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Businesses face tough economic decision when it comes to recycling

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With rolling carts rolling in for much of Winnipeg -- and the city's blue boxes, trash bins and much-maligned dumpsters on the way out -- the humble act of recycling is back in the headlines.

Over the next three months, Winnipeggers' blue bins and waste cans will be replaced by automated garbage and recycling carts, a change the city is hoping will lead to increased diversion rates for recyclables.

But the recycling renaissance hasn't yet expanded to include non-residential waste: the cardboard, paper and other recyclable materials produced by businesses, manufacturers or institutions.

Well over half the waste generated in Manitoba comes from non-residential sources, and only about 15 per cent of it gets diverted from landfills, according to 2008 figures from Statistics Canada, the latest numbers available.

And although increasing recovery rates in Winnipeg is on the priority list for the city's waste department, the discussion of how to make that happen is still a few years out.

"The City of Winnipeg's recent waste-reduction plan really only tackles residents," said Josh Brandon, spokesman for local environmental group Green Action Centre. "It doesn't look at the institutional or commercial side of things yet. We're hoping that the next phase will develop the strategy for tackling institutional recycling."

Outside of the broad Statistics Canada strokes, it's near-impossible to get a sense of how Winnipeg businesses, manufacturers and institutions are faring on recycling. Recycling isn't mandatory, and neither the province nor the city tracks statistics on commercial recycling.

And while you might get the hairy eyeball from neighbours for not putting out a blue box once a week, there's rarely any shaming campaign for a business that dumps its recyclables in the trash -- and sometimes little financial incentive to do otherwise.

Recyclables in Winnipeg are all handled at one of four materials-recovery facilities. But the facilities that process most non-residential waste are privately run, and their statistics are generally kept private, said Winnipeg solid waste manager Darryl Drohomerski. Emterra Environmental, the facility under contract to the City of Winnipeg, handles only a small percentage of the city's commercial waste, he said.

BFI Canada, which runs another nearby facility and also collects non-residential waste and recycling, would not disclose numbers of the volume of waste it handles or what it charges for pickup.

Generally speaking, commercial recycling is a different beast than residential pickup. Winnipeggers might view recycling as an expected free city service, or a moral obligation. But for companies or institutions, recycling is also a cost of doing business -- and when the value of recyclables drops, and the cost of recycling goes up, that increase can force tough decisions.

Landfill rates in and around Winnipeg are low enough that the businesses that do recycle tend to be either personally motivated or producing enough of a given commodity -- say, cardboard -- that it's worthwhile to do so, said Drohomerski.

When commodity prices aren't faring well, he's heard of some businesses opting to send their recyclables into the landfill stream rather than pay an increased cost for recycling.

Recycling advocates say Manitoba's low recovery rate points to a need for more outside action on a civic and provincial level: following the lead of cities across North America that have banned material such as cardboard from landfills or perhaps instituting higher tipping fees at landfills.

"Businesses operate on very tight margins, especially if you're talking about small businesses. If your competitors are doing something like handling waste more cheaply than you are, it's going to put you at a disadvantage. We have to be aware of that and make a level playing field for all businesses," said Brandon.

But some of those involved in waste handling say it's unfair to compare Winnipeg's commercial rates to other cities. They argue mandating recycling to raise rates might not always be greener in the long run.

Phoenix Recycling president Kristjan Backman's family has been running the business since 1991, and these days the company ships between 700 and 770 tonnes of recyclables per month. Smaller customers might pay $15 per load weighing up to 500 pounds, collected every few weeks or months, while bigger clients may pay thousands monthly -- or earn a profit, if they're producing enough of a specific material.

Backman disputes the Statistics Canada recovery rate. He argues Winnipeg gets a bad recycling rap unfairly, and that the city's geographic isolation means it doesn't make sense to compare it to major hubs.

The high recovery rate in a city such as Seattle, for example, might turn heads, but the West Coast hub has other favourable factors that Winnipeg lacks, he said. "One, is that they're sitting in a major port that allows them to get their goods to market incredibly inexpensively. And they have no space for garbage."

Markets that don't have to pay the significant shipping costs a city such as Winnipeg does get a revenue boost -- one that can lead to lower recycling fees and higher overall participation, Backman said.

Making recycling mandatory or banning paper and cardboard from landfills might boost Winnipeg's volumes, he said, but the end result wouldn't necessarily be an environmental win. Out-of-the-way businesses that produce a small amount of cardboard might opt to burn it rather than pay for recycling, he said, and even if a recycler were brought in, the fossil fuels burned to collect a small amount of waste could outweigh the recycling benefit.

"(A cardboard ban) would make Phoenix Recycling a lot of money," he said.

"I'm not sure it would make us necessarily a greener city, because you end up going after a lot of very marginal material. The environmental cost of collection exceeds the environmental benefit of collecting it."

Backman said he believes that as Winnipeg grows, niche recycling markets will open up to handle materials that currently need to be shipped greater distances. And there may ultimately be less to ship: "Some of our larger customers... the actual volume of paper per volume of sales they have is dropping," he said.

A provincial spokeswoman says paper, cardboard, wood pallet and shingle recycling have all increased since the implementation of a garbage levy in recent years, although she provided no numbers. All recycled commercial waste is exempt from the levy. The spokeswoman said the province is looking at options to improve commercial waste recycling, construction and demolition waste diversion and organic waste composting.

Drohomerski, for one, said he's encouraged to see more businesses make recycling part of their sustainability plans, regardless of price fluctuations. "They understand that, 'If I look at it over last quarter, I may not like what I see. But if I look at it over (the) long run, it's the right thing to do.'"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 J16


Updated on Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 2:52 PM CDT: Removed erroneous reference to waste company.

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