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Back to the Future: The Beer Store’s Recycling Plus in Perspective


 

Image: Sung, One of North Toronto’s numerous soft drink can recyclers, July 2012.  Photo credit: David McRobert.

 

Authors’ Note: This blog was drafted on February 17th but I was unable to load it due to technical and software problems.

On February 13th, a media advisory flickered onto my 14-inch 1999 NEC monitor that caused me to jolt upright and nearly spit out my fair trade coffee on the keyboard of my vintage 2002 computer keyboard. No doubt I nearly ruined my precious 2001 Windows XP desktop computer that is dying and has warned me every time I have turned it on for the past 11 months that a catastrophic hard drive failure is imminent. (Rest assured, my old computer will be delivered to the nearest recycling depot, likely a Staples outlet, where it will lie “In State” on the store’s floor before it receives the proper burial it may not deserve.)

The advisory stated that Recycling Plus, an initiative by The Beer Store, would be launching a pilot project to allow Ontarians to recycle old paint, batteries and consumer electronics as well as empty alcohol containers at one facility. Regular beer stores will continue to accept alcohol bottle returns.

The Beer Store is running this project in partnership with the non-profit Stewardship Ontario, which funds the municipal Blue Box system and also funds the Orange Drop program for Municipal Hazardous and Special Wastes (MHSW), and Sims Recycling, electronic waste recycling specialists.

I found the timing of this announcement fascinating. On February 10th I had visited the local Home Depot in Peterborough. Staff there advised me that Home Depot, one of Canada’s largest retailers of home renovation and repair products including paint was about to make an under-the-radar announcement that it will close its paint and compact fluorescent (CFL) bulb and tube recycling programs in some of its largest provincial markets in the country.

The notice on its web site states “we believe the collection and disposal of CFLs and paint can be more effectively managed through a third-party recycling program and as such, will no longer be accepting these products for recycling.”

http://www.homedepot.ca/eco-options/initiatives/recycling-programs

What the notices doesn’t say is that these programs were being abused by painting contractors and all sorters of folks who would drop off paint and adhesive products not covered by the MHSW program partially funded by Stewardship Ontario. They have provided a list of local municipal depots but it seems unlikely that these will be as well-used as they should be. (Most people will dump their waste paint down the drain, as they have done for years. Others will keep the old cans in the basement, waiting for salvation or for the paint to harden so they feel less guilt tossing the old paint can in their regular garbage, wrapped in plastic bags to disguise the old cans.)

But governments who offer few incentives for good behaviour, backstopped meagerly by complicated Toxic Taxi programs, only have themselves to blame. For those of us forced to move frequently (or unexpectedly) and/or needing to dispose of waste paint quickly, traveling to a municipal waste transfer station may seem like a serious hassle.

The abuse of Home Depot’s convenient and well-intentioned paint and CFL depot program left the talented and over-educated 40 to 70 year old Home Depot employees, many of whom lost most of their pension savings in the 2001 tech bubble and the 2008 US housing bubble, to explain that this was not permitted. They put up signs explaining that adhesives, roofing materials etc could not be deposited. They had greeters doing double-duty to watch out for abuse. But it is hard to beat the scoff-laws. They just put their illegal paints in legal cans. And have painters and workers make multiple trips back and forth.

Home Depot workers at the nearby cash registers would be exposed to toxic volatile organic compounds from the prohibited cans and containers. Complaints to the Ministry of the Environment, Waste Diversion Ontario and Stewardship Ontario fell on deaf ears. The Home Depot was left to carry the can, financially and otherwise. (No doubt the Ministry of Labour was less sympathetic to the WDO and MOE’s plight.)

This Beer Store announcement also appears to be a follow-up on a significant change implemented in early 2007 in the recycling of non-refillable bottles, beer cans and tetra-paks sold by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).

My mind flashed back to November 1991 when I had prepared, with one or two other staff, a 200-page Submission to the MOE’s Management Committee on 12 different options for promoting deposit-return systems in Ontario.

Contained in the 1991 submission to MOE was a proposal very similar to Beer Store project. As well, the November 1991 submission to MOE featured proposals for depots similar to those run in Saskatchewan employing disabled peoples and youths, to stimulate job creation for and use some of the vacant store fronts littering downtown areas that were growing in Ontario. It seemed crystal-clear this problem would grow as the invasion of big box stores such as Walmart and Costco accelerated. In the early 1990s some communities like Brantford already had serious downtown empty storefront problems (although supposedly things there are improving the recent arrival of a new casino and associated college programs paid for using casino profits.)

