In just over a month, a long-announced overhaul of B.C.'s recycling program takes effect, shifting responsibility for the province's blue boxes from municipalities to a private monopoly with a mandate to make the businesses that generate the waste pay for the cost of recycling it.
With polluters paying the costs, municipalities have signed onto the program with expectations they will see cost savings amounting to $50 a household, but deep uncertainty has created confusion among municipalities, and a concerted lobbying campaign among businesses who believe the cost burden they are about to bear could kill them.
Public education campaigns have yet to start because the guidelines for what will be accepted in bins was still changing as of late last week, only 45 days before a new non-profit begins operating the curbside pickup of recyclables for nearly three-quarters of the province.
Under the new system, the $85-million annual cost for recycling will shift from municipal taxes to the businesses that sell packaged materials and paper in the province. Despite the changes being introduced three years ago, most of the 79 municipalities that have signed on have yet to announce plans for what they'll do with the savings. Local leaders fear that a lobbying effort to halt the program by some of the 3,000 businesses expected to pay the recycling fees could be successful, and the system could unravel before a single bin is collected.
"We've been working on this for three years, and some aspects still aren't quite clear for people," said Peter Rotheisler, manager of environmental services for the Regional District of the Central Okanagan.
Homeowners in the district currently pay for recycling through property taxes and a quarterly utility bill. While regional authorities had pledged to lower taxes, the utility bill will stay for the time being because of the "risk of delay from the pushback by businesses," according to Mr. Rotheisler.
Locals will see little change from the previous system – municipalities will continue to operate trucks and run depots – but the costs will now be covered by Multi Material BC, the non-profit mandated to take over collection by the province.
Some municipalities will get blue-box service where they didn't have any before, and a slew of new articles will also be slated for pickup. That is, unless the new recycling system changes before May 19.
Last week, Premier Christy Clark suggested some adjustments to the program could still be made. In February, an exemption was introduced for businesses earning less than $1-million in revenue or producing less than a single tonne of packaging or paper. Businesses are pushing for more exemptions and a pause to renegotiate the program.
"I know there are issues and I know the minister is continuing to engage. We're going to keep doing that but we don't have a plan to delay the implementation of it," said Ms. Clark.
Lawsuits are planned and businesses have threatened to suspend operations if the new regulations take effect, warning that the new fees will undermine their competitiveness. They also say that the rules are too complicated to follow, the costs of administration will be too much of a burden, and the fees are too high.
An Ontario-based meat supplier with a number of franchisees in B.C. has hired legal counsel to review the new regulations, said Mike Klassen, the B.C. director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Because legal proceedings have yet to commence, the company has not identified itself. While most of the company's franchisees are below the exemption, the company as a whole is not. It estimates that each store will face $4,000 annually in new fees.
In Ontario, fees collected under a similar system are a quarter of those proposed in B.C.
With government officials still courting unhappy businesses, some warn of a split in the caucus of the governing Liberals.
"What I'm sensing is that this is not a program supported throughout the government because of the large economic impact that was never intended," Mr. Klassen said.
John Winter of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce thanked Environment Minister Mary Polak for helping introduce regulations exempting small business. His office will continue to pressure the rest of government to review the legislation in the time left.
Calling the regulations "a job killer," Mr. Klassen cited the example of Frazer Plastics, a small firm with 25 workers that has warned that it may need to close because of worries that, under the system, it won't be able to continue operations.
"The collective blood pressure of B.C. business owners must be going off the charts," said Mr. Klassen, who described the "enormous distress" of businesses attempting to understand the news rules and costs.