Calgary

Lacombe dumps curbside recycling while Lethbridge bullish on its new program

When the latest pathway opens next year in Lethbridge, Alta., dog walkers and runners will be tromping over a dump site of beer bottles and pickle jars.

Municipalities in Alberta struggle with changes in recycling demands

While Lacombe has stopped its recycling, Lethbridge is still bullish on its new program.

When Lethbridge's latest pathway opens next year, dog walkers and runners will be tromping over a dump site of beer bottles and pickle jars.

For years, the southern Alberta city has been stockpiling a mountain of household glass at a sorting facility.

Crews will use about 300 tonnes — equivalent to the weight of roughly 50 large African elephants — of the discarded glass as a base material in the west side pathway, instead of gravel.

Lethbridge officials say the program helps ensure the viability of the city's new curbside recycling service, which began a month ago.

After China banned Canadian exports of recyclables, municipalities like Lethbridge have had to secure other buyers with sometimes more stringent requirements, including demands for materials that aren't mixed with shards of glass.

Adapting to Chinese ban

Lethbridge recyclers drop their bottles and jars off at depots, so they can be stockpiled, rather than take them to the curb, where the glass often breaks and reduces the market value of all the other waste.

"We just wanted to make sure we had materials that can be marketed," said Joel Sanchez, Lethbridge's waste and recycling general manager.

The viability of other curbside programs in Alberta have been tested in the wake of the Chinese ban as well as revelations that volumes of contaminated Canadian recyclables have been turned away by Malaysia and the Philippines.

The City of Calgary has filled 106 trailers with so-called clamshell plastic containers, often used to hold berries, because it hasn't found a market for them after China imposed its ban.

The city is sending newly collected clamshells to a vendor that's processing them into pellets that can be used in fleece clothing or carpet, but Calgary doesn't have a plan for the stockpile.

Lacombe ends program

In Lacombe, north of Red Deer, officials have found that adapting to the new challenges in recycling markets is not worth the expense.

When the city looked for a new recycling provider after its previous contract expired, it asked bidders to prove how Lacombe's waste would actually be recycled.

The city received a single bid from a contractor that said it didn't have a system for tracking waste from the curb to processing facilities, but estimated it would cost about $500,000, a 65 per cent increase over existing costs.

The bidder also said it would not accept a long list of materials, including glass and plastic bags.

"We just said, 'well, until there is some action in the industry, is this really meeting the sustainability objectives of the community?'" said city manager Matthew Goudy.

"Should we be re-evaluating this program at a time when there is a drastic price increase and a huge drop in service?"'

Program could return

City officials toured one recycling facility and found a "rudimentary, manual system" where there were "mountains and mountains of cardboard waiting to be baled; paper that had been baled that was just sitting there and exposed to the elements," according to Goudy.

"We started looking at some of the other experiences that municipalities in Alberta are having. Some of the bigger communities are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to store products that someday might be recyclable, but today it's not viable."

Lacombe's deputy mayor, Cora Hoekstra, said city officials will spend some time explaining the decision to residents in the coming weeks.

"You're paying for garbage collection, which continues, and you're paying for recycling, but in essence the majority of it is still ending up in the landfill, so why are we charging them double for, in essence, the same service?" Hoekstra said.

"Even though curbside pickup is suspended for now, it doesn't mean that we don't want to go back to it. We want some kind of version of it that will meet the desires of our citizens to be responsible."

'There was a benefit of coming late'

In Lethbridge, officials say they've been able to minimize the level of contaminants, such as glass and plastic bags, in the materials they're shipping to their broker, which finds buyers for the plastics and cardboard.

Sanchez said the broker provides the city with reports on where the materials are going. Most of its mixed paper and cardboard are processed by American mills, while plastics are often sent to facilities in eastern and central Canada.

"When we did the design of the program, there was a benefit of coming late," he said, adding Lethbridge has observed the changes in recycling markets and studied how other municipalities adapted.

Sanchez said revenue from the sale of the materials helps offset the costs, but the city's 35,000 households still have to pay an extra $7 per month extra to pay for the program.

About the Author

Reid Southwick spent 10 years in newspapers reporting in New Brunswick and Alberta before joining CBC in late 2017. In Calgary, he has covered business news, crime and Alberta's fentanyl crisis. Get in touch with Reid by email at reid.southwick@cbc.ca or on Twitter @ReidSouthwick.

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