Recycling rules confuse Nelson residents

Tensions are rising over recycling, the Star investigates.

The Regional District of Central Kootenay’s recycling system operates much differently from the one in Nelson

The Regional District of Central Kootenay’s recycling system operates much differently from the one in Nelson

First in a series on recycling in Nelson

You can’t recycle plastic bags in Nelson.

We’re talking about the ones you get from grocery stores, the flimsy white ones you keep under the kitchen sink. Yes, a lot of them say they’re recyclable—right there on the bag in big green letters but they’re not. If you leave one on the curb outside your house on collection day, it will end up in a landfill.

And if you didn’t know that, you’re not the only one.

Lately the City of Nelson has been leaving recycling bags behind during their runs and affixing notes for residents that detail how and why their recycling is unacceptable. It’s part of a new educational initiative taken on by the city, and it’s one that’s sparked confusion and frustration.

The issue is that right now 20 per cent of Nelson’s recyclable material is ending up in the landfill, and that’s losing the city money. A large part of the problem is that one piece of un-recyclable material can “contaminate” an entire bag and divert it into the garbage.

And the worst culprit is plastic bags.

“That was the big one that caught me by surprise,” public works director Colin Innes told the Star.

“If you go to Safeway or Save-On and get one of those bags, you think to yourself, ‘This looks like something I can throw in my recycling,’ and half the time it says ‘recyclable’ on it, but the fact is we can’t accept those in the blue bags at the curb.”

When Innes says “we,” he’s talking about the City of Nelson’s garbage team, which is contracted by Multi Material BC (MMBC) to collect recycling on their behalf. It’s a service that’s paid for by the industry creating paper, plastic and recyclable products, not the taxpayers, and it’s an enormous, province-wide enterprise.

But MMBC collects recycling only within the city, not in the rural areas surrounding Nelson. Those bins at the transfer stations in the rural areas, like the one at Grohman Narrows, are run by the Regional District of Central Kootenay, and they have different rules from MMBC about what’s recyclable.

Plastic bags are an example. They’re not acceptable in your Nelson curbside pickup, but out at the RDCK’s bin at Grohman, they are.

And according to Innes, people are becoming increasingly frustrated and confused.

“Nelson residents have been trying to comply. They really want to recycle and they want to do the right thing, but there’s these interesting nuances to the rules and they get frustrated when they learn their recycling has been rejected, or sent to the landfill,” he said.

“People go to all this effort, but if you put the wrong thing in all your effort is for naught.”

MMBC’s managing director Allan Langdon doesn’t blame people for being confused.

“We’ve done things to try to provide consistency, but we can’t tell the RDCK what to do. All we can do is try to make the system as consistent as possible,” he said.

“Our goal is to have consistency in every jurisdiction, including Nelson, so that as people move and go different places they don’t have to re-learn how to recycle.”

But right now that consistency doesn’t exist, and according to Innes the city is fielding routine calls from residents who just can’t seem to figure out what is supposed to end up in the recycling bin and what’s supposed to end up in the garbage.

Some of them have given up trying to recycle at all.

“The biggest thing we’re hearing is confusion. Like paper towel and toilet paper? That can’t go into the bag with the rest of your recycling either, and people will be confused saying, ‘It wasn’t terribly soiled, why doesn’t it fit?’, but unfortunately it’s waste.”

And we’ve only just scratched the surface.

The list of items that can’t end up in your blue bag includes the styrofoam that comes with meat packaging, organics and electronics. Some of these items need to be taken to the Nelson Leafs Depot in Railtown and others need to be taken to the transfer station directly, but they can’t end up in your bag.

“The thing is, there’s a difference between what is recyclable and what the MMBC rules are,” Innes said.

“The frustration comes because residents can take that very same thing to the recycling depot and it can be recycled.”

Asked whether he thinks the process is unnecessarily multi-faceted and convoluted, Innes conceded that residents with this complaint “definitely have a point.”

“Why can’t all our recyclables be dealt with by one system? I think municipalities need to give this feedback to the program, telling them there is a demand to include these things in their recycling program and to streamline the system.”

And though Innes said the city does communicate with MMBC about their struggles, and Langdon is aware of the educational initiative Nelson is embarking on, it’s unlikely things will change until the organization overcomes a series of political hurdles, including expanding into the RDCK.

“What I’m hearing is that residents are frustrated that their materials aren’t being recycled, but for me that wouldn’t be a reason to stop doing it,” said Langdon.

“We have to continue with the education and work towards having a province-wide system where everyone is doing the same thing everywhere.”

And to do that, they need everyone on board.

“If we were to pick up additional jurisdictions (such as the RDCK) or additional programs it would be on the backs of our current members instead of on the organizations that haven’t yet come on board.”

Innes said the best way to get up to date on the recycling rules is to print off the PDF document available on the City Of Nelson’s website, or visit

Questions can also be directed to the City of Nelson at 250-352-8102 or the BC Recycling Hotline at 1-800-667-4321.