In 1992 the Board of Directors of the Recycling Council of BC passed a series of resolutions outlining its policy position on deposit-refund for beverage containers. This covered all beverage containers, including those used for milk and milk substitutes. It also stated that
* full responsibility must lie with industry and consumers (not municipal taxpayers);
* all containers must be refillable or recyclable;
* there must be customer convenience in all parts of the province; and
* there must be clear and enforceable target recovery rates.
The inspiration for these resolutions came first from the brewers deposit-refund refill program which has been running since early in the last century. Second, it was inspired by the Encorp deposit-refund system which had been established by Coke and Pepsi some 15 years earlier when the savings to industry from recycling aluminum became evident. This was also a period when there were an ever-increasing number of non-profit recycling operations throughout the province that were totally dependent on obtaining uncertain grants from various levels of government.
In 1997 the B.C. Ministry of the Environment, under the leadership of Joan Sawicki, established the Beverage Container Management Board. She made it clear that there would be a beverage container deposit-refund program and that this was our chance to contribute to its design. Raymond Gaudart, then president of RCBC, was appointed as was I (Ann Johnston), another board member representing West Coast Environmental Law. There were also representatives from BC Bottle Depot Association (with whom RCBC was working closely) and two of its larger depot operators; Consumers Association of Canada (BC); United We Can, BC Government Employees Union; Greater Vancouver Regional District; City of Kamloops; and Ridge Meadows Recycling Society. And there were industry representatives, originally led by John Johnson, president and CEO of Encorp, who was soon replaced by John Nixon from Coca-Cola and Encorp’s new president, Neil Hastie. Also represented were: Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors; BC Juice Association; Association of Canadian Distillers; and BC Bottled Water Association. Over the years, before the board was finally disbanded by the government in December 2004, a number of the latter representatives came from Ontario or Alberta.
Although we didn’t agreed on every item that came up for debate over the initial 15 months, the “RCBC” group did agree on the four principles outlined above. And we insisted that milk containers should come under the proposed regulation. Most of us were also in favour of higher deposit levels, too (10 cents vs. 5 cents and 30 cents vs. 20). We “won” on the basic principles, but lost on the milk and deposit-level issues. I clearly remember John Nixon saying on two occasions, “If we don’t reach the 80 per cent target level [set by the ministry] we can always raise deposit levels later.” Yeah? Go ahead and try!
Nonetheless, the NDP Government passed the Beverage Container Product Stewardship Regulation and it came into force in October 1998. A victory!
The other major issue we thought we “lost” was polycoats (gabletops) and TetraPaks (known as aseptics these days). An advisory committee was set up on which Mary Jean O’Donnell, then president of RCBC, evidently held her own in spite of being greatly outnumbered. The exponents of polycoats (i.e., many layers which were incompatible or very difficult for recycling) were given an additional year to make their case to remain outside the system. They failed. These too came under the regulation in the fall of 1999.
But there were still milk containers…
All categories of depots — Encorp, municipal, non-profit — were constantly deluged by enquiries. “Why, if you are taking all other beverage containers, won’t you take this milk jug or this gabletop or this soya/rice milk aseptic?” Our best answer was, “Good question! We certainly have tried!” Again and again.
Finally in the summer of 2001, the Southern Gulf Islands Recycling Coalition drafted a petition entitled “Include Milk” that stated:
“Whereas milk and milk substitutes were not included in the expanded deposit-refund program established in 1998;
“Whereas the Dairy Council of BC has been unable to increase its recovery rate for plastic milk jugs during the past year and its recovery of other containers is negligible;
“Whereas the Dairy Council does not plan to have an enhanced recovery program in place until the end of 2002 or later; and
“Whereas some 1800 tonnes of plastic milk jugs currently are being landfilled at major expense to taxpayers in spite of the fact that a British Columbia industry is keen to receive this material for recycling;
“Therefore, we the undersigned, petition the Honorable Joyce Murray, Minister of Water, Land and Air Protection, to include containers for MILK and MILK SUBSTITUTES under the DEPOSIT-REFUND provisions of the Beverage Container Regulation.”
With much help from bottle depots, non-profit depots and regional districts throughout all areas of the province, they collected over 20,000 signatures. These were handed over to Joyce Murray, the Liberal minister of the environment at a meeting of the Beverage Container Management Board in the fall in 2001.
