Representatives from five small Canadian municipalities shared the challenges and benefits of extended producer responsibility, advising anyone in a similar situation to be very familiar with costs and contamination.
The panelists spoke during “Alberta’s EPR Transition – Advice from Small Municipalities Across Canada,” an April 24 webinar hosted by the Recycling Council of Alberta. About 150 people attended to hear lessons learned from the extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations implemented in Alberta on Nov. 30, 2022.
Moderated by Leah Seabrook of Strathcona County, Alberta, speakers were Ben Van Nostrand of Columbia Shuswap Regional District, British Columbia, Laura Zapotichny of the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George, British Columbia, John Watson of Dysart and surrounding areas in Saskatchewan, Laura Barrett of Simcoe County, Ontario and Melissa Kovacs Reid of Dufferin County, Ontario.
Challenges of density
Serving smaller towns and communities efficiently, especially rural ones, is one of the challenges of EPR, Van Nostrand said.
He said prior to the packaging and stewardship program coming into place, Columbia Shuswap Regional District operated 18 single-stream recycling depots and had “extremely high levels of contamination.”
“It was extremely expensive to operate,” he added, costing about 1.3 million Canadian dollars (about $960,000) annually to manage 1,500 tons.
Zapotichny echoed that sentiment, noting the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George has a low population density and decided to continue running its own drop-off program independently from Recycle BC, one of the producer responsibility organizations (PROs) operating in Canada.
“When it was first presented to us, we were concerned about the capital investments needed to join the program, the fines and the true cost of the program,” she said, adding that “many of our rural communities did not qualify under the program for curbside.”
While there are risks inherent to meeting EPR requirements, and the district is left dealing with market fluctuations, Zapotichny said maintaining control was a huge benefit.
“We continue to monitor both our program and theirs and make decisions that are best for our residents,” she said.
Barrett explained that Simcoe County is mostly rural, with some urban pockets and a seasonal population. The recycling program consists mainly of curbside collection with a few depots for drop-off.
“Our experience with EPR has been good but also very challenging as well,” she said, noting that what seems to work best during the transition period is when there’s competition among the PROs.
When there’s less competition, municipalities have less negotiating power and tend to get lower compensation, Barrett said. For example, hazardous waste has been a difficult stream to transition due to low competition, whereas tires and other programs were easier “and we feel we are adequately compensated there,” she said.
Now, the county is faced with a choice: keep running their hazardous waste drop-off centers supplemented with tax dollars, since program costs are not fully covered under the current EPR system, or end the program.
Kovacs Reid said Dufferin County also decided to opt out of letting the PRO run county programs, which are fully single-stream with no depots. The decision was based on contamination reduction requirements and costs.
She said the PRO offered the county compensation at a 2020 level of costs and “that would not have been enough.”
However, the county is still working with PRO Circular Materials on education campaigns and Circular Materials is running a blue box collection system in the county.
Van Nostrand said his area has seen a huge cost savings and reduction in contamination, though Recycle BC is not fully funding all the costs for Columbia Shuswap Regional District, either. The PRO covers the cost of hauling and sorting.
The district has been able to create jobs staffing the depots in rural areas and partnered with other stewardship programs to offer pathways for more materials, he said.
“It was the right move,” Van Nostrand said, adding that “it’s been extremely successful and I would recommend it,” though he continues to push for full funding.
The tips panelists gave to attendees who are also facing EPR transitions had a common theme: Know your program inside and out before entering a contract with a PRO.
John Watson said Dysart, along with a coalition of several surrounding municipalities, will transition its services on July 1. He said in the area, 55 communities were depot-only just like Dysart, so they have banded together.
“I recommend that other small communities build that network up,” he said, noting that his coalition used to meet once per week.
He also recommended knowing exactly how much the recycling program costs, from staffing all the way to how much propane is used to heat the landfill office.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint, so brace yourself,” he said, adding that things are still “changing week by week.”
Keep a close eye on your contracts in preparation to transition to PRO-run EPR, Kovacs Reid said, and make sure you have extension terms to get to the transition date or build in termination or transfer clauses.
Zapotichny said clear guiding principles for decision-makers are key, because “EPR is complex, it is not easy to understand and not easy to explain to residents.”
She also recommended being prepared to continually advocate for rural areas to get the proper funding and full cost recovery.
Barrett recommended knowing all the nuances of the regulations and running “all the scenarios of what might happen and how it might all connect.”
She also advocated for a detailed breakdown of recycling costs and warned that “PROs are very last minute.”
“Really know the costs, not just hard contract costs but staff time, buildings, trucks, equipment,” she said. “Whatever you use, you want to show it to the PRO.”
Working closely with other municipalities is key, she emphasized, because “it’s better to go to the ministry with a united front than to go individually.”
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