This article from the Toronto Star will interest readers as it provides a neat summary of the problems facing Ontario’s e-waste stewardship program. I have a few issues with this article (notably the writing style and references to “the stewardship” which I assume means the stewardship program operator OES) but the thrust of the article is accurate and, although I am not the unnamed source, I don’t disagree with the comment that it smacks of Soviet-era design.
To my mind, the problem with many of these stewardship programs is not just the issue of their failing to meet targets and so on. I have a deeper concern with lack of true market competition among service providers and (more importantly) I think consumers need a real economic signal and incentive to return e-waste for recycling.
It’s one thing to charge a fee on the sale of new TVs and so on, to pay for the proper recycling of old ones, but I think part of the fee should be returned to consumers when they bring their e-waste back to the store or depot. There could be a sliding scale where a larger deposit is paid for relatively new e-waste and a smaller for really old historical stuff in people’s basements. There has to be something to counteract people going around and cashing in on clearing out the attic of everyone in their neighborhood.
But even that’s a side story to my next idea, which is that e-waste should not just be put out with the trash. I long for the day when I can take my old cell phone, printer or laptop etc. to Future Shop or other major retailers and collect some kind of half-back deposit refund, just like one can on used beverage containers in progressive jurisdictions. Even with up-front eco fees, if there’s “no value” assigned to e-waste I simply set at the curb for collection, it will never be more than trash in consumers’ minds. And I don’t see where the incentive is for producers to “design for the environment” (DfE). If an eco fee pays for the bulk collection and processing of used electronic goods, the system benefits “free riders” as much as companies like HP that are making large investments in greening their operations.
Here’s the Toronto Star article:
Back to Ontario’s electronics recycling plan coming up short
Ontario’s electronics recycling plan coming up short
June 26, 2011
If you bought a TV in Ontario there’s a good chance the extra $26 you paid in eco fees was wasted.
That’s because Ontario’s struggling electronic waste recycling program — which collected $71 million from consumers last year — has not been able to recycle all of the toxic materials it promised to keep out of landfill.
Financial records show the provincially-mandated Ontario Electronic Stewardship has $20 million sitting in a bank account. Critics say that money could have recycled the equivalent of roughly 4 million laptops or 1.6 million personal computers.
Environment Minister John Wilkinson has told the stewardship to get rid of the surplus by lowering the eco fees and collecting more electronic waste to recycle, a ministry spokesperson said.
“We can’t have a $20 million surplus sitting there doing nothing,” said the ministry’s Mark Rabbior.
Another $11 million in consumer fees is sitting in a reserve fund.
Eco fees are politically toxic for a Liberal government in the months leading to the Oct. 6 election.
Last summer, the government endured public rage — initiated by opposition parties — when fees on household hazardous waste, like bleach, were added at the cash register on July 1, the same day the HST kicked in.
This year, consumers will see minor decreases in electronic eco fees on Aug. 1, to cut part of the $20 million surplus.
As chair of the stewardship’s board, Sony Canada’s Nick Aubry worries that a focus on eco-fees will put the program at risk because “the silly season is upon us.
“My fear now as we are coming into the political season is that the program could be a victim of politics,” Aubry said.
The stewardship is a private organization funded by manufacturers and retailers of electronics, including Sony, Dell and Best Buy. The companies are supposed to pay for the recycling of the goods they sell, but they pass on those extra costs to the consumer buying the products. These companies set the eco-fee rates through the stewardship.
Eco-fees currently range from $26.25 for televisions to $12.25 for computer monitors. As of Aug. 1, those fees will drop to $25 and $11 respectively.
Consumers are invited to drop off electronics at municipal depots or in some cities, electronics can be left curbside on garbage day to be collected by a special truck (it started in Toronto last fall). The stewardship then divides the electronics among a group of approved recyclers.
Carol Hochu, executive director of the stewardship, said the $20 million surplus will be eaten up by the drop in eco fees or will be spent on publicity for the program. Last year the OES spent $8.6 million on promotion and education.
Hochu predicted the program will run a deficit next year. She said she could not predict whether eco fees will rise again.
“That is a bit speculative at this point, to be totally honest, that is a ‘what if’ scenario,” she said.
Hochu said the stewardship follows a “process and methodology” for fee setting. In its most recent annual report, the organization said it wanted to keep the prices of eco fees intact until at least 2012.
But April 28 minutes from the organization that oversees the stewardship, state that “MOE senior staff had met with (the stewardship) earlier to work out the approach to reducing fees.”
These new lower fees were quickly pushed through the Waste Diversion Ontario meeting. They will appear on store receipts by Aug. 1.
Some board members voted against the new fees saying the plan was rushed.
Jo-Anne St. Godard, of the Recycling Council of Ontario, said there were too many unanswered questions — especially on the program’s ability to increase its lagging collection rates if eco fees were lowered.
“I was looking for the business case,” St. Godard said. “What was the rationale behind the fees that went down? Does it mean you are collecting too many fees and it is time to reduce that? Or, does it mean you are reducing diversion?”
More than 100,000 tonnes of old electronics are available for recycling in Ontario households and workplaces.
Since it began in April 2009, the stewardship has repeatedly missed its collection targets for electronics, harmful to the environment because they contain materials like mercury, cadmium or beryllium.
The first-year target was 42,000 tonnes but the program only collected 17,000 tonnes. The second-year target was lowered to 33,000 tonnes and the stewardship collected 29,000.
Stewardship chair Aubry defended the program, saying it had growing pains but is constantly improving. He said its original collection targets were a miscalculation and were set too high.
“Our crystal ball didn’t work very well,” he said.
Critics say the program was flawed from the start. They take issue with a system that uses a small number of recycling companies, with each given a quota of materials to recycle. An ambitious recycler that holds recycling drives to bring in materials still must share them with its competitors.
One critic called the collection program — designed by the electronics corporations — as “Soviet Union-esque.”
More than 10 recycling companies signed on but others opted out and are selling the materials for up to five times the amount the stewardship pays. Environmentalists are concerned that shady recyclers are taking the most lucrative components and illegally dumping the rest in landfills.
Usman Valiante, an environmental business consultant, said the program should be using the money collected through eco fees to properly pay companies that want to collect and recycle electronics.
“It’s economics 101. You can put up all the advertising that you want but if you don’t have a program that gives sufficient financial incentives to collect and recycle materials, you are never going to meet your targets,” Valiante said.
Stewardship official Carol Hochu said she made tweaks to the program last fall, giving recycling companies more flexibility to collect their own electronic waste.
In the first six months, an additional 4,000 tonnes was collected as a result, Hochu said.
But in a letter to the stewardship last September, Cindy Coutts, president of SIMS Recycling in Brampton called the new program “flawed.”
Coutts said the collection program makes it cheaper for companies trying to get rid of their electronic waste deal directly with the stewardship, cutting out recyclers like SIMS.
The new system “simply perpetuates the unworkable, anti-competitive scheme that in place today,” Coutts wrote.