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Lessons from Ontario's Eco Fee Fiasco

The fiasco that was Ontario's "eco fee" program for household hazardous wastes, and the ill-informed and mal-intended political debate -- