It was unfortunate that I wasn’t able to attend the AGM of Waste Diversion Ontario, as Ontario’s Environment Minister Laurel Broten made some important announcements. Thanksfully, representatives from the Ontario Waste Management Association were on hand, and forwarded notes to their members (including me) about a change in direction that the minister announced in regard to certain materials for which Waste Diversion Ontario was supposed to develop programs and policy recommendations.
The first and most important is that there will be no “western model” used-oil program in Ontario. This represents a significant achievement for Safety-Kleen and Newalta — the two large used-oil collection and re-refining companies that argued (successfully, it now appears) that their wholly private-sector driven systems are handling used oil as successfully, and perhaps more so, as provinces that have introduced producer responsibility programs for used oil based on collectives and stewardship boards. The area that’s less successful (filters and containers) will be handled in a household hazardous waste program, the details of which are forthcoming but not yet known.
I won’t gloat, but I have to say that I believe (or at least hope) that our magazine played some role in this important policy reversal, as it was in the pages of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine that articles first appeared that questioned the suitability of the Alberta-style used-oil programs for Ontario. I have written on this topic, but it was really Usman Valiante, a contributing editor and also a consultant whose clients include Safety-Kleen, who led the charge. He adapted some of his writings for an article on that topic that appeared on the op-ed page of the Financial Post, that surely also influenced the policymakers. It’s amazing to think what a difference only a small number of people can make in preventing what would otherwise have been a “slam dunk” for the purveyors of and environmentally and economically regressive scheme.
Similar reasoning (that the private sector is on the job) was put forward in opposing a proposed scrap tire program for Ontario. Again, as with used oil, the people putting forward the draft policy were the brand owners of the “virgin product” without adequate representation from, and consultation with, the association of scrap-tire handlers who already collect these materials in a private sector-led scheme in Ontario. (And again, I must note, that Usman Valiante played a leading role in helping the scrap-tire handlers formulate their position and voice their concerns.) The proposed program has been shelved for the time being so that the ministry and the WDO can focus on more urgent priorities. Does this mean the scrap tire system in Ontario is flawless, and couldn’t benefit from some kind of legislation or program? Certainly not. But, as with used oil, Ontario policymakers have recognized that in certain cases a product stewardship program administered by a collective with a visibile fee, etc. can create anti-competitive and even environmentally regressive situations. Government policy should recognize and augment existing systems operated by the private sector, and not impose a central-planning model. It’s indeed impressive that Ontario’s environment ministry has finally “got the message” on this.
The minister has announced that there will be an HHW program in Ontario, one in which municipalities will receive the materials in their depots, since they already have this infrastructure. I can see this being part of a successful program, but I’m worried that this might signal that HHW will be handled by the public sector. Hopefully the minister means to integrate the municipal infrastructure with a producer responsibility program in which consumers and companies will pay for the recycling, diversion and safe disposal of HHW. Time will tell.
One last thought. While I’m thrilled that Ontario’s environment minister has understood the flaws in the former used oil and scrap tire proposals, I have started to wonder about the value of the WDO. I mean, the minister makes the decisions in the end anyway, and the WDO had recommended policies she has now rejected. Why not just determine all this right in the ministry? What value is the WDO adding? It seems the main area of success relates to the blue box materials, for which Stewardship Ontario (the industry funding organization or “IFO”) already calls the shots. Stewardship Ontario could be maintained as the blue box IFO, and WDO could simply be closed. The ministry could ask the municipalities and an IFO that respresents the HHW brand owners to hammer out a system. I hate to say this, because I respect Glenda Gies (the WDO’s executive director), but I just don’t see the need for the WDO anymore.