On November 12, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) issued a news release extolling “French Rabbit” — a wine sold in a Tetra-Pak-style container — as “the most successful launch of a new wine in LCBO history.” In addition to ringing up sales, winemaker Boisset has donated 50 cents from the sale of each one-litre Tetra-Pak to the LCBO’s Natural Heritage Fund “to build a new facility to house an expanded breeding program through the winter months for the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike, an endangered Ontario songbird.”
This is clever marketing, no doubt the product of many a focus group. Saving the shrike will give consumers a warm fuzzy feeling beyond the one triggered by wine. Unfortunately for the cynical strategists at the LCBO, however, even some of its wooziest customers still have enough intact analytical synapses to see through this ploy. A litre of song-bird-saving plonk can’t drown away the fact that this is one of the most regressive attempts to subvert environmental policy in recent history. Let’s call it “RabbitScam.”
Here’s the deal.
In the late 1990s, the City of Toronto was losing money collecting glass bottles via the blue box. (To this day it costs the city $150 to collect and “recycle” broken cullet into low-value road-bed aggregate.) The city threatened to enact a bylaw to force LCBO stores to implement a deposit-refund system as a condition of business licensing. To avoid this, the LCBO indirectly offered the city a million dollars per year to offset its losses. Via Stewardship Ontario, the LCBO started contributing $5 million each year to Ontario’s blue box recycling program ($30 million since 1998).
That agreement expired and, under the current Blue Box Funding Program, the LCBO must now pay 50 per cent of the net recycling costs of its containers. According to Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO), “Under the current weighting factors in the formula, those materials with the highest recycling rates (and therefore the stewards of these materials) will attract the highest costs.”
The LCBO now has a financial incentive to move suppliers away from heavy, low-value glass, 64 per cent of which is diverted from landfill, and direct them toward lighter packaging, especially packaging that doesn’t get recycled much. This is where the Tetra-Pak “aseptic” wine containers come in. Aseptics are much lighter than glass, and only 9.5 per cent are currently recycled in Ontario.
Choosing Tetra Paks has nothing to do with saving the Eastern Loggerhead Shrike and everything to do with avoiding blue box recycling levies. Yet the LCBO news release claims that the aseptics are part of a program to raise its waste diversion rate from 64 per cent to 80 per cent (something that only deposit-refund systems can do). It’s unclear how a container whose recycling rate is in the single digits will help. In 2003, only 268 tonnes of aseptic containers from the residential sector were recycled in Ontario, at a cost of $752.60 per tonne.
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario (among others) recently called upon the province to require the LCBO to set up a deposit-refund system for its bottles. Environmentalists have said for years that a shift to standardized wine bottles would create the optimal environmental system, because domestic wine producers could reuse them and move everything up the 3Rs hierarchy.
In any case, 20 of every 100 LCBO-sold bottles are currently recycled back into bottles, mostly via two Owens-Illinois (O-I Canada) plants in Brampton and South Etobicoke (Environment Minister Broten’s riding, coincidentally). The rest are turned into low-value mixed cullet. Ironically, O-I, which needs more recycled glass, actually imports glass from Michigan and Quebec as LCBO glass is sent to build “roads” in landfills.
It gets worse. Under the LCBO’s listing policy, an Ontario winery must pull a listing off of shelves if it wants to add a new listing. However, it can add a listing in a Tetra-Pak without having to pull a product off of the shelves. In effect, the LCBO is saying to Ontario vintners, “The only way you can grow is to package in Tetra-Paks.” In this scheme, Ontario wineries lose opportunity, including inexpensive bottles, the Ontario glass manufacturers lose a local source of clean glass, Tetra-Paks and glass both keep going to landfill or glass is “downcycled” into aggregate (municipalities lose millions), and the LCBO avoids a deposit-refund system.
The LCBO is promoting an even more complicated mix of containers and questionable materials behind its environmental fig leaf. In it’s LCBO Exchange newsletter (November/December 2005), Tamara Burns, VP merchandizing, says that because of the success of French Rabbit, “at least 30 more wines and other beverage alcohol products in environmentally friendly packaging are expected to be offered by the LCBO within a year.” Lyle Clarke, LCBO senior policy advisor, states, “The LCBO is leading the way in North America and may change the buying habits of hundreds of thousands of Ontario residents in the coming year.”
Those buying habits include more wines sold in Tetra Paks and, says Burns, “We’re even looking into the possibility of a wine in a spun aluminum bottle.”
This is incredible. The last time I looked into the toxic side effects of strip-mining bauxite and the massive amounts of electricity needed for smelting, I concluded that aluminum is about the most environmentally unfriendly material one could choose for a single-serve beverage container.
But I’m sure Ontario wine consumers will load up their SUVs with them when the producer offers to kick a few cents per unit over to a new program to save some endangered bird, animal or plant.
RabbitScam, you see, has only just begun.
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Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Email Guy at email@example.com