Keith Gerein: Why cities like Edmonton are pushing for proposed changes to recycling

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If you’re like me, the pandemic has been a boon to the amount of recyclable material that has entered your world.

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When I went public last year, the college I stayed in had to serve all meals in take-out containers.

Since working from home, COVID-19 has pushed me into the often disastrous habit of cooking on my own, which has led to an increase in food packaging. More online orders and delivery boxes were added to the total.

As a result, the blue bags I took out every Wednesday tended to be a lot fuller, a lot more often.

Recycling is supposed to do good, but the questions that often come to my mind when I lug these bags around the lane focus on how much of these things is actually reused productively and how much needs to be produced. in the first place.

By digging deeper into some research, I learned that there were more and more issues with recycling costs and profitability, even as public demand for recycling remains strong and more companies tout it. use of recycled raw materials.

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And while the pandemic has apparently generated increased recycling, it is not yet clear whether this has led to lasting improvements in the overall economy.

So, in an effort to change some of those dynamics, the provincial government announced earlier this month the first steps in a plan to shift more recycling responsibilities from government to producers.

While the news hasn’t garnered much public attention, moving to an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) model is something Edmonton and other municipalities in Alberta have long championed. Depending on the design, this can be a game-changer in how we all recycle and how we pay for it, while generating potentially positive effects on the economy and the environment.

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However, a change of this magnitude always introduces complexity and risk.

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

Details on where Alberta could go with its framework will likely not be revealed until mid-2022 at the earliest, although there are a few options to shift costs and fees from municipalities to those who generate the materials. recyclable.

These producers could come together to establish their own recovery systems and recycling plants. They could pay municipalities to continue to provide these services. Or they could take over fleets, workers and municipal facilities.

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Theoretically, the change should result in a reduction in the monthly waste management fees that Edmonton households pay on their Epcor bills. But don’t get too carried away yet because at least some costs are likely to be passed on to us as consumers in a different way via price increases.

That said, companies will be careful about hitting customers too hard. This means that the success of an EPR system ultimately depends on whether it provides adequate incentives to manage recyclables more efficiently.

In other words, the new costs and regulations on producers must change behavior, convincing enough that they accelerate efforts to better reuse recyclable materials internally, create new markets to sell them or, better yet, find. workarounds to reduce the amount of product in the first place.

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“You hope to see changes in product design, packaging and material choices, as well as investments in research to better capture the value of an end-of-life product,” said Jodi Goebel, Director of city ​​waste strategy.

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

This opportunity certainly exists, but we should at least be equally invested in whether the new system also leads to a real environmental benefit. Diverting materials from the waste stream for reuse is good, but think about the energy saved and reduced emissions if it didn’t need to be used at all.

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In that sense, a well-designed EPR system could complement Edmonton’s proposed phase-out of plastic bags, disposable polystyrene cups and other single-use items – of which 450 million are estimated to be thrown into the city each year.

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

This leads to the other key question of the Alberta EPR model, which relates to accountability.

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

How will it be applied? How easy is it to know which items belong to which producers? How will small businesses be included?

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the complexities here, but it’s a policy Edmontonians should scrutinize, demanding that the new system provide recycling convenience, low consumption costs and real environmental advancements.

The PRT has a lot of potential to accomplish all of these things, but success depends on the province carefully choosing debris from other jurisdictions to ensure that Alberta’s system does not itself have to be brought into play. bag.

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