Product stewardship is an everyday practice in the City of Ottawa, thanks to an innovative program called “Take it Back!” This return-to-vendor program is part of an integrated strategy to deal with household special waste materials and other items in the waste stream that do not belong in landfills or residential recycling program. (See Composting Matters, page 22.)
The city partners with local businesses to take back many of the items they sell, including used motor oil, needles and syringes, toner cartridges, computer keyboards, medications, propane gas cylinders, and tires. They pledge to accept used items from their customers and take full responsibility to recycle, reuse, or properly dispose of them. In exchange, the retailers benefit not only from the customer flow that occurs as people come in to bring things back, but also from the free promotional materials offered by the City. In addition, the retailers get a free listing in an annual directory published by Ottawa’s Solid Waste Services Division that is distributed to all households, libraries, community centres and also made available at all the city offices. The directory, which is distributed during Waste Reduction Week in Ontario, is also available on the city’s web site (linked to www.solidwastemag.com).
The program began four years ago with 16 automotive retail locations. The short-term goal was to increase the convenience for consumers by providing an increased number of proper disposal sites. The long-term goal is to capture more household hazardous waste (HHW) from the public.
Previously, the only advertised public options for HHW disposal (used motor oil, tires, antifreeze and car batteries) was the HHW depot at the landfill, or the city’s one-day mobile collection event. But the landfill is remotely located in the South West corner of the city and attendance is historically low, partly due to the long distance the majority of residents have to travel to reach it.
The public and retail response to Take it Back! was so positive that by the second year of the program participants increased to over 150 retail locations and the list of accepted products had grown to over thirty. The popularity continued and by the third year the program had over 275 partner locations and product categories were added such as health, household, garden and electronics. More products were also added within the automotive category.
How does it work?
Every year, summer-student staff from the solid waste services division survey potential partners. The students explain the program concept and ask about their interest and ability to take back products. If the retailer agrees to join the program, a signature commitment form is required. The partner’s commitment is to take back certain products (and not necessarily from its own customers) and to pay the cost of handling all products taken back. In a few cases, e.g., tires, a small handling fee is charged at some locations.
Residents are asked to follow a few simple rules such as to return products only during business hours and to call ahead and inquire if there are special conditions. They are also informed small fees may apply for certain items, and quantities may be limited.
The city confirms partnership and promotes the program, including management and costs of design, layout, printing and distribution of all promotional materials. The bilingual promotional materials include in-store posters, counter-card signs in acrylic holders for placement at cash areas, window or door stickers and a supply of bookmarks listing the telephone number and web site address for retailers to distribute to their customers.
Entering its fourth year, the program — which includes over 300 retail locations that take back over 60 products — offers a convenient, low-cost option that fits into busy daily routines. The key to the program’s success is that it has created a winning situation for all parties: the residents, the retailers, and the environment.
The City of Toronto is developing a similar take-back program. (See “Toronto’s New Waste Diversion Plans” in the October/November 2001 edition.)
Trish Johnson is program manager of waste diversion and processing for the City of Ottawa, Ontario.