Solid Waste & Recycling

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Box and Bottle Blues

On October 7, after a year of intense debate between municipalities, industry groups and other stakeholders, Ontario's Minister of Environment Norm Sterling announced a plan to improve and fund provin...


On October 7, after a year of intense debate between municipalities, industry groups and other stakeholders, Ontario’s Minister of Environment Norm Sterling announced a plan to improve and fund provincial Blue Box curbside recycling programs. The announcement caught some observers by surprise; the plan is an outline only in that the specifics will be addressed through a further stakeholder process.

The provincial government’s own estimates indicate that, in the last decade, $210-million has been invested in the program’s infrastructure by the province, $340-million by municipalities, and $41-million by industry. Estimates by others suggest even higher numbers. Yet, the program hasn’t become the self-sustaining system some had hoped. The Recycling Council of Ontario recently estimated that–province-wide–the Blue Box runs a $46-million annual deficit. (This could balloon to more than $60-million after favorable fibre contracts for Toronto and London expire in January.) This money comes from municipal budgets already strained by other demands and industry contributions are–relative to the shortfall–minor.

Though net recycling costs may be cheaper than landfill in some places, the province’s goal of 50 per cent diversion of waste from landfill has stalled. This is particularly true in large urban centers where incremental costs can go up dramatically as more and more specialized diversion programs are implemented. The “low-hanging fruit,” it appears, has been picked.

Sterling’s plan is evolutionary, not revolutionary. It calls on the food, beverage, and consumer product industries, newspapers, and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) to contribute–voluntarily–a total of $20-million (i.e., less than half the annual shortfall). To jump-start things, the LCBO will make an initial contribution of $4-million.

The plan also calls for a provincial waste diversion organization to allocate the funds and monitor initiatives. The details of exactly who will belong and how it will work are currently sketchy.

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As readers of this magazine know, there has been a long and sustained cry for the LCBO to take-back bottles under deposit as this would capture far more beverage-container glass for reuse or recycling than curbside collection, and cost taxpayers nothing. The idea is supported not only by environmental groups, but by the City of Toronto and 265 other Ontario cities. They believe LCBO glass needlessly impairs Blue Box economics and contaminates their material streams.

The LCBO’s $4-million cash contribution is a crumb that won’t satisfy municipal appetites. The amount is small in comparison with the money collected by the province via its ten-cent levy on LCBO bottles and the LCBO’s annual profits, which exceed $750-million. Even The Toronto Star, which editorially supported Sterling’s overall initiative, questioned the absence of an LCBO deposit-return program.

The 1996 report of Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner estimates that the annual cost of recycling and landfilling Ontario wine and liquor bottles is about $10-million. This number–if correct–leaves a $6-million deficiency for this type of glass alone.

The request for industry to voluntarily donate $20-million has already been balked at by some groups– notably newspapers, who fear they’ll be metered by weight rather than volume (which would be cheaper). Some may opt out of the Blue Box altogether and collect materials themselves. (If so, Sterling may succeed in using a non-regulatory tactic to indirectly force those industries to adopt “producer responsibility” options that he might prefer.)

Sterling’s plan sounds a lot like OMMRI and CIPSI, the multi-year processes that sought the same objectives (with the same industry players) and failed. But times have changed since the CIPSI deliberations. Without the provincial subsidies they used to enjoy, municipalities have realized they must bargain hard with the provincial government and not trust vague industry promises.

Sterling has mentioned one important “R” word–regulation. If industry does not voluntarily come to the table, contributions may be compelled. Critics are skeptical: Will Sterling finally do what no other Ontario environment minister has done? No doubt, a firm hand will be required before industry will voluntarily pay $20-million annually.

Sterling’s carrot-and-stick approach contrasts with the news that Quebec is moving forward with a CIPSI-like program of its own which will pre-determine many of the key issues (e.g., funding allocations, treatment of beverage containers, and a variety of other issues). (See article, page 29) Surrounded by deposit-return in the East and West, and a command-and-control system in Quebec, it’s difficult (for now) to predict how successful the Ontario proposal will be.


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