Years ago when Ontario established the Waste Diversion Organization, now known as Waste Diversion Ontario or "WDO," to oversee the funding program of the province’s blue box and various product stewardship programs, we expressed concern over the contracting out of public policy to an arms-length entity that might impose central planning in place of market competition and innovation.
It was not reassuring that some staff at Stewardship Ontario (SO) — the industry funding organization (IFO) for the blue box — were long-time proponents of the "shared cost" model for recycling, which is inconsistent with true extended producer responsibility (EPR). To what extent, we wondered, might their general outlook taint the development of stewardship programs?
Over the years on this editorial page and in numerous columns from contributing editors we advocated government to set and enforce standards, then let companies that meet those standards compete to deliver the best solutions at the lowest price.
An over-arching concern also developed over the years that the whole exercise had become "inside baseball" only a handful of experts could truly understand. The public can understand the benefit of throwing paper and packaging in a blue box, but understanding whether or not it’s better to, say, have a visible fee for spent household hazardous waste packaging, well, that’s pretty much a fulltime job, the exculsive purview of consultants. On top of that, regulated industry has a penchant for hiring some of the brightest minds to design programs and policy options that minimize industry costs, while still appearing to protect the environment. They’re abetted in this by politicians eager to announce they’ve solved some problem, though insiders know when compromises mock the very idea of sustainability or consumer protection.
Currently, Ontario’s Environment Minister Jim Bradley is overseeing two exercises that, sadly, reveal our early suspicions were well founded. We’re nevertheless hopeful the coming changes will fulfill the provincial waste diversion framework envisioned in the 2009 white paper From Waste to Worth.
The first exercise is an overhaul of governance at the WDO, which is being changed to better fulfill its oversight and compliance responsibilities under reforms to the Waste Diversion Act proposed by the minister (and added duties the minister announced on February 9, 2012). The second, and somewhat intersecting, exercise is revamping the stewardship program for Phase Two Municipal Household & Special Waste (MHSW) that garnered bad press due to a poor roll-out of inconsistent retail "eco fees" that confused consumers. The MHSW fee fiasco (as it came to be known) during an election year led to the sacking of an environment minister and, absurdly, provincial taxpayers covering the cost of managing the wastes while the province figures out what to do.
The problems at the WDO and with the MHSW program are many, and the story is too complicated to report in detail here. Suffice it to say that the issues with which minister Bradley and his staff must contend are well set-out by the Ontario Waste Management Association (OWMA) in its written submission letters on both topics.
The OWMA offers possible solutions to a range of problems of just the kind (unsurprisingly) we fretted about years ago, including the WDO’s ability to protect the public interest being compromised by "the embedded conflict of interests in its Board composition" which have "hindered the organization’s ability to fulfill its mandate and effectively starved it of proper resourcing."
In its critique of the MHSW program, the OWMA writes that it’s "unfortunate that over the last number years our members have spent more time managing the ongoing flaws of the Waste Diversion Act (WDA), than actually working to increase diversion." The OWMA’s concerns are replete with references to incentive programs that fail to leverage competitive forces within a fair and open market.
In one place the association notes, "Decisions by IFOs are not driven by the ‘public interest,’ instead they seek to minimize costs and risk for stewards," adding that this "is entirely rational based on the position they have been afforded under the WDA. However, it means that targets often act as caps rather than minimum thresholds. As a result, incentives can be reduced simply when a target is met or exceeded."
It was all so predictable.
Reading the critique is reminiscent of reports from the old Soviet block where factories fulfilled state production quotas while the general population starved, drove cars without wiper blades, or could only buy left-soled shoes.
We implore the minister to listen to the OWMA and other constructive critics; revamp not only the WDO board and the MHSW program, but also the Waste Diversion Act itself. And we suggest other provinces stay abreast of the coming changes so they can (hopefully) learn from Ontario’s mistakes and get it right in their jurisdictions... the first time.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at email@example.com