

Also required to go to a depot is any glass to prevent bottles and jars from breaking and contaminating other recyclables.

Unless, that is, if you live in cities like Richmond, Coquitlam and Langley City, which have opted for curbside pickup of segregated glass.

B.C. Bottle Depot Association executive director Corinne Atwood predicts plenty of confusion surrounding the rules on what can go in blue boxes.

"People aren't going to pack their glass jars to depots," she said. "They're going to pitch them in the garbage bag."

Depots won't necessarily accept everything that MMBC directs their way either – she said many have decided there's not enough money in it for them.

"Some of our members have already put up signs in their depots saying we don't accept these materials."

MMBC managing director Allen Langdon said the decision to accept mainly soft plastics at depots only and refuse some types – such as crinkly cellophane from flower bouquets – is because there are better local markets for some recyclables than others.

"If we get the crinkly material in often it will end up offshore instead of being recycled locally," he said.

Langdon predicts consumers will like the new system.

"We're expecting the residents to be enthusiastic in putting lots of additional materials in the blue box," he said.

One of the advantages, he said, is that the list of what's accepted in blue bins, what isn't and what has to go to depots will now be consistent across B.C.

"We have a common list of materials accepted so that you're not having to re-educate yourself – the same list of materials is accepted whether you're in Surrey, Vancouver or Langley."

But it's far from a universal system, with some Lower Mainland cities – such as Delta and Abbotsford – opting out, at least for now.

And MMBC has yet to strike deals covering some other areas of the province as well, although curbside or depot service will also roll into new communities like Terrace and Smithers that have never had it before.

Most Lower Mainland cities have opted to accept payments from MMBC in return for continuing to act as recyclable collectors under the new system.

Coquitlam is an exception that has allowed MMBC to hire its own contractors to replace the city's service.

"At launch we'll be covering 75 per cent of the province," Langdon said, adding MMBC will see what its budget allows in future years to plug "strategic gaps" in the collection system.

"This is going to be evolution," he said. "I don't see where we are today to be necessarily permanent."

The provincially mandated system is intended to make companies that generate waste responsible for recovering it, allowing municipalities to potentially reduce their property taxes.

But critics like Atwood contend MMBC's member companies will raise their prices to consumers to cover their costs and residents whose cities have opted out of the system will end up paying twice.

"When you break down the fees they're often less than a cent per unit," Langdon responded. "I don't know that you can necessarily say there are going to be higher consumer prices."

Some big question marks remain – including whether the newspaper industry, which refuses to pay MMBC fees, will set up its own stewardship system and redirect newsprint that generates much of the revenue from recyclables that MMBC depends on.

There are also other business sectors continuing to fight the MMBC model, demanding more accountability and other reforms, in some cases threatening legal action.

"There's just so many confusing and complex aspects to this program from the perspective of business," said Mike Klassen, B.C. director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. "That's why we asked for a time out. But the government is pressing ahead."

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