Impacts of Tofino’s bottle depot closure

“We don’t have capacity to store the empties.”

Jeff and Piper Hillier pose next to the haul of bottles and cans from one morning of returnable recycling collection. (Drew Penner Photo)

Jeff and Piper Hillier pose next to the haul of bottles and cans from one morning of returnable recycling collection. (Drew Penner Photo)


Special to the Westerly

Nine-year-old Piper Hillier plays with a new kitten that she still hasn’t named, as she tries to understand why Tofino’s only bottle depot closed earlier this year.

“I think that is bad, because recycling can go in water,” she said, thinking of the days she’s spent helping her dad Jeff Hillier, 53, on his bottle-and-can-collection runs. “I see a lot of garbage and recycling around Tofino—it’s everywhere.”

Even though her dad has been cashing in, along with several other entrepreneurs, on the closure of the Tofino Bottle Depot in March (they say business has increased by a factor of 10), neither father nor daughter seem too happy about it.

Jeff is trying to teach his daughter the value of recycling, hoping it will blossom into a lifelong passion for environmentalism. They even make a game of who can collect the most.

“We try to get cans and bottles,” Piper explains. “Last time he had lower and I had 11.”

He noted they’ve seen an increasing number of recyclables in the garbage this year.

Since Jeff doesn’t let his daughter grab anything from the garbage, Piper has a rule that those items don’t count towards her dad’s total, otherwise he would win every time.

Some businesses that had previous third-party recycling contracts in place at the time of the shut-down haven’t seen much of a shift, however, plenty of local businesses have been burdened by the closure. Others have tried to capitalize on the situation.

Calvin Westrand founded Westside Recycling in the wake of the depot closure, noting he can get a couple truckloads a day, and is currently increasing his residential pickup business.

“I saw dollar signs,” he said, stressing he still wants to Tofino to work towards a local bottle depot for the sake of the environment.

“I’d like to see recycling come back so less people would be throwing stuff away.”

Susan Spencer, assistant manager of BC Liquor Stores Tofino, said the location cut the daily return maximum in half to the legal minimum (24 items per person) when the bottle depot closed.

“If we could have capacity to take more, people would bring them,” she said. “We don’t have capacity to store the empties.”

Yet returns have swelled to at least 1,800 beer cans a week and a “mega bag” (cube-shaped, covering a wooden pallet) of non-refillable glass.

That’s about double the volume the liquor store took in during the same period last year.

Once a week Encorp Pacific (Canada), the federal non-profit corporation that had operated the Tofino Bottle Depot, picks up recycling from the liquor store and ships it to a facility on the mainland.

Brewers Distributors Ltd. takes beer bottles and returns them to beer companies.

Lee McNamee, manager of Common Loaf Bakery, said losing the local depot has meant the small business now has to drive its glass empties all the way to Ucluelet.

“It’s a really tough thing to do right,” he said. “It’s really challenging.”

Tofino Coun. Dorothy Baert told the Westerly there are efforts underway to quantify the fallout.

“We want a full and robust recycling program,” she said. “We do need to know the impact.”

While there has been talk of subsidizing land for recycling as part of the sewage treatment development, there has been no concrete action yet, she pointed out.

“There are a lot of perhaps’s,” she said. “There are a number of disparate pieces that need to be put together.”

Baert noted Tofino once had its own recycling program before it was taken over by the provincial government. However, she says, she’d like to see Tofino play a part in coming up with a solution to the bottle scramble.

Ann Kim and her cousin Helen Cho ran the Tofino Bottle Depot for 11 years – before their approximately 900 square feet of space up Industrial Way couldn’t accommodate the growing volume of recyclables. But a sizable gap remains between the amount coming in and the number of bottles required to justify shelling out for a 2,500 square foot warehouse, if they could even find something.

“We did our best,” she said. “We really tried to be up front with people.”

The business owners said they told Mayor Josie Osborne they were willing to pay literally double the rent of their previous location if the District of Tofino could help them secure a new spot.

Kim said she was even directed to look at a space by Ricardo Araya, Manager of Engineering and Public Works she thought could work.

“I didn’t get any call back from that,” she said. “I didn’t expect anything to happen.”

She says some people are making the trek to their Ucluelet location, which increased its hours at the time of the March closure, but says they’re losing out on business to others.

“That’s absolutely happening,” she said.

“It’s just a matter of how much.”

Kim believes that, on top of mobile collectors stepping in to pick up the slack and locals bringing their recycling to depots outside of the community, some people might be trashing their bottles and cans.

Tofino Coun. Al Anderson said when that happens, Encorp gets to keep the deposit to fund its operations.

“There some benefit to them for sure,” he said, pointing to the irony of the business that closed the Tofino depot still making money off stuff that gets tossed. “They use the money.”

Anderson says he hasn’t heard any specific complaints about the changes in recycling since the Tofino Bottle Depot closed, and thinks there isn’t much the community can do to pitch in.

“I think the District would be a willing partner if we had anything to offer,” he said. “We just don’t have the space right now.”