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McGuinty Liberals fumble major environmental initiative


Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government in Ontario has capitulated to lobby pressure from regulated industry and postponed (possibly permanently) one of the most important pieces of constructive environmental legislation in a generation.
The legislation would revise Ontario’s Waste Diversion Act, and was supposed to be introduced in June in the legislature. The legislation was crafted by Environment Minister John Gerretsen and his staff, and was important for reasons I’ll list in a moment.
This is a very sad day for the environment and also a sad day for taxpayers, who will continue to subsidize businesses and wasteful packaging. Municipalities will continue to receive only 50-cent dollars in industry’s preferred “shared cost” model for curbside recycling, and a tremendous opportunity has been lost to move Ontario in the direction of sustainability, clean production and green jobs.
It seems that industry can afford to pay the best lobbyists to use scare tactics against politicians; municipalities (i.e., the public) cannot afford these lobbyists, and therefore the public interest has been thwarted (again). It’s simply incredible that such a winning piece of legislation, that would enjoy broad public support, could be thwarted by a small group of industry flacks, but there you go. Money and fear rule the day. Even though an election is a year away, the Liberals appear to have caved to fear-mongering and misleading characterizations of stewardship fees as “tax” (when in fact the whole exercise is about tax reduction).
The reason is also rumored to be that Gerretsen and his staff failed to “sell” the legislation enough to their counterparts in other ministries and in the Premier’s office.
Here are four reasons the revisions to the Waste Diversion Act should be reintroduced in the fall (and if not, this party is not fit to govern):
1. Currently, municipal ratepayers fund 50 per cent of the net costs of the blue box recycling program. This is a subsidy to industry that makes no sense anymore and gives industry very little incentive to redesign or eliminate its waste packaging, and to design products for ease of recycling at the end of their useful lives. Minister Gerretsen and his staff – after extensive public consultations – has read the public’s mind and knows the public “gets it” (when it’s explained properly) that it’s time to get waste diversion off the tax base and make producers responsible for the materials they send into the marketplace.
2. For once (finally!) all the right stars were in alignment to move forward with much-needed change. The Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) was in agreement with the various waste and recycling associations on matters that were negotiated over a period of years! Imagine, the Ontario Waste Management Association (OWMA) – that represents the private waste industry, including landfill owners – agreed that a surcharge should be applied to waste sent to landfill (to encourage waste diversion). That’s no mean feat! What politician is so stupid as to think the public would not favor such a surcharge? Are the Liberals so behind the public on environmental issues that they wish to encourage landfill disposal, even when the landfill industry itself sees the writing on the wall? The Municipal Waste Association (MWA), the Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO) and other organizations are all on the same page and ready to “get the word out” to the public that the new legislation is in the public interest; talk about squandering goodwill! Do the Liberals use the same public relations firm as BP?
3. Product stewardship and extended producer responsibility (EPR) are sweeping across the continent and Europe. Ontario has started to position itself as a leader in this area, and was about to introduce legislation that would have made it the talked-about role model across Canada and the United States. The province was poise to steal the crown from places like British Columbia… and then, nothing. Ironically, companies have started to figure out that clean production and eco-efficiency are the way to go. Industry just needs a nudge from policymakers to embrace the cradle-to-cradle way of producing and distributing goods, which is also good for new technology and green industry jobs (the kind that the politicians always say they want). With the postponement or cancellation of this legislation, the winners are the smokestack industries that want to continue business as usual and the companies that want to produce goods in China and import them here in packaging made from hundreds of different kinds of materials (many non-recyclable).
4. Bringing further producer responsibility to the economy and revising and strengthening the Waste Diversion Act fits with the “polluter pays” principle and is the very opposite of raising taxes; it’s a tax cut. The Liberals could literally campaign on having cut everyone’s taxes by moving hundreds of millions of dollars off of municipal balance sheets and into the more efficient private sector. Ironically, the original Waste Diversion Act was introduced by the provincial Conservative party, so would be hard-pressed to oppose the Act or improvements to it.
We must hope that this summer the people who understand the importance of the WDA review to the economy and the environment get in the face of the politicians and demand that this legislation be re-introduced in the fall and passed. Oddly, just today I received an email from Bill Sheehan of the Product Policy Institute (PPI) related to a white paper produced by David Stitzhal (PPI Vice President and principal of Full Circle Consulting) for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Product Stewardship Stakeholder Group.
Here’s a summary from that paper that everyone should show the dithering Liberal cabinet members so they can play catch up with the public on this important issue:
“Product-oriented policies reflect an awareness of – and an attempt to address – the impacts products have at end of life, as well as throughout the product’s life-cycle. Ideally, such product stewardship policies establish built-in mechanisms and incentives that minimize environmental impact at time of disposal, as well as during design, production, transport and other life-cycle stages. This is often achieved by building the costs of such impacts into the consumer-manufacturer transaction, rather than covering such costs through solid waste rates and taxes.
(What a great paragraph! The letter continues…)
“Many mechanisms exist and are emerging that establish level regulatory playing fields, thus allowing industry to compete on improving their environmental footprint, rather than simply cost and performance. These mechanisms rely on different engines, ranging from leveraging purchasing power (EPEAT, Top Runner) to restricting materials (RoHS, food service packaging), to requiring manufacturer take-back (Paint, E-Waste). These approaches provide lessons and experience from which Oregon can draw when exploring continued product-oriented policies as a tool for decreasing waste and toxicity in the State. Several lessons and policy recommendations are suggested.”
Links to the Oregon DEQ site — and to several other important papers on the subject — are posted at http://www.productpolicy.org/content/green-design
I hope Ontario gets back in the game, and fast, and doesn’t leave it to places like Oregon to lead and prosper from the new EPR paradigm.


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