WHAT HAPPENED TO RECYCLING?
While recyclers were feeling bypassed, recycling depots were being sidelined.
Community-centred depots - driven by volunteer commitment, 3R’s philosophy, reuse and free exchange markets, and bedrock solid environmental protection conviction - were being transformed into unrecognizably categorized centres for guilt-free offerings to consumer gods of waste. Sounds dramatic. But it was a dramatic shift.
Recycling had changed
Early initiatives to reduce waste in BC were based on the 3R’s Reduce, Reuse, Recycle programs started in 1989. Provincial funding was given to regional districts, with clear options for reduce and reuse, as well as recycle. Under the 3R’s program, priority was given to waste avoidance and reduction techniques in the specific order of
The 3R’s program noted that reduce and reuse required a change of values and beliefs “for people to see that the least wasteful consumer choice is often not to buy at all.”
The 3R’s program promoted 6 strategies to governments in 1993:
removal of virgin extraction subsidies
a national packaging protocol,
tougher penalties for infractions,
market demand for recycled materials, and
financial incentives through user-pay, grants and awards, soft loans, tax exempt bonds, tax credits and tax deductions.
One-half the provincial government funding was dedicated for Reduce and Reuse. There is little historical evidence that governments implemented any regulatory approaches to Reduce and Reuse.
Recycling took hold with curbside collection and recycling depots in many municipalities and regions. About 45% of recyclables collected were fully re-manufactured in the province.
Two strategies were considered to reduce waste:
a manufacture take-back program for recycling, and
waste audits and reduction requirements for waste generators.
Only one of these ideas took hold.
The 3R’s program was strong, but manufacture take-back became the single chosen vehicle for reduce, reuse, and recycle in the 1990’s.
Maybe there was political reluctance to regulate industry with incentives and penalties. Maybe there was too much confidence that manufacturers were “in a better position than local government to manage product and packaging waste, as they have direct control over the design of these materials in the first place.” For certain, there was too much trust that manufacturer take-back programs would embody the polluter-pay principal.
The polluter pay principal of the time was meant to “regulate end of life management of products through the economic chain from producer to consumer.” In practice, it meant that if products were not easily disassembled or recycled, the cost to manage end-of-life would be high. These high costs would drive up the purchase price of the product and limit sales. Producers would then change design to incorporate disassembly or recyclability, or discontinue the product so that pollution would not occur.
This was the theory to incentivize “design for the environment.” We bet the farm, and sold out the 3R’s program on this single premise. And we left industry in charge.
How did manufacture take-back change recycling depots?
Manufacture take-back came to be known as Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR.
EPR is supposed to mean that producers are responsible for the end-of-life management of every product they make. In simple terms, producers charge consumers an eco-fee added to the purchase price of a product. The collected fees cover the costs for collection and recycling the products at end-of-life. Producers contract 3rd party agencies to recycle the products. The 3rd party agency contracts with collection depots for free drop-off of their products.
When you see names like Encorp, or RecycleBC, these are 3rd party agencies that represent producers. Encorp collects electronics and refundable containers; RecycleBC collects everything in your curbside recycling bin, and they ultimately collect Styrofoam, plastic bags and container glass that go to the depot. There are about 20 EPR programs in BC.
Once depots gave up control of recycling to EPR programs, we lost ability to track products to their final destination. There was almost no access to paper trails. Everything seemed to happen offshore, and the once tight world of recycling had become a “don’t ask-don’t tell” culture of protecting industry secrets. The bread-crumb trail ended at the NRE.
Those conversations we used to have with the every-day recycler about what happens to their computer or refrigerator, or just an empty can, no longer took place.
There was almost no time to talk—we couldn’t keep up with the mountains of recycling.
It was like we all agreed to stop talking because there wasn’t any feel good news. Anonymous recyclers discarded mountains of cheap broken products, sometimes only months after purchase. There was always something new and better to tempt consumers. Everything new had layers of hard to recycle packaging.
EPR programs gave green awards for depots collecting the highest tonnages each year. The NRE has many such awards. In peak years, the NRE recycled 375 metric tonnes of electronic waste alone. Many of these products still worked.
What anyone thought a recycling depot could or should be, most had become volume-dependent revenue machines for the EPR programs. End-of-life took on new definitions:
1. It’s white and I want stainless
2. The handle is broken and I can’t get it fixed
3. It’s dead (the battery or the product)
We filled the bags. We needed the money.
Reduce and Reuse took a back seat to recycling through these EPR programs. EPR contract managers told us often that they “owned” products as soon as they were brought on to depot property. We were told that accepting products at our on-site reuse market was breaking rules and breaching contracts.
Who knew that success and popularity of recycling would have such consequences? All depot human and operational resources were drawn into the vortex of recycling, and were eventually exhausted. Education, research, reduce, reuse, repair, and re-purpose programs were put on back burners because recycling took everything we had. And we still couldn’t keep up to demand.
I thought it was my job to educate the community that “every purchase has an environmental cost.”
Instead my job became trying to make payroll from a failing paradigm of industry profit, public sector avoidance, and the private sector squeeze play.
Recycling at its worst, devoured by capitalism at its best. Was it too much success, or abject failure of a bad idea?