Saskatchewan’s Recycling Woes

Commentary, Environment, Frontier Centre

For years, Saskatchewan has been proud of its recycling system for drink containers. In 1988, it created a non-profit agency called SARCAN to collect and recycle the pop-can and bottle litter that scarred the prairie landscape. The agency now operates a network of 71 depots that employ the mentally handicapped as sorters.

SARCAN has been hailed as an example of successful government enterprise. It has eliminated the litter problem by collecting millions of containers for sale to recyclers, and it has pulled otherwise unemployable individuals off welfare and given them valuable work experience.

The SARCAN venture has had its difficulties, too. It has always been subsidized by consumers through an environmental charge of 15 cents per aluminum container. The government keeps five cents a can for itself, collecting five to six million dollars a year for general purposes. But salvage prices for aluminum have fluctuated wildly.

The generous deposit has created its own problems. Manitoba does not offer any refunds on drink containers. Since a cola can from Winnipeg is the same as a one from Moose Jaw, enterprising folks in Manitoba are cashing in on the bounty by bootlegging grimy cans and bottles across the Saskatchewan border. Millions of empties that would normally have landed in a Winnipeg landfill end up in SARCAN’s extra-busy depots. The agency is presently paying in the millions for them.

Inevitably, Saskatchewan has reacted to the unwelcome imports with a barrage of regulations that have increased its costs. At first, people lugging in loads of cans ran into daily limits on containers eligible for refunds. They had to prove they were residents of Saskatchewan. But it never worked. The smugglers simply broke the large truckloads into smaller batches and arranged to return the interloping cans over several days.

In May, Saskatchewan passed Draconian legislation that allows police to search the vehicles of suspected smugglers, and authorities with search warrants can now pay unscheduled visits to their homes and businesses. Bootleggers now face fines of up to $25,000.

SARCAN boss Ken Homenick is putting a brave face on the crackdown. He has suggested it will benefit Manitoba recyclers by discouraging renegade suppliers from sending their cans on the western odyssey.

But the laws of the marketplace have deflected the bureaucratic iron fist in every skirmish. Organized bootleggers can pocket $2,000 a week by bringing the cans into smaller communities. Border controls and special pop-can constabularies are not practical along the porous Manitoba-Saskatchewan frontier. And most smugglers are small time operators anyway. They are former flat-landers who throw a garbage bag full of contraband cans into the trunk when driving home to visit mom for a weekend. She then signs off on the sticky bag before hapless SARCAN officials.

The success of these dodges presents Saskatchewan policy makers with a pressing challenge: how does one staunch the ever rising inflow?

From the point of view of the system, the preferred solution would be the extension of the high-refund area eastwards to keep the pesky bootleg cans in their own authorized areas. But this would merely shift the smuggling boundary without putting a dent in the trade. Manitoba would then find itself trying to stop the "criminal" smuggling element that would inevitably pop up in Ontario.

The most practical answer is to accept the reality of the marketplace. Supply and demand react to prices. Refunds are too high. Cutting them will sharply reduce or eliminate the incentive to bootleg pop cans into Saskatchewan.

The knee-jerk response of passing more laws won’t work. It’s time to co-operate with the inevitable.