If you thought RecycleBC was a branch of the government you aren’t alone. British Columbia has done something unusual and turned recycling on its head. Recycling is normally the user’s responsibility. You buy the product, unwrap the product and then have to figure out if anyone will accept the packaging for recycling. In BC we have a system, called full Extended Producer Responsibility – the company that brings the product into BC and makes money selling the product, is also responsible for the recycling of the packaging. While this system is unique in North America, it is used in several European countries.
Full Extended Producer Responsibility turns recycling on it’s head
Before you start mailing plastic clamshells back to Unilever’s headquarters, you should know that the producers in BC have chosen to band together to deal with their plastic and paper packaging. Instead of each company dealing only their own waste, they created a not-for-profit corporation, called Recycle BC. (Confusingly, ReturnIt, the bottle deposit system, is a completely separate organization.)
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The responsibility isn’t the only thing turned on its head. If you have just moved to BC you may notice that the list of items you can recycle is really inclusive: your recycling bin is bigger than your trash bin. Under the old system, the garbage collectors had to find a market for each of their recycling products. This meant that a fluctuating market (or Asia refusing western plastics) could leave waste collectors with nowhere to take materials but the landfill. It also meant that from a customer’s standpoint the list of items recycled was different in each location. This was most evident in plastics: sometimes you could recycle #1, #2 and #4, sometimes only #1, sometimes only #2.
Long before China’s plastic announcement, Recycle BC was working to create stable relationships with local producers to create useful end-products out of recycling. Most of the materials stay inside North America: many items are recycled here in BC, some items are recycled in Ontario and some in the US. A few types of paper are still shipped to Asia. Plastics are an excellent example. Recycle BC keeps more than 98 percent of its plastic here in British Columbia, sending the majority for processing to Merlin Plastics in Delta, BC. Merlin then sells bulk pellets and flakes of plastics to manufacturers who would otherwise be buying new materials.
Because Recycle BC already did most of its business in BC, it wasn’t affected by China closing its borders to plastic
If you live in the Okanagan (with the exception of a small North Okanagan RDOS region) your recycling is managed by Recycle BC. What does this mean in my house? We keep a big laundry bag and a small laundry bag of recycling. The larger contains all the stuff listed by Recycle BC and is emptied into the green recycling skip behind our apartment building. The smaller contains items that can break sorting machines and ruin other recyclables if they are included in the big bag: styrofoam, plastic bags (stretchy bags and crinkle bags), and glass containers. Once a month we take the small bag to our bottle depot where there is a bin for each category.
98.6% of households in BC have access to Recycle BC’s program. How do you know that you are participating in Recycle BC’s program? Check and see if you can recycle a disposable coffee cup. That “paper” coffee cup is actually a tricky combination of paper and plastic – Recycle BC knows how to deal with it, but outside of BC it’s not considered recyclable. Full Extended Producer Responsibility is awesome. Not only can BC recycle more than any other province, the system has weathered COVID, China’s plastic decisions, and market changes.
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Kristy Dyer has a background in art and physics and consulted for Silicon Valley clean energy firms before moving (happily!) to sunny Penticton. Comments to Kristy.Dyer+BP@gmail.com
Kristy’s articles are archived at teaspoonenergy.blogspot.com