Big changes may be on the horizon for blue box recycling as we know it.
The provincial government has given an industry group of producers and retailers 18 months to design a plan to collect all packaging and printed materials from consumers.
The new extended producer responsibility (EPR) initiative will bring recycling to cardboard/plastic packaging in stores, restaurant take-out containers, disposable cups and even typically discarded items like candy wrappers and cigarette packages by May of 2014.
The move should go far to plug some remaining holes in B.C.'s recycling system while spurring businesses – which will bear the costs – to design their packaging with the environment in mind.
But it also shifts responsibility for collecting newspapers, cans, bottles and everything else that now goes into municipal blue boxes onto product producers.
That means a potential loss of control for cities used to running local recycling programs.
Metro Vancouver officials say they hope something like blue box curbside pickup continues.
"Most municipalities are really keen that there be a high level of service," Metro integrated planning division manager Ken Carrusca said. "The fact it's convenient and easy for residents means there's a high participation rate."
But advocates say it's conceivable the industry stewardship group might reject curbside pickup and force residents to instead take recyclables to depots instead.
"That would be a disaster," North Shore Recycling Society general manager Allen Lynch said. "People would get really ticked off if that were to happen."
Elderly people and others without cars depend on curbside pickup, he said.
A depot system is one option but less likely than some continued form of curbside pickup, according to Recycling Council of B.C. executive director Brock Macdonald.
"I think it will likely look like a blue box curbside pickup system," he said.
The industry group might even opt to contract with cities or their contractors to continue the existing services, he said.
Union reps, however, fear a push by industry stewards for low-cost privatized collection halt recycling pickup by civic workers in some cities.
Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Port Moody and Port Coquitlam all have their own trucks and unionized staff handling garbage and blue box pickup.
Since the new system applies to not just single-family residential but also multifamily buildings – where recycling rates are notoriously low – there's potential for major reductions in the waste stream, particularly after Metro Vancouver cities implement full organics pickup by 2015.
"It puts us on the way to really diverting from the landfill," Macdonald said. "Once we have packaging and organics, we'll get over 70 per cent diversion for sure."
The producer group, which will include various retailers, grocers, the newspaper industry and others, will have three years to iron out details among themselves and with local cities, he said.
"Everybody's trying to understand what this transition will look like," he said. "But there's quite a bit of time to figure it out."
He doesn't expect any deposit or eco fees that will be added to products to pay for the packaging takeback system, nor would there be any refund system to encourage returns as with beverage containers.
Instead, he predicts businesses will simply absorb the new recycling costs and reflect it in their local prices.
Until now the cost of blue box recycling was shifted onto local government, Macdonald said.
"Now it's going to be industry and the consumer that funds that rather than local taxpayers."
Home owners who now pay for recycling through a fee on their utility bills could see that amount go down, but some observers expect that money may increasingly fund pickup of organic food waste.
While industry will shoulder the costs of the new system they'll also get the revenue from the recyclables collected, a shift of in some cases millions of dollars a year from local cities or recycling societies.
The North Shore communities earned $1 million in paper sales alone last year, and prices have risen 15 per cent since then.
In theory, a cardboard- and plastic-encased package of batteries at a store should end up costing more than one with no or minimal packaging.
But how much more remains to be seen.
Environmental watchdogs also want to ensure the industry meets aggressive targets for recovering packaging and printed material and proves how much of what it collects is actually recycled.
The province plans meetings with stakeholders across B.C. starting in mid-June and continuing in the fall.