I’m a great fan of the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR), in which (as anyone who reads Solid Waste & Recycling regularly knows) brand owners and other producers pay for the end-of-life management of products and packaging (rather than municipal ratepayers). Among the many potential virtues of EPR is that the polluter pays principle eliminates municipal subsidies and allocates costs where they belong — with the people who can change the products — and offers an economic incentive for waste minimization and design for environment (DfE) changes.
That being said, I’m not much of a fan of so-called “product stewardship” in the sense that, unlike EPR (with which it’s often confused), many of the “first generation” product stewardship programs have simply seen an advance recycling fee stuck on various products (e.g., tires, motor oil, etc.) which are then managed by a collective. While product stewardship does have the benefit of getting some materials out of the municipal waste stream, the programs so far have been plagued with problems, including lack of accountability (in some cases), poor program performance (without repercussions), and high costs. Fact is, many of the programs lack things we take for granted as beneficial in the marketplace such as competition, which lowers costs and improves services over time. For some strange reason the very companies that swear by free markets for the products they sell at the retail level suddenly become Castro-style socialists when it comes to end-of-life management of discards, settling for production quotas and service monopolies that time and again have led to underperformance everywhere else they’ve been imposed.
There is perhaps no better example of the shortcomings of product stewardship than Ontario’s program for waste electronics and electrical equipment (WEEE), which has been expanded in a second phase to collect and supposedly divert a wide range of materials from disposal, including everything from cell phones to old TVs. The program sounds fine in theory and has given more than one environment minister a nice photo op and chance to say they’re “doing something for the environment.” However, when the program was being designed and discussed, our magazine and its contributing editors argued vociferously that the program would potentially become an enormous boondoggle for consumers, conceived as it was with the usual industry collective managing the materials in a quota system.
The program was introduced anyway, over our objections, so we waited to see. Now the results are coming in, and it ain’t a pretty picture. Turns out that Ontario’s WEEE program is not diverting anything like the amount of material it was supposed to. Worse, consumers are being dinged a lot of money at the cash register in the form of eco fees on things like new flat screen TVs, supposedly to pay for lots of waste diversion of old electronic equipment. Sadly, consumers aren’t getting value for money, by any yardstick. The program taking in large amounts of money and diverting very little waste. It appears that Ontario residents are paying for the world’s most expensive, least effective product stewardship program for electronic waste.
Here are some quick Ontario WEEE facts that pretty much speak for themselves. The situation makes the recent debacle over household hazardous and special waste eco fees look like a well-thought out plan:
1. Ontario Electronics Stewardship (OES) – the collective that administers the program — had budgeted to collect $74.4 million (See program plan at Page 109) for its first year of operation and collected well over $60 million (they claim reduced revenue due to the economic downturn);
2. In the first full year of operation OES recovered 17,000 metric tonnes of e-waste (Source: Waste Diversion Ontario [WDO] staff report); so
3. The OES program costs anywhere from $3,500 to $4,400 per tonne – by far the costliest e-waste program in the world;
4. Therefore, with Ontario consumers having paid over $60 million in electronic eco-fees the program has recovered 44% of the diversion target that it set for itself and only 18% of what is available in Ontario annually (96,841 tonnes as per the plan at page 27). The remaining 82% is headed where? South East Asia?
So, not only is it the most expensive per tonne; it’s also the world’s most ineffective. To further make the point,
5. Alberta recovers 4.74/kg of e-waste per capita at a cost of $1,900/tonne while Ontario recovers 1.42 kg/per capita. And even Alberta’s program is no great shakes. As an absolute comparator Switzerland recovers about the same amount per capita as Alberta does at about half the cost.
6. Waste Diversion Ontario and Ontario Electronic Stewardship have not published a report on the performance of the Ontario WEEE program contrary to the Waste Diversion Act 2002 S 33. (1) “Each industry funding organization that is designated by the regulations as the industry funding organization for a waste diversion program shall, not later than April 1 in each year (a) prepare a report in accordance with this section on its activities during the previous year; and (b) provide a copy of the report to Waste Diversion Ontario and make the report available to the public.”
Maybe they’re just really busy folks, but it’s pretty easy to imagine why no one wants to publish the results: the program is failing and is something of an embarrassment. One could cut the program operators some slack with the excuse that “it’s new” and time is needed to improve performance. That’s rubbish! The program is fatally flawed by its very design. Private electronics recyclers, including some of the leading companies in the world, have been suggesting program changes repeatedly – changes that would do away with the quotas and create incentives for competition and investment in this industry, with their suggestions falling on deaf ears.
It’s time for the environment ministry to take action, or for voters to voice this displeasure in next year’s provincial election.