One could be forgiven for being confused by the different reports flying around concerning new legislation and programs in British Columbia and Ontario that assign responsibility for end-of-life management of packaging and products to their producers.
The reports — which are contradictory at times — concern Ontario’s proposed Bill 91, Waste Reduction Act (which has gone to second reading and committee) and BC’s Recycling Regulation that was updated in May 2011 to include packaging and printed paper. Multi-Material British Columbia (MMBC) is implementing a funding program in that province.
The proposed changes introduce “individual producer responsibility” (IPR) for discards into the marketplace. IPR is a version of “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) that’s popular with conservationists because it holds producers accountable for their wastes, and prevents them from contracting out their responsibilities to stewardship collectives, which may charge consumers an advanced recycling fee and allow “business as usual” to continue.
One problem with the policy discussion is that’s “inside baseball” with the general public. Years ago it was confusing enough to the average person to decide whether incineration was a bad thing, or what they can throw in their blue box. Nowadays, understanding whether a visible “eco fee” should (or should not) be charged at the point of purchase is pretty much the sole purview of full-time consultants.
When Ontario introduced the blue box in the 1980s it was widely adopted across North America because it satisfied a convergence of different agendas, allowing the beverage industry to rebrand it’s throwaway bottles and cans as “recyclable,” and the public to assuage its guilt by recycling things like cans and bottle, while they continued to consume, consume, consume (and generate and more more waste year over year). Municipal managers enjoyed their expanded responsibilities overseeing the new programs.
The problem was (and remains), who pays for it all? And was the focus on recycling really the “right answer to the wrong question”?
Activists like Helen Spiegelman of BC SPEC have argued for years that the municipal waste infrastructure represents a subsidy to industrial inefficiency. Years ago when — as part of an urban sanitation movement — the utility model that worked well for treating municipal drinking water and sewage was applied to solid waste, producers were disengaged from the costs and environmental impacts of their products and packaging. Predictably, over time they manufactured more and more “disposable” products and switched to cheap “one way” packaging materials.
Unfortunately, much of the argumentation over BC and Ontario’s new IPR plans is like the chateau generals in World War One fighting the last war, charging their calvary against machine guns. Municipal recyclers are clinging to their roles, and are suspicious of the cash being offered by industry. Some Ontario industry reps — hoping to maintain the status quo “shared cost” recycling system — have misrepresented the MMBC program as some kind of disaster.
Lost in the bickering is the fact that IPR is re-framing a basic question. Instead of asking, “How can we recycle more?” IPR really asks, “What would a sustainable economy look like?” Forcing producers to internalize their costs (the thinking goes) will encourage them to find the most efficient way to lower the end-of-life management costs of their products and packaging.
The Holy Grail of IPR is, of course, “design for the environment” (DfE) and closed loop (“cradle-to-cradle”) production and distribution of goods. Inspired ‘cuz they’re paying for it, producers will reinvent products so they never become waste in the first place or (at least) choose sustainable materials that are easy to recycle. Plastic laminates that are vexing to separate and recycle may be “out”; fibrous packaging harvested from eco-certified forests and plantations may be “in.”
The current focus on who will pay for recycling distracts us from what is nothing less than the re-invention of the economic system — an attempt to protect the public interest, the environment, and engender real sustainability.
We must hope that the policymakers make some much-needed changes to the legislation. (For instance, Ontario’s proposed Waste Reduction Authority should not be involved in setting fees between producers and municipalities.) But we also hope they have the fortitude to see this thing through in the face of opposition from private interests. Let’s face it, multinationals can often outspend and outlast elected officials.
What goes down in the next few months in BC and Ontario will be hugely telling as to whether or not we’re going to see real IPR in the near future!
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org