Garbage in the open face at the Vancouver Landfill in Delta. Businesses in the waste hauling or recycling industries are at odds over how the region should aim to increase recycling rates.

Divided industry duels over future of Metro Vancouver recycling

Recyclers, planners see mechanized garbage sorting as a threat

Several recycling businesses are urging Metro Vancouver to stand firm and refuse to allow a new mechanized garbage-sorting plant to open in the region.

The mixed-waste material recovery facility (MRF) being built in south Vancouver by Northwest Waste Solutions is pitched as a way to process garbage after recyclables have been source-separated – waste that would otherwise be landfilled would be run through its whirring machinery to extract yet more usable materials.

But critics within the industry doubt it will operate as billed.

They expect Northwest would offer customers one big convenient bin to dump garbage and recyclables mixed together and leave Northwest’s $30-million MRF to sort it out.

Opponents of single-stream recycling predict it will mean less material recovered at lower quality than source-separation, disrupting the existing recycling system.

Approving a so-called dirty MRF that processes unsorted garbage would put existing green jobs at risk, Nicole Stefenelli of Urban Impact Recycling told Metro’s zero waste committee June 6.

“A capital investment of this type would, in my view, put in peril the years of source separation and education and the infrastructure we’ve built in the region,” she said.

Emterra Environmental vice-president Ed Walsh said mixed-waste “dirty” MRFs are little different from a transfer station and leave no incentive for residents and customers to separate their recyclables.

“Stay the course,” urged Paul Sellew, CEO of Harvest Power Canada, which operates an organic composting plant in Richmond and a wood waste processor in New Westminster.

“The markets do not accept the end product produced out of these [MRF] systems due to contamination.”

He said Harvest Power has invested heavily in the region on the basis Metro will continue to increase waste diversion rates and gradually ban more material from landfills, including organics starting in 2015.

Metro and City of Vancouver officials recently toured mixed-waste MRFs in California and Metro solid waste general manager Paul Henderson concluded in a staff report that such systems have low recycling rates – 10 to 15 per cent of traditional recyclables are recovered, leaving behind large volumes of garbage.

He said compost from such plants is dubbed “Hollywood compost” because it glitters with finely broken glass, plastic and other contaminants.

Henderson also warned a privately run MRF here would threaten existing recyclers.

Northwest Waste CEO Ralph McRae disputed Henderson’s findings.

He argued Metro has been stymied in its efforts to get multi-family residential recycling rates above about 16 per cent and that his MRF can recover more material, boosting the region’s overall recycling rate.

“What he’s trying to do is make us the bogeyman,” McRae said. “To be painted as some robber baron who’s trying to rip off the region and do bad things is not in keeping with our reputation or our history.”

Some Metro directors lean toward giving the concept a try.

“Why wouldn’t we want to make every effort to recover [additional recyclables from the waste stream] even if it’s only one per cent?” asked Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer. “Isn’t that preferable to burning?”

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan also asked if Metro’s aim is to improve recycling rates in whatever way possible or to reserve waste for either landfilling or incineration.

Henderson argued the only way a privately run MRF could work is if it can send the resulting garbage stream out of region for cheaper disposal, dodging the $107 per tonne tipping fees Metro charges here.

It was suggested Metro could operate its own mixed-waste MRF to sort more material from garbage, but Corrigan noted that would add more costs to the waste-handling system.

The waste committee voted to have staff analyze the viability of using a MRF in a last-stage recovery effort while ensuring regular source-separated recycling continues.

Also contentious is Metro’s plan to block out-of-region exports of garbage.

Metro intends to require commercial waste haulers to take garbage to Metro-approved transfer stations or recyclers to stop a growing flow of apartment and business waste from being trucked to the Fraser Valley or the U.S.

That outflow of waste threatens Metro’s programs because each load that goes out no longer contributes tipping fees that underpin the regional district’s waste and recycling system. Loads hauled outside the region don’t have to comply with Metro-imposed bans against the dumping of recyclables either.

Haulers who oppose waste flow control call it an unreasonable business restraint that aims to trap waste in the region to feed a new Metro incinerator.

Steve Bryan of the Waste Management Association of B.C. argues Metro shouldn’t “pick winning and losing technologies” in the recycling field, and should let industry take the lead.

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