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British Columbia B.C. moving quickly toward producer-pays recycling system

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British Columbia is heading into the home stretch this fall in planning a radically new waste management system that will see manufacturers and stores pay 100 per cent of the costs of recycling their products and packaging.

It's a move Minister of Environment Terry Lake says will take a financial burden off general taxpayers, who cover all the costs now through city taxes. That price tag is estimated to be $60-million to $100-million a year.

B.C. is setting the earliest deadline of any province in Canada – May, 2014 – for when producers have to start paying the full cost.

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As the November deadline for a draft plan approaches, producers, unions and municipalities are struggling to come up with solutions they can agree on for such a complex system overhaul.

That's partly because it is just so complicated.

The new system will require every kind of material and its weight to be tracked so that different stores and industries can be charged accordingly.

"If you have soup in a tin can, the seller will have to pay for the tin can, the label, the cardboard box the cans come in and the plastic wrap around the box," said Allen Langdon, vice-president (sustainability) of the Retail Council of Canada and chair of Multi-Material British Columbia, the organization that is shepherding the massive transformation.

Mr. Lake acknowledged that the new system, which will cover a vast amount of paper and packaging, is "harder to capture" than some things the province has already directed industries to pay to recycle, like tires or paint.

Beyond the logistics, producers are also saying they should have some say in recycling operations – a job that is currently handled by cities, either through contracts with private companies or through their unionized employees.

"From a producer point of view, if we're going to have full financial responsibility, we want to have a say in how efficient it is," Mr. Langdon said. He is one of several participants in a conference that Metro Vancouver is hosting in two weeks, at which "extended producer responsibility," as it's called, will be front and centre.

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"This may give us an opportunity to have a say in how recycling is structured," he said.

That has already prompted a negative response from the union that represents thousands of municipal employees in the province.

The move to producer responsibility is good, says the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees of B.C. "But that doesn't mean they get a seat at city councils on how to manage their operations," Barry O'Neill said. "Garbage has always been the responsibility of local government."

Mr. Lake said he doubts the new system will mean B.C. businesses will get to take over municipal recycling collection.

But Mr. Langdon said B.C. producers are not willing to just sit back and pay the bill sent to them by municipalities, as has been happening in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. Producers pay a portion of the costs of recycling, from 50 to 80 per cent, in those provinces.

However that collection issue is resolved, local governments are also concerned about whether getting producers to pay recycling costs is the best way to go.

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"If you leave it up to them, it just becomes a disposal problem," said Metro Vancouver policy co-ordinator Jerry Colman, who is helping set up the local conference.

The conference will also kick off an inaugural meeting of the National Zero Waste Marketing Council, which Vancouver is behind in order to lobby for solutions other than just getting producers to pay the bill.

But Mr. Langdon and Mr. Lake both say they believe a producer-pays system will force many businesses to rapidly start redesigning their products and packaging.

"At the end of the day, we live in a very price-sensitive environment," said Mr. Langdon, where the option of just charging consumers a fee for disposal costs and continuing to throw things in a landfill is no longer viable.

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