Photo: iStock/Kemter

Alberta set to make companies pay up on plastics

Recycling costs will shift onto industry.

In 2019, the City of Calgary had a conundrum.

Two years earlier, Canada had lost China as its primary plastics importer, and plastic clamshells—the kind used to package berries in supermarkets—had quickly begun accumulating by the tractor trailer load. By the end of August, 100 trailers had been filled with the hinged containers, and the price tag for storage had topped $330,000.

Eventually, the city sent the plastic to the landfill.

The reasons for Canada’s loss of China as a plastics importer were complex, but what it meant for Calgary residents was not: 2,000 tonnes of plastic—the equivalent weight of 1,000 Ford F-150 pick-up trucks—went to city landfills. It cost $130,000 to move and bury the unwanted plastic. Under current provincial legislation, it was the city’s responsibility to find alternative markets for the waste.

Waste management here is a busy portfolio. Albertans produce the highest per capita amount of garbage in the country, sending about 1,034 kg per person annually to landfills. The national average is 710 kg.

But what if producers of packaging had to find ways to reduce and recycle their packaging or face sanctions? Might this change the amount of trash generated because it cuts into company bottom lines to deal with it? Might it mean less municipal wish-cycling? Might it mean savings for citizens, who pay their municipalities for curbside recycling?

It turns out most of the country thinks so, but Alberta is late to the party.

An idea that originated in the 1990s

In December 2021, with little fanfare, the UCP government passed Bill 83, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Amendment Act. The bill lays the framework for provincial discussions on what’s known as extended producer responsibility. The concept, which originated in Europe in the early 1990s, shifts responsibility for dealing with waste from the consumer to the producer.

In 1994, B.C. became Canada’s first province to bring in such a program for used paint and has steadily added other waste streams, including packaging, over the last thirty years.

In 2009, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment called on all provinces to adopt extended producer responsibility. Legislation for packaging and paper products has since been put in place in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. Nova Scotia is, like Alberta, starting discussions.

The city sent 2,000 tonnes of plastic — the equivalent weight of 1,000 Ford F‑150 trucks — to landfills.

“It’s just a simple no-brainer," said Peter Demong, councillor in southeast Calgary’s affluent Ward 14. He’s been advocating for extended producer responsibility since 2018.

Alberta would kick off with two categories of waste. One is single-use plastics, packaging and paper products; the other is hazardous waste such as pesticides and solvents.

Why is one of Calgary’s most conservative local politicians championing this?

“If you want to get something done efficiently and cost-effectively, give it to private industry,” Demong said. “They will find out a better way of building a mousetrap, because that is what they do.”

While industry costs are often passed on to consumers through price hikes, proponents of extended producer responsibility legislation say it reduces carbon emissions by using market forces to make packaging lighter and more sustainable, to fight planned obsolescence of consumer products, and to put pressure on countries and industries that export waste.

If the legislation had been in place in Alberta before 2019, the argument goes, Calgary may not have had to dump its clamshells because producers would have been forced to find plastic markets outside of China.

Cutting cities’ recycling costs

But in many ways the changes heralded by this new bill are subtle and will be invisible to consumers.

Trash such as household hazardous waste, beverage containers and electronics are already covered by stewardship agreements: the consumer pays a fee at the time of purchase that is meant to cover the cost of dealing with the end product. And the legislation will not address commercial plastics or packaging because that waste stream is managed by private companies.

Bill 83 notwithstanding, that plastic box your blackberries came in from Mexico will still leave your house in the same way. You’ll still pop the last berry in your mouth, rinse the box and—because you are an informed citizen—pull off the label and adhesive that make the clamshells difficult to recycle, and throw it in your blue box. Trucks will still come to collect it and take it to the depot.

You may not even notice if the money the city collects from you for the service is diverted toward roads or schools.

Before extended producer responsibility, producers really didn’t have to pay attention to what happens to materials.

Christina Seidel,

executive director, Recycling Council of Alberta

The Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) estimates that shifting the cost of end-of-life management from consumers to producers will reduce Alberta cities’ recycling costs by $105-million annually, freeing up that money to be reinvested or for tax reductions.

Peter Demong favours the latter strategy. “If it were up to me,” Demong said, “I would want to see the $9 a month that you're paying now go back into your pocket—because that's where it belongs in the first place.”

Christina Seidel’s priorities are a little different.

Instead of a tax break, the executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta sees new legislation as an opportunity to offload increasing burdens placed on municipalities, and to reduce the energy footprint of Alberta’s waste.

“Before extended producer responsibility,” Seidel says, “producers really didn’t have to pay attention to what happens to materials. They just want to push their products out into the marketplace, and the more they sell, the better. But if they are responsible for (dealing with) their products and packaging, they should become much more interested in improving the design so they are easier to manage at the end of their life—and better for the environment.”

Demong admits it’s unlikely to prevent all recyclables from ending up in the landfill. “Unfortunately, that still depends on every average Joe to actually recycle responsibly,” he said.

But he still considers it a win all the way around.

“It’s a win for my constituents because at some point, the cost of recycling passed through for the blue bin will eventually go away because industry will pick up that cost. And it’s a win for the Alberta economy in general because this is something that will create something like 200 jobs and bring another several million dollars into the GDP.”

Waste as a growth sector

And here’s where the tale of the province’s path toward extended producer responsibility legislation takes a decidedly Albertan twist. The recycling sector currently contributes around $132 million annually to the provincial GDP. With extended producer responsibility, that’s expected to grow to $148 million.

Alberta considers waste a growth sector.

If you want to get something done efficiently and cost-effectively, give it to private industry.

Peter Demong,

Ward 14 City Councillor

In March 2021, Alberta Environment and Parks released a discussion paper in advance of its public feedback campaign. Front and centre in the report was this statement: “Shifting to an EPR framework will support Alberta’s petrochemical industry.”

It cites the creation in 2020 of the Plastics Alliance of Alberta—a consortium of industry, academia, and not-for-profit groups, co-chaired by Seidel—in an attempt to move toward a circular plastics economy that replaces single use plastic with recycled plastics.

“Imagine how surprised I was to read the natural gas strategy and go, ‘This is really cool,’” said Seidel. “Alberta is a primary resin producer, and we are now being pushed to embrace a circular economy. EPR is an important mechanism to bring that material back and have it re-enter the economy more effectively.”

“Much less energy is required to recycle plastic than to make virgin plastic—so that's the environmental gain.”

The province estimates that extended producer responsibility legislation would cut CO2 emissions by 72,000 tonnes a year. That’s equivalent to the energy used in heating all the homes in a town the size of Brooks or Stony Plain.

Seidel expects to see extended producer responsibility regulations by the summer.

“We need to get this right,” she said. “We can't be the poor cousins forever not doing the right thing.”

Monica Kidd is a freelance writer in Calgary. She is interested in issues of health and sustainability.

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