On June 14, 1999, Gary Mar, Alberta’s environment minister and Bill McLeod, president of the Alberta Dairy Council, signed a memorandum of understanding that makes Alberta the first North American jurisdiction with a voluntary industry stewardship program for the recycling of all sizes of HDPE milk containers. Currently, more than sixty million plastic milk containers are sold in the province each year.
Prior to this program, industry stewardship initiatives were limited to individual dairies such as Becker’s deposit-refund program in Ontario, the now-defunct Holgerson Dairies’ return-to-retail program in Alberta, and to Saskatchewan’s province-wide industry stewardship program that collects only 4-litre jugs.
The agreement follows months of negotiation involving the dairy industry, the environment ministry, municipalities and the Alberta Plastics Recycling Association. Program development began in the Spring of 1998. In the Fall, then-Environment Minister Ty Lund gave dairies an ultimatum: implement a voluntary recycling initiative (to capture at least 75 per cent of the milk containers sold in Alberta each year), or join Alberta’s Beverage Container Management System (which requires manufacturers to place a refundable deposit on all beverage containers sold in the province). As in other jurisdictions, milk enjoys an exemption from Alberta’s beverage-container regulations. The 75 per cent capture rate was based on predicted recovery levels.
The memorandum has been effective since July 1, 1999 and will remain in place for two years by which time it’s expected to achieve its recovery rate. If the environment minister accepts the program’s performance, the memorandum may be renewed. If an acceptable recovery rate is not achieved, he has the authority to remove milk’s exemption from the beverage container regulations.
The Alberta Dairy Council has established a Container Recovery Fund through which the program will be administered. The program is financed by fees of two cents per 4-litre HDPE milk container and one cent per 2-litre HDPE milk container, payable by dairy processors based on unit sales.
A coordinator supervises the fund and a multi-stakeholder steering committee provides feedback, direction and support to the coordinator and the Alberta Dairy Council Board of Directors. Committee members include provincial representatives of dairy processors and producers, municipalities, consumers, recyclers, grocers and the government.
The fund provides “top-up” payments to registered municipalities and recycling authorities to supplement the revenues received for collected HDPE up to a pre-determined level. This level has initially been set at $400/tonne for baled material, and will be reviewed annually by the committee. The fund also provides a small transportation subsidy for rural communities and supports a public awareness and education program.
Participation in the program is voluntary for municipalities that may also choose to delegate milk jug recycling to another organization such as a waste management company, community recycling group or local bottle depot.
Many eyes will be on Alberta over the next two years as this program develops. The question in many people’s minds is whether a 75 per cent capture rate is achievable without a deposit. This level of diversion is historically reserved for deposit-return programs that offer consumers a financial incentive to recycle.
Another outstanding issue is the absence of stewardship for gable-top milk cartons within this program. This came as a surprise to some stakeholders, as Lund had originally indicated that all milk containers must be included in the program. Although there is no formal reference to gable-tops in the existing agreement, it’s been indicated that they will be considered as an addition to the program at a later date. (This approach provides for phased-in program development and allows time for market development work being conducted on gable-top containers in British Columbia to be concluded.)
Christina Seidel is executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta.