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New recycling regulations to impact agri businesses

Dave Van Belle, president of Van Belle Nursery in Abbotsford, is concerned by the province’s new recycling program.  The new producer-pay system, set to launch on May 19,  will mean an additional charge on every plant pot at the nursery.  - Alex Butler
Dave Van Belle, president of Van Belle Nursery in Abbotsford, is concerned by the province’s new recycling program. The new producer-pay system, set to launch on May 19, will mean an additional charge on every plant pot at the nursery.
— image credit: Alex Butler

The diversity of plants at the Van Belle Nursery in Abbotsford – the evergreens, roses, shrubs and vines – all have one thing in common. They are grown in pots.

A new provincial recycling program set to take effect on May 19 will mean every pot will carry an added cost for Dave Van Belle, president of the nursery his parents founded in the ’70s.

The government is gearing up to implement the new and controversial regulations from Multi-Material B.C. (MMBC), an industry stewardship group which will charge businesses for recycling the packing and paper they generate.

In 2011, B.C.’s recycling regulation was updated, with the goal of shifting the cost and responsibility for managing residential recycling from local government and taxpayers to the businesses that produce the materials.

MMBC’s plan was approved by the Ministry of the Environment in 2013. MMBC is a non-profit that plans to operate the residential packaging and printed paper collection and recycling system on behalf of the companies that pay into the program.

Van Belle said he agrees with the environmental principles of the program – the nursery already recycles everything it can – but absorbing the additional cost of the program will be difficult, and he’s not certain it will achieve its goals.

MMBC is poised to take over curbside recycling collection in the province, although Abbotsford has opted out of the program for now, as city council has concerns the program is not business-friendly and would actually decrease the amount of waste diverted from the local garbage stream.

For Van Belle it’s a concern because the nursery can’t simply reduce its use of pots.

“We have to have a pot to produce a plant. It’s not just extra packaging.”

The potential impact on business was recognized by the BC Chamber of Commerce which, as the program took shape, pushed the government for changes.

In early February, the government announced it would exempt any business with an annual revenue of less than $1 million, which produces less than one tonne of packaging and printed paper produced annually, or has a single point of retail sale.

The government said that means fewer than 3,000 business in the province will be hit by the regulations and the move was lauded by chambers through the province.

But business associations have come out against MMBC even after the changes, including the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the BC Agriculture Council, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, the BC Yukon Community Newspapers Association, The Canadian Newspapers Association and more.

Those groups have launched a campaign and a website – rethinkitbc.ca – to pressure Victoria on the issue.

The website outlines the concern that many small- and medium-sized businesses will still be captured by the regulations, including anyone who owns a franchise, no matter how small.

The organizations also express the concern that businesses generating just below $1 million in revenue, producing less than one tonne in packaging per year or looking to expand to a second location will be put off by having to join MMBC – therefore stifling business growth.

BC Agriculture council vice-chair Stan Vander Waal has said the program will impact berry farmers whose operations aren’t exempt, as they package strawberries and blueberries in plastic clamshells because retailers insist that’s what consumers want.

“We have to wear the cost,” he said, adding MMBC fees will cost his Chilliwack farm $60,000 to $100,000 a year.

“It goes directly against growing agriculture.”

The Van Belle Nursery generates more than $1 million per year in revenue and will have to participate. But Van Belle considers the nursery, a family-run organization with about 100 staff members at its peak, to be a small business.

“(With MMBC) I’m treated like a big business. I’m treated like a Walmart. We’re just farmers here at the end of the day, trying to grow plants and make a living.”

He predicts that at a minimum, the new program will cost $20,000 to $30,000 annually for the nursery – not an easy cost to absorb.

But in addition to the cost, Van Belle is concerned by the increase in red tape.

Because the nursery sells products wholesale to other businesses or landscapers, it falls on the nursery to determine which clients are exempt from the program and who to charge for putting packaging into the commercial waste stream. With hundreds of clients, Van Belle said the additional work will be staggering.

Van Belle said he feels the charges should be made at the point of production of the pots, or at the point of sale in order to make the price more clear to consumers.

“Why am I the guy in the middle doing this?”

He also said he feels it makes an uneven playing field for businesses, as it increases the competition between him and smaller operations which are exempt from the program and businesses from out of province who don’t have to comply with the rules.

He added that he is clearly not the only one with concerns about MMBC, citing the City of Abbotsford’s decision to not participate.

For Van Belle, this just confirms the flaws in the program because Abbotsford residents will effectively pay twice for recycling. By opting out of the program, residents will continue to pay for the city’s recycling program, and pay the cost that producers will build into their products to cover the MMBC fees.

The other option would be to allow MMBC to take over recycling, which could lower the level of service and mean the city would not longer have control of recycling – or the ability to address community complaints.

Van Belle’s concerns go beyond his own business. He has concerns that MMBC will operate as a monopoly without government oversight, affecting people across the province.

The MMBC program will be administered in Ontario, and two of its three directors are Toronto-based senior executives with Loblaws and Unilever.

The NDP has criticized the program, accusing the government of handing over control of the recycling system to Toronto-based multinational executives, and small business critic Lana Popham has called on the government to change its course, and postpone the launch of the program until more discussion can be held with businesses and communities.

Naomi Yamamoto, Liberal MLA and minister of state for small business, said that the program provides an incentive for producers to reduce their packaging, adding that the businesses’ exemptions mean only one per cent of businesses must comply with regulations.

But Van Belle said regardless of incentive, he can’t reduce his packaging.

Allen Langdon, managing director for MMBC, disagrees, saying that “the plant pots are used literally to package the plant as it gets transported,” adding that after it is planted the pot could end up in a landfill. He said that MMBC increases the incentive to recycle the material and the program as a whole forces businesses “to make decisions and look at opportunities to reduce packaging.

“You only pay for your share of the waste … with the idea that we can develop a system that will recycle that material.”

Van Belle said he has been in contact with local MLAs, including Liberals Simon Gibson and Mike de Jong, who have been receptive to his concerns.

Langdon said that despite criticism leading up to the May deadline,  much of the work involved has already been executed and the program is gearing up to start.

With the implementation deadline looming, Van Belle is hoping the government will realize the implications of imposing MMBC.

“I hope the government is able to take a step back, take a deep breath and reconsider this flawed program.”

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