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City's curbside critics assume Raven gets a free lunch

As sure as day follows night, some Whitehorse residents can be counted on to turn red-faced at the news that their municipal government wants them to pay more money.

As sure as day follows night, some Whitehorse residents can be counted on to turn red-faced at the news that their municipal government wants them to pay more money. The purpose and merit of the plan at hand often doesn’t seem to matter - many residents simply suspect they pay the city too much already, and are loathe to pay more.

So it goes with the blowback against the city’s plan to roll out a mandatory curbside recycling program. What’s wrong with the current system, some ask? Why can’t they carry on as now, and personally lug their recyclables to Raven Recycling over the weekend rather than fork out $15 per month for the city to do it for them? And if residents want curbside pickup, why don’t they carry on using Blue Bin Recycling, which already does the job?

For the most part, these are all reasonable objections - if you have a horribly ill-conceived understanding of how Yukon’s recycling system actually works.

It would be nice if the businesses that help ship out of the territory our old yogurt tubs, soup cans and milk jugs were able to turn a profit without government support. But the reality is that processing recyclables in the Yukon hasn’t been a profitable endeavour since the price of commodities tanked in 2008. Both of Whitehorse’s recycling processors have only been kept afloat with government payments, known as “diversion credits.”

So it’s a fantasy to imagine that this is a story about the government horning in on an activity that is already being efficiently managed by the private sector. Blue Bin’s business would not exist if considerable public funds were not being spent to support the back-end of their business model, once they drop recyclables off at a local processor. Take away this public spending - last year, the city and territory spent close to $1 million propping up processors - and the many tonnes of waste currently being recycled would simply end up in the landfill.

This means that the drop-off service that Raven Recycling provides is not as free as many imagine. You may have gotten a hint this was the case when Raven shuttered for seven months not long ago, precisely because the non-profit wasn’t receiving enough government money to break even. Another hint is how Raven is now publicly entertaining the idea of closing its free drop-off and beginning to charge tipping fees for use.

In short, those who say they’d rather lug off their own recyclables are really saying they’d prefer that someone else pay for it. For Raven, that has meant doing the job for free and hoping the government will later pick up the bill. No wonder that Raven supports the city’s curbside proposal: it could help ensure that the processing costs are covered for the 5,800 households that would be served by the program, up from the 800 households currently served by Blue Bin.

To make things even weirder, some of the more vocal opponents of curbside recycling are up in arms over the city’s plans to award the pickup contract through a competitive tender that would be awarded to the best bid. Heaven forbid that public funds be spent in a way that ensures we get the best bang for our buck.

As things stand, Blue Bin is in an enviable position to win the contract. After all, they’ve been doing the job for several years, and the contract presents them with a big opportunity to scale up their business. The company’s staff initially expressed support for the city’s plans to roll out a curbside program, but apparently now have gotten cold feet, worrying that the contract could go to an Outside firm.

Let’s have a reality check at this point, shall we? It is not exactly unusual for a municipality to be involved in the operation of a city’s recycling program. That’s pretty much how it is done everywhere, except Whitehorse.

Nor has it been a secret that the city has entertained plans of rolling out its own program over the past few years. Heck, that was one of Mayor Dan Curtis’s big election promises. (So much for the fevered musings by some residents that the scheme is nothing more than a means of busybody officials to justify their own existences.)

As for worrying that a local business may have to compete for a government contract? Again, this is not exactly unheard of. And if the city concludes that another company could do a better job, why is it so outrageous that they would be hired instead? Would the critics - who can also be heard huffing about how city operations are inefficient - prefer that the city spend more of their municipal tax money than it otherwise needed to on the program?

The guys who started Blue Bin did the city a real service. But let’s remember they are also grown-ups, running a real business, with the real risks that this entails. If they don’t win the bid, they could always adopt and focus on serving the commercial sector, as Blue Bin staff have said they’d like to do. The question before council should not be how to best coddle and protect one local business, but how to best provide a public service.

Critics also moan that the curbside program shouldn’t be compulsory. But the option of lugging away your own recyclables probably won’t seem nearly so appealing if processors start charging for these drop-offs.

Just as it doesn’t make sense for residents within the city’s core to usually drive their garbage to the dump, it stands to reason that a collective method of carting away recyclables from 5,800 households is a more cost-efficient solution for all involved. And it’s in everyone’s interest that waste be diverted from the landfill, because shuttering our existing dump once it’s full and building a new one will be a costly endeavour.