Taber is all set to institute a three-bin recycling system, including a bin for compost, a bin for recyclables, and a bin for all other waste. The town has stated their aim is to bring Taber to the cutting edge of solid waste management practices. With the new automated waste cart system will be new trucks, and, it is presumed, a new attitude when it comes to keeping our environment clean. But with the hoopla surrounding the new system have come a host of concerns and unanswered questions.
We’re not saying for one second that all recycling is bad. We applaud the efforts of this council to help Taber to clean up its act, so to speak. It’s good to see council putting their collective heads together and working to come up with what many see as an innovative solution to the issue of municipal waste.
But idea is one thing. Execution is an entirely different animal.
The heavy-handed approach residents of Taber have seen from their council before once more reared its ugly head during the open house, when Mayor Henk DeVlieger told those in attendance that the town would be “happy” to issue fines for those who recycle improperly. While no bylaw has been set about to do that, he made it sound as though one will surely be coming.
Upon posting the story to our Facebook page, the first thought some residents posted involved vindictive neighbours who might sabotage their bins to force the town to penalize innocent people. Of course, there is no way to defend against such an accusation, aside from video proof of the culprit. That is certainly an issue. But it is only part of the larger problem of making the system mandatory, instead of providing the service and allowing residents to decide for themselves.
Underlying that kind of thinking is a feeling council knows what is best for Taber residents, even when they don’t know themselves. But council could be forgetting that rural Alberta is packed full of people who don’t like to be told what to do.
Southern Alberta could be renamed “stubborn Alberta,” and nobody would bat an eyelash. And perhaps that’s why council prefers to use a hammer when it comes to enforcing the kind of behaviour it would like to see from residents.
Another issue is the idea that recycling is going to be a revenue stream of some kind, for either the town or for a private business that could build a large sorting facility on the compost site.
“Revenue stream” is a popular term with council.
Except it hasn’t been a popular term with recycling commodities experts. Not for a while now. Not since the price of oil started dropping, anyway.
It’s no secret that mountains of junk plastics and other materials end up in China, where they are turned into junk of a different sort (the cheap plastic goods kind) and sent all over the world. A recycling paper mill in Edmonton offers a closed-loop system where paper products are turned into more paper products, but China, again, is a buyer of the vast majority of paper for recycling. Or was, until dropping world oil prices and a weakened Euro have caused China to begin looking elsewhere for their material.
Back in March, National Public Radio interviewed David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management, about the state of recycling commodity markets.
“I don’t think crisis is too strong of a word,” he said. Waste Management is one of the largest recycling companies in the U.S., and has been dealing with massive drops in the price of recycling commodities.
According to that same story, in the U.S., profit margins in recycling have stretched so thin that some companies have given up on plastic bags, and others have stopped taking glass. Some companies have simply shut down; small recycling companies unable to cover the amount of waste needed to turn a profit.
But in municipal recycling programs, covering the costs and losses involved generally falls on the shoulders of the taxpayers, creating a heavily-subsidized and monopolistic industry.
This is why municipalities encourage their citizens to look at recycling not as a business, but as a utility. Nobody makes enough money through recycling to make it worthwhile if you take out all those mandatory monthly fees.
But this is nothing new. Since the 1980s, the costs of dealing with wasteful product packaging have mostly been downloaded on consumers – while the benefits of that packaging have almost entirely gone to the companies that use or create them. Supporting these large-scale recycling programs through lobbying has been one way some businesses try to make people feel better about buying their throw-away products. But if municipalities were serious about their recycling efforts, then, wouldn’t it make more sense to pressure companies into becoming less wasteful?
It’s not unheard of.
In Prince Edward Island, the ban on non-refillable bottles used for carbonated drinks lasted until 2008. The ban had been set in place in 1984 to combat the amount of waste produced on the tiny island. The end of the ban represented a significant step backward for environmental efforts in the area, but was a big win for the companies producing the beer and soft drinks.
Plastic is great for soda companies. They can control what their bottles look like; plastic is lighter than glass (they can ship more), and once those plastic bottles leave the factory, it’s up to consumers to deal with the waste material. Plastic is also cheap to make.
Contrast that with glass, which is heavy, costs money to ship back to the plant, and needs facilities for cleaning and refilling. Glass bottles are returned with all kinds of horrible things in them, like cigarette butts or dead animals. But glass bottles can be refilled and re-used, and can be smashed up to make more glass bottles. This is the process used for beer bottles.
Nowhere has the town openly discussed banning problem plastics, such as plastic bags (paper bags are also bad), or single-use polystyrene foam, also known as Styrofoam – a material that cannot be recycled. Reflective of the recycling industry as a whole, there has been no push by council for local businesses to cut off recycling materials at their source. Quite the opposite – commercial garbage pickup will be one of the last areas of town garbage collection that will move to the new system.
No doubt, the waste generated in residential homes makes the vast majority of garbage. But is it too much to say the vast majority of that waste is provided by local businesses? Isn’t that just a transfer from one sector to another?
There is one potentially lucrative area where the new recycling program could be of great benefit to the town, and that lies with the monthly bill that comes in the mail. Taber residents are charged a fee for their garbage collection. With all these predicted reductions in the costs associated with reducing, reusing, and recycling, however, nobody is talking about the kind of reduction most residents in Taber would like to see put in action – a reduction in the charges on their monthly bill for garbage collection.