An estimated 74 million recyclables went unredeemed last year, putting jobs and the future of the redemption centres in doubt, a spokesperson for operators says.
Robert Cole, president of the Eastern Recyclers Association's New Brunswick chapter, says if those 74 million bottles and cans had been redeemed, consumers would have collected $4 million in refunds.
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Cole blamed part of the drop in redemptions on the way the system works in New Brunswick.
Under the "half-back" system, there is a 10 cent deposit when a consumer purchases a can or a bottle. Half that is returned to the consumer, and the government gets the other half.
The half-back approach isn't a great incentive, Cole said, pointing to Alberta, where people get their full deposits back.
But New Brunswick consumers also need to be educated about the redemption program, he said. For example, the five cents collected by the government on each returned is spread between keeping the redemption centres going and an environmental trust fund.
If a can isn't taken to a redemption centre, the government keeps the full 10 cents, which goes into the fund.
"The number of containers that are getting a 10 cent deposit paid that are never being redeemed, the more of those there are, the more money is going into the environmental trust fund at the end of the year," Cole said.
Cole is hoping the public will choose to recycle and and also appreciate the economic argument for using the struggling centres.
Redemption centres have been forced to make harsh decisions, he said, such as whether to switch from full-time staff to part-time, close more frequently or provide fewer locations for residents.
Suspects they're going to dump
Cole said he believes many consumers have been sending containers to landfills.
"If all these containers were being redeemed, we would have a fighting chance," he said. "But when you combine our rising costs with fewer and fewer containers being redeemed it really paints a bad picture for the future of our industry."
About 300 million cans and bottles do go back to the 78 redemption centres in New Brunswick, according to the province's website.
But Cole said the unredeemed numbers make things especially difficult for people in rural areas.
"Unfortunately what has happened is certainly an erosion of our rural areas as the volume drops and declines it becomes harder and harder for that centre to maintain those systems in place that make it easier for the customer."
A more convenient system
Cole said the industry is taking gradual steps to make it more convenient for residents to use redemption centres.
He hopes the province will develop an unmanned drop-off centre, where each person who signed up for the system will be given a barcode identity and will be transferred money through email.
Charitable organizations in cities should also set up a drop-off locations, as is happening in Moncton.
"It's long-term thinking we need to focus on."