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Metro Vancouver steps back from imposing garbage export ban

An existing material recovery facility (MRF) run by Emterra in Surrey loads single-streamed recyclables onto a conveyor belt for largely automated sorting. A new mixed-waste or
An existing material recovery facility (MRF) run by Emterra in Surrey loads single-streamed recyclables onto a conveyor belt for largely automated sorting. A new mixed-waste or 'dirty' MRF being built in Vancouver takes the idea to a new level. It would also sort garbage to extract recyclables but critics say the concept undermines traditional recycling.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

A controversial ban on hauling garbage out of Metro Vancouver has been shot down by regional district directors, at least for now.

The proposed waste flow control bylaw – denounced by some critics as a way to pen up garbage in the region to feed a new incinerator – aimed to keep waste from going to an Abbotsford transfer station or other out-of-region landfills where tipping fees are far lower and Metro bans on dumping recyclables don't apply.

The 6-5 vote Thursday by Metro's zero waste committee doesn't kill the idea, the subject of a year of debate and dozens of delegations, but sends it to a task force for more work and improvement.

"It's incumbent on us to make it as perfect as it can possibly be," Pitt Meadows Mayor Deb Walters said.

Metro planners warned a trickle of waste now being trucked out of region threatens to turn into a flood, bleeding the regional district of tipping fee revenue that underpins the entire garbage and recycling system.

The decision came after several waste and recycling industry reps spoke against the bylaw, as well as B.C. Chamber of Commerce president John Winter, who said a "Metro monopoly" on garbage disposal would mean higher costs for businesses and thwart unfettered free enterprise.

Waste hauler BFI, which trucks garbage from Metro businesses to Abbotsford, was one of the staunchest opponents of the bylaw.

Even more loudly opposed was Northwest Waste Solutions, a firm building a $30-million mixed-waste material recovery facility (MRF) in south Vancouver to pull recyclables from garbage.

The bylaw was originally to ban so-called "dirty" MRFs that sort garbage, but, under pressure from Northwest, Metro retooled the bylaw to allow them.

Planners built in tight restrictions to guard against the potential downside – backsliding on conventional recycling, where people do the sorting prior to collection, not machinery at a plant.

Northwest argued its MRF's machinery could retrieve much usable material that would otherwise go to landfills or be incinerated.

The idea appealed to Metro directors, who know recycling rates are dismal in apartment buildings and thought it may help get the region up to and over its goal of 70 per cent diversion.

But Northwest CEO Ralph McRae denounced the planned limits, calling them a "bureaucratic stranglehold" on his operation and accused Metro of conflict-of-interest because it will soon build a new incinerator that could be starved of fuel if his recycling model succeeds.

Metro's concession to his operation also drew fire from rival recycling firms that had previously supported a waste export ban.

Some feared losing their normal flow of separated recyclables if Northwest's MRF ate up much of the market by offering a single-stream pickup service with no separation required.

They predicted low-quality contaminated recyclables will come out of the MRF, while its offer of convenient single-bin disposal leads to less overall recycling.

"We can expect really discouraging rates of recovery," said Louise Schwarz of the Recycling Alternative.

"This is exactly the wrong time to throw a Hail Mary on a technology that frankly has mixed results," said Nicole Stefenelli, on behalf of nine recycling firms with the Recycle First Coalition.

She argued Metro didn't have enough teeth to punish a MRF that disobeys the rules and lets unrecycled waste exit the region – it has no ticketing power, only the "nuclear" option of pulling a plant's licence.

The bylaw would have forced all waste to go to in-region facilities, except some residue from approved MRFs, a loophole some said gave Northwest a backdoor to send trash to the Fraser Valley.

In the end, Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said the committee was torn between wanting to foster a new technology to extract recyclables and not wanting to undermine traditional recycling.

"We've managed to see 100 per cent of the people opposed to this bylaw for a number of different reasons," said Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer before voting against it as too complex and unenforceable.

Corrigan and Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, the committee chair, voted to press on with the bylaw, which already had two readings, saying it was good enough, if imperfect.

But it was defeated by Reimer, Walters, Port Moody Coun. Rick Glumac, Langley City Coun. Gayle Martin, Langley Township Coun. Bob Long and Surrey Coun. Barinder Rasode.

The task force is to report back by December on improvements, setting the stage for a revised bylaw to resurface.

Brodie said one solution may be eliminating mixed-waste MRFs as an allowed option, adding that compromise greatly complicated the bylaw.

McRae predicts any unreasonably restrictive bylaw will either be rejected by the provincial government or defeated by a court challenge.

He and others also warned Metro is poised to jack garbage tipping fees to dangerously high levels in its zeal to expand recycling.

They said no business case would exist for out-of-region hauling had the fees not climbed so much already, creating a market for a lower-cost alternative.

Metro directors are unapologetic for higher tipping fees, which they say create a big incentive to recycle instead of dump and have fostered a vibrant recycling industry.

Solid waste manager Paul Henderson said that while tipping fees are to climb from $107 per tonne to $158 by 2018, the actual cost to typical users should stay flat as they generate less garbage through more diversion of organics and other materials.

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