The Northwest Territories government has launched a territory-wide electronics recycling program, but retailers say recycling fees as high as $40 are leaving some customers surprised and unhappy.

"People are stunned," said Craig Kovatch, the owner of Hay River's Superior Sound. "They pay it, but they're not happy about it."

The fees went into effect at all electronics-selling stores in the territory on Feb. 1. They're passed on by retailers to the N.W.T. government to pay for the recycling program, one of the last of its kind to be launched by a province or territory. 

The fees break down like this:

Laptops, tablets, notebook computers $3
Computers and servers $10.50
Printers, copiers, scanners and fax machines
     Desktop $8
     Floor standing $40
TVs and monitors
     Less than 30 inches $12.25
     30 to 45 inches $24.50
     More than 45 inches $40

The $40 fee for TVs and monitors measuring more than 45 inches is close to what's charged in B.C., Newfoundland and Nova Scotia ($35), and nearly on par with Ontario's fee ($39.50), but four times the fee in Alberta ($10).

"It's not that I have a problem with the program," said Robin Williams, the managing partner at Yellowknife's Roy's Audio Video Unlimited. But "it does put us at a slight competitive disadvantage when our closest competitor has rates that are much lower than ours."

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which launched the program, could not be reached for comment.

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The fee schedule as posted by the GNWT. (GNWT)

But on the program's website, the department wrote "[those] fees are higher since it is less likely residents will transport these larger, more fragile items into the N.W.T. during personal travel."

Williams and Kovatch disagree.

Williams' store repairs TVs, including those not purchased at his store, and he asks customers where they bought their products.

"It does happen. It happens very often," he said of out-of-territory big-ticket purchases.

"I think the number of electronics entering the North from the South is quite high," echoed Kovatch.

Come for the electronics depot, stay for the feast

People living in Yellowknife, Behchoko, Hay River, Fort Smith, Fort Simpson, Fort Providence, Norman Wells, Fort McPherson, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk can drop off their electronics at depots. No returning fees are paid.

People living elsewhere in the territory are encouraged to either drive to a larger community with a depot or wait until future one-day collection events take place in their community.

Depot map

The blue stars represent permanent recycling depots. The red dots represent communities where the government plans to hold one-off collection events. (GNWT)

Electronics will then be transported and consolidated at processing centres in Inuvik, Hay River and Yellowknife, before ultimately being sent to a recycling facility in Alberta.

"Transporting electronics from a typical N.W.T. community and processing them costs about $5,000 to $8,000 per load," according to the website. 

For the government, the recycling program is about diverting potentially harmful materials from public landfills, while making sure the cost of that effort isn't shared by the territory's entire population.   

"Through these fees, the cost of electronics recycling is shifted from general taxpayers (i.e. community and municipal government budgets) to electronics users."

A pilot project launched in 2013 in Fort McPherson, Norman Wells and Fort Smith hauled in more than 25 metric tonnes of electronics.

'What's this fee?'

Williams and Kovatch say that, short of some recent radio ads, the department hasn't done enough to warn consumers about the new fees.

"I would say nine out of 10 people have no clue whatsoever. They say, 'What's with this fee?'" said Kovatch.

"It wasn't until even just a few days before the launch of the program that we got public awareness packages," said Williams.

laptops

Laptops for sale in Yellowknife. A retailer says 9 out of 10 customers haven't heard of the new fees until they get to the till. (CBC)

Online distributors who ship electronics to the N.W.T. — companies like Amazon, Apple and Dell — are also required to charge the environmental fees. On its website, the government says sales invoices and "other relevant information" will be reviewed to ensure compliance, even for companies registered outside of the N.W.T. 

But Williams worries about the government's ability to enforce the rules. 

"You can put a speed limit on a road up on a road as much as you'd like, but you need an officer to sit there and write you a ticket," he said.

For Kovatch, the program's chief flaw is that it doesn't, in his opinion, entice people to recycle. 

"People ask me, 'I take my cans, my bottles to the recycling depot and I get money back. What am I going to get back if I take my TV or laptop in for recycling?' I say, 'You're not getting anything back because the money you paid goes to run the program.'

"How many people are going to load up their TV or take it and drop it off? They're going to throw it in the garbage or take it to the land."

Other electronics may be added to the program one to two years from now, according to the department.

Some increased costs necessary: MLA

Yellowknife Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly, while supportive of the recycling fees, pointed out Monday in the legislative assembly that, loathe as it may be to increase the cost of living, the territorial government has broken its own rule by introducing the fees. 

"But that's for a specific purpose and it serves an end, and I'll support that," said O'Reilly. "I believe all the MLAs support that sort of thing."