What was the Dairy Council’s response? It set up a pilot project in Abbotsford and Mission — the centre of the dairy region from whence comes much of its support. What were the results of their best voluntary efforts? Still the usual 80 per cent recovery rate on milk jugs (which are a valuable plastic product which can be sent to a local processor) and still only about 20 per cent on the difficult-to-recycle polycoats (i.e., aseptics and gabletops). No difference that either the City of Abbotsford, the regional district or anyone else could discern. Both the city and the regional district declared the pilot project a failure.
Nonetheless the Dairy Council sent out a voluntary stewardship proposal to regional districts throughout B.C. This was totally unacceptable to the districts as it would still leave the district or the municipality responsible for the collection of these containers and their delivery to the Dairy Council’s collection points. How was this product stewardship or extended producer responsibility (EPR)?
The case was perhaps best made by Alan Stanley, another past-president of RCBC. He analyzed the collection, processing, delivery and administrative costs that would be left to the regional districts/municipalities in the Dairy Council’s proposal for cost sharing and he estimated that it would make a very small reduction in the cost to RD Nanaimo’s taxpayers for handling these containers. His analysis was echoed by those made in a number of other regional districts, notably the Greater Vancouver RD, Capital RD and RD Kootenay Boundary. So far as I know, no regional district agreed to sign up for the Dairy Council’s “voluntary stewardship” proposal. It was generally agreed that this proposal did not come close to full EPR.
Critique of the new plan
Having been given a deadline last year from the Ministry of the Environment, we now have the Dairy Council’s latest “voluntary” proposal which our current Minister of the Environment was ill advised in supporting in the October 20, 2006 announcement. This appears to be very close to the failed Abbottsford pilot project. Milk and milk substitutes containers can be delivered by the consumer to designated Encorp Bottle Depots. There will be a limited amount of promotion. The program will be phased in beginning immediately in the Lower Mainland, in early 2007 on Vancouver Island and in the Okanagan and finally next spring in the rest of the province. There is neither deposit nor refund, and there is no timeline with a recovery rate target.
The best critique of this comes from Raymond Gaudart who has been battling this issue almost as long as I have:
“The program fails to meet expectations associated with an EPR program notably:
*Lack of universal accessibility: The public is unlikely to take their empty milk containers to a depot without a financial incentive. The distances involved are simply too great for the majority of British Columbians and the alternative (using the existing recycling and disposal infrastructure) is too easy.
*Does not transfer the cost of waste management from taxpayers to industry: While on the surface this objective could be accomplished, in reality it is readily apparent that it will not be (see above). Local government will continue to receive the majority of these containers and banning them from our programs is not an option given the difficulty of accessing return locations, particularly in rural B.C.
*There are no measurable objectives (capture rates): Although we may see numbers of containers collected, the program does not set any goal. Any numbers reported will be estimates since depot operators are not required to record numbers of containers.
*Does not create a level playing field: If milk containers can be returned to depots without a deposit, why are other containers subject to deposit?
*Lack of consultation with local government or the government: No one was advised of this program or offered any opportunity to comment on it. Transparency and thorough public consultation are cornerstones of B.C.’s EPR program process.
“I regard this program as yet another stall tactic from the Dairy Council,” writes Gaudart. “The only real solution to the issue of milk containers being collected by taxpayer funded programs is for them to be included in the existing beverage container deposit-refund program (true EPR). The vast majority of British Columbians and their local governments have stated a preference for this management option for a very long time. The fact that they continue to be ignored is simply not acceptable.”
Special attention needs to be paid Gaudart’s final point.
I am very slightly encouraged by a letter which I have recently received from Minister Penner, in response to my critique of the Encorp’s renewed stewardship proposal. He says: “Ministry staff will be paying close attention to this program [Dairy Council’s] as it rolls out across the province.”
Let’s make certain that they do!
Ann Johnston is a past-director of RCBC and past-coordinator of the Southern Gulf Islands Recycling coalition (where she’s still an active member). She was a member of the BC Beverage Container Management Board from its inception until its demise and is director of the Mayne Island Recycling Scoeity, which she founded. Contact Ann at email@example.com