An old fashioned fix for the city’s recycling fracas

The real problem with the City of Whitehorse's curbside recycling scheme is that it ignores the Yukon capital's unique history.

The real problem with the City of Whitehorse’s curbside recycling scheme is that it ignores the Yukon capital’s unique history. Back in the 1970s, as the city’s sustainability webpage notes, our waste management solution was to take the community’s trash and throw it off a cliff into McIntyre Creek. Why is it that we no longer embrace this proud tradition?

Because a bunch of busy-body bureaucrats are sticking their noses in other people’s business, that’s why. First they come and roll out a plan pretty much akin to socialism, by building a landfill and forcing residents to pay for curbside garbage pickup. Then they sneakily introduce a similar service to composting. Now they plan to do the same thing for recyclables!

And, as if that ain’t bad enough, their plans could step on the toes of Whitehorse Blue Bin Recycling, a local business that currently offers curbside recycling pickup to about 800 households. The current system seems to work just fine, thanks.

Who cares that Raven Recycling, which processes the bulk of the territory’s recyclable waste, including everything that Blue Bin carts away, says it will eventually go broke under the current arrangement? Or that P&M, the city’s other processor, admits it would be quickly overwhelmed without Raven? Or that both processors depend on considerable city and territorial funds to stay afloat?

What we should be talking about is freedom. That is: our freedom to take our precious half-washed yogurt tubs to the depot ourselves. And if the processors follow through on threats to charge fees for drop-off service? Well, they can stop whining and find something else to do. We’ll just go back to throwing our junk off a cliff.

The above is an admittedly less-than-generous gloss of the less-than-reasoned opposition to the city’s proposed curbside recycling scheme. But if throwing our garbage off a cliff seems silly today, it’s also worth keeping in mind that nobody in their right mind would develop Whitehorse’s current kludgy recycling system if they were asked to design something from scratch. And, if the city succeeds in replacing it with something better, after a few short months it’s unlikely that many people will miss it.

With that said, the city could be doing a better job selling the merits of its plan to the public. It could start by making it easier to find on the city’s website a report prepared by Morrison Hershfield in Dec. 2014, since it provides the business case for what the city seeks to put in place: roll out a curbside recycling program that would cost residents about $15 per month.

Skeptics may well wonder whether that is a reasonable fee for a city of our size and location. The consultants who wrote the report conclude it is on the steep side, but probably the best a city in our position could pull off.

The consultants reviewed 14 municipalities with curbside collection programs across Canada – from tiny Grand Forks, B.C. to the big city of Vancouver – and found an average annual cost for residential complete curbside pickup of $207. As things stand, Whitehorse charges $124 for garbage and compost. That means for Whitehorse to match the average cost of an all-in curbside service, the city’s recycling program would need to cost just $84 per year, or $7 per month. It turns out that’s also the estimated cost of a municipal pickup program – but that excludes the cost of processing.

As things stand, both Raven and P&M earn money from beverage container refunds but take a loss on pretty much everything else. So both operations are beholden to annual sums, called diversion credits, paid by the territory and city.

According to the Department of Community Services, the territory expects to pay a total of $489,000 to both processors for diverting 3,800 tonnes of waste in 2015. However, Raven Recycling hasn’t charged for its work in the last quarter, and it expects this work will raise the territory’s total to $512,000 for that period. The city estimates it will pay $250,738 in diversion credits for 2015.

The trouble is these credits often still don’t cover the full cost of processing and shipping recyclable commodities down the Alaska Highway. Our processors told the consultants their costs work out to $350-400 per tonne. Of that, $100-150 per tonne goes towards transporting waste, either by barge or transport truck, to commodity purchasers. That means we pay between $50-100 per tonne more than you would if dealing with a large Lower Mainland processing facility – a difference that the consultants say is explained by how our two smaller processors both lack automated sorting machines and other fancy equipment.

Whitehorse’s plan would result in residents paying about $25 per month, or $300 annually, for a pickup service that included garbage, compost and recycling. That’s at the high end of the municipalities covered by the consultants’ review, but none of the underlying cost estimates sound particularly extravagant when held up against a variety of comparisons.

Critics of the city scheme say it shouldn’t be mandatory. The report justifies this approach because doing so would ensure more recyclables end up diverted from the landfill, and more money goes towards supporting processors. The city envisions hauling in about $700,000 annually for the processor that held the contract, to help process an estimated 1,750 tonnes of waste.

As we’ve noted before, hauling your own recyclables may not seem so appealing if Raven follows through with plans to introduce tipping fees. Fine, some huff: we’ll go to P&M. But all parties involved envision a day when diversion fees disappear – in which case, it’s hard to imagine free drop-off remains a viable business plan for anyone.

Until recently both P&M and Blue Bin expressed support for the city’s curbside plans. Now both have gotten cold feet and worry they may not win the contract. Well, maybe this is a sign they are not the best ones to do the job. After all, is the municipal government in the business of delivering public services efficiently, or in propping up businesses so that people have jobs for life?

Of course, if residents are truly dead-set against paying the price of recycling themselves, there’s also another option: use someone else’s money. After all, that’s the current approach, with the city and territory both paying diversion fees. If the Yukon government covered, say, half the processing costs for the city’s curbside program, that could shave $5 off residents’ monthly fees, bringing the program much closer to the average rate identified by the city’s consultants.

As things stand, the city’s plan envisions the Yukon government pulling less weight in offsetting recycling costs than it currently does. So why is it, if some residents are in a big huff about having to pay more money themselves, that our territorial ministers have succeeded so far in staying hunkered away in their bunker while the debate plays out?

Government officials say they’re busy working on a territory-wide scheme. That’s not a bad idea, but let’s remember that the city has had these plans on the books for a full year now, and we’re still waiting to learn what role the territory sees itself playing. And let’s also remember that Raven’s recent shut-down was largely because of government dithering on this file. For lack of a minister speaking to the matter, this just feels like more of the same.

(JT)

Correction: An earlier version of this story included incorrect amounts for diversion credits paid by the Yukon government and city to recycling processors.

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