Perhaps the 12-option Submission to the MOE’s Management Committee was 300-pages long with all the appendices. But it didn’t matter a bit. Even though it had been requested by the Minister, Ruth Grier and her staff in September 1991. Minister Grier and her staff were frustrated that no policy options were forthcoming from the MOE staff. I conveyed my view to Minister Grier that the MOE staff were not going to cooperate. Most were engineers, not policy developers. At the Ministry of Attorney General I had been taught that civil servants generate policy options that are incorporated into Cabinet submissions and analyzed from economic, environmental, social, cultural and justice perspectives.

But the MOE engineers who dominated waste management law and policy in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to loathe lawyers and policy developers. Need to cross a river? These MOE folks said there really was only one good solution – “build a bridge”: you don’t study options like establishing a ferry across the river unless a big, complex, engineered bridge can’t work.

Thus, on container recycling the MOE engineers firmly and religiously maintained that only one option was viable: continuing with the existing Blue Box system. No deposits on LCBO bottles or other containers. No depots.

As a compromise and perhaps a bone toss to Minister Grier my manager at MOE agreed that a Submission to the MOE’s Management Committee outlining other options indeed was feasible. Once he had concluded he could not fire me or ship me off to the MOE office in Timmins. However, he cleverly decided to make sure that the documents would become incomprehensible by including as many options as I could conceive. And voila. It worked marvelously well.

I recall the meeting when I knew my ideas were soon to be buried at the Ministry. Ruth Grier and her senior advisors were there at the tiny five-person meeting held in Grier’s office in late December 1991. My manager, a long time MOE waste engineer and obfuscator, portrayed my submission as a confusing disaster, pulling out every possible excuse and piece of information that could discredit me and the submission. It was heartbreaking. When I left Minister Grier’s 12th floor offices that night I wondered if I should just quit the MOE.

In sum, there was no way I was going to convince MOE’s management committee that sending broken mixed coloured green, blue and clear liquor and wine bottles, brown beer bottles and clear pickle jar glass (with contaminants as widely diverse as light bulbs and pyrex glass baking dishes) should be stopped by placing deposits on LCBO containers. I was advised that the 1985 Blue Box deal required that glass be put into blue boxes. End of story. David, they queried, “have you not read the scriptures of the Ontario recycling gods – Derek Stephenson, Glenda Gies, Jack McGuiness and their brethen?”

Meanwhile back in 1990 and 1991 Metro Toronto (as it then was) was paving its landfills with the mixed broken glass and using it as aggregate replacement for road building. Glass that had tremendous embodied energy. Consumers Glass in Etobicoke (West Toronto) warned the MOE bureaucrats and the Blue Box priests that if MOE continued to forced them to take the mixed glass they would have to close their doors. The contaminated glass was causing serious injuries to workers making new bottles from the recycled glass because “surprise, surprise” contaminants like pyrex dish glass cause bottles to explode when the contaminated glass is drying. Some workers had experienced damage to their eyes and others had their faces burned. When I briefed Minister Jim Bradley on this with his staff in 1990, they just shrugged. “Talk to the Ministry of Labour and the Workers Safety and Insurance Board,” they said. And so I did.

Within the next two years Consumers Glass had closed its West Toronto operation. For years, glass bottles for beer bottling and many other packaging operations using glass bottles and jars have been imported from Mexico. Which outraged me initially, considering the energy required. Where are the 100-mile diet folks when you really need them?

Somewhere in my basement at my house in Peterborough I have a copy of my Submission to the MOE’s Management Committee submission which I obtained under Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection or Privacy Act in the late 1990s for teaching purposes. I want to drag it out. And eventually I will. But alas, I wanted to write this story without getting swept up with even more details.

Splashy Media Event for Recycling Plus

In pictures taken at The Beer Store’s Recycling Plus launch event on Friday Feb. 15, 2013 Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley (arguably, one of the midwives present at the birth of Ontario’s Blue Box system back in 1985) pushed the first returns through the green tape into the Recycling Plus centre at an Ontario Beer Store outlet.

In a Canadian Press story published in the Toronto Star on Feb. 16, Ted Moroz, president of The Beer Store, said “this place is a dedicated service for folks who are bringing back a whole lot of empties at once. It will allow us to handle returns quicker, and get them (customers) in and out quicker.”

Allowing consumers to bring in old paint, batteries and electronics “gives people one more reason to come here,” Moroz went on to say. He further claimed that the idea for Recycling Plus came from Beer Store employees (which I personally find very entertaining, as I will explain further below).

The assembled group, aside from Jim Bradley and Moroz, included: Lyle Clarke, Executive Vice-President, Stewardship Ontario, Cindy Coutts, President, Sims Recycling Solutions Canada and Franz Hartmann, Toronto Environmental Alliance.

Moroz told reporters and observers that if the pilot in west-end Toronto is successful, more centres will open across the province. “It’s a great facility, a sign of growth and innovation in Ontario,” he said. It’s “a true one-stop shop” for waste-conscious Ontarians.

Moroz said they chose the location of the first facility (299 Campbell Avenue at Dupont St., one block west of Lansdowne Ave.) in west end of the old City of Toronto based on its accessibility. “We are in a highly urban area,” he said. “It’s a good place for bulk returns. There are a lot of folks who just want to return a lot of empties whether it’s a charity bottle drive or someone just wanting to clean out their garage.”

Cindy Coutts, president of Sims Canada, told the launch attendees the facility would initially just be a place to drop off used paint, battery and electronics for recycling, but would eventually offer incentives for recycling these items to organizations looking to raise money. When products are brought to the recycling centre, returns are sorted into separate bins — one for each type of return. Employees have been given health and safety training and have access to protective equipment. “There is very little chance for cross-contamination,” Coutts said.

Although the pilot has just launched, he said the Beer Store is already looking for places to expand. “Downtown Toronto would be an ideal place to be, and we are working on getting real estate in that area,” Moroz also said. (This should not be that hard given the growing number of empty storefronts in prime areas of Ontario cities, as noted above.)

Who really is behind this?

If you believe that some Beer Stores employees are behind this, I have some Florida swampland that you might be interested in purchasing. Real cheap. Only $100 million per acre.

To my mind I could see how The Beer Store unions, management and other players may have been involved. But clearly there are much bigger sharks circling the table.

What is most entertaining is the involvement of Stewardship Ontario, who have opposed depots and deposit-return systems since they first created as a lobbying front and tax flow through front by the soft drink industry in 1985. Then SO (and its extremely well-paid policy gurus) was called the Ontario Multi-Materials Recycling Initiative (OMMRI) and later it was rebranded as CIPSI. I suspect that SO sees the writing on the wall as the Municipal Hazardous and Special Wastes (MHSWs) program begin to fall apart, delivering low recovery rates and increasingly higher costs.

The media advisory was sent out by Don Huff, a well-known Liberal strategist who worked in the trenches for the Liberals back in the early 1990s after the Ontario Liberals lost the September 1990 election. Huff has reinvented himself as a consultant and communication strategist. A quick search on the Internet reveals his recent clients have included: The Beer Store, Gord Miller, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, and various Ontario government ministries and agencies. Back in the early days of the McGuinty government, Don worked for some key ministers on various projects, as I recall, including energy conservation, green energy and building code changes. He continues to act as a key information hub for dozens of issues, facilitating spin at the highest levels using a Rolodex that would make Justin Trudeau’s staffers drool.

Consultants and staff working for the Beer Store in the past 17 years also now also are associated with Sims.

Loads of connections here. Perhaps Don Huff and Stewardship Ontario staff have part-time jobs working for The Beer Store, along with a bunch of other Liberal insiders.

Personally, I don’t really care who is behind the new program. What I am more interested in is its design. Does this offer an improved way to collect waste paint, electronics and other Municipal Hazardous and Special Wastes. Absolutely. But I suspect it won’t work properly until adequate deposit systems are put in place that reward consumers for driving over to the store and dropping the stuff off, using their time and gas or wheeling it over in their buggies.

Why not also encourage consumers to drop off used pharmaceuticals? Perhaps used oil? Used tires? Clothes hangers? Shoes? Clothes? And provide modest financial rewards.

And, while we are at it, perhaps we also should encourage those scrap collectors who scour our neighbourhood blue boxes and bins for aluminum soft drink cans to bring them back to this facility instead of bring them scrap metal dealers.

In North Toronto where I lived for more than 22 years I became astonished by the growth of these collectors. Indeed, they trundle around shopping carts nearly 12 or 15 feet wide and 10 feet high with plastic bags stuffed with aluminum soft drink cans. Back in late 1990s I would admonish my well-heeled neighbours who would raid blue boxes for soft drink cans to support worthy causes like Habitat for Humanity and Boy Scouts, pointing out that the aluminum cans were the material in the boxes that had the most value.

In doing so, we could keep more of the profits from sales of valuable, energy-rich aluminum cans for running recycling system in the public sector, especially if these depots are run by non-profit agencies and create jobs for unemployed youths. But now I’m back-tracking to 1991 and my naïve fantasies.

In any case, this project is fascinating and worthy of monitoring.

David McRobert is an Ontario-based environmental and energy lawyer and a blogger for HazMat Management and Solid Waste & Recycling magazines. Between October 1994 and June 2010, he was In-House Counsel at the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario and was involved in the establishment of the office. David has a B.Sc. in Biology from Trent University (1980), a Master’s degree, and an LL.B. degree from Osgoode Hall Law School (1987). He taught environmental law at York University between 1994 and 2009 and has numerous previous publications.

If you want to reach David, contact him at mcrobert@sympatico.ca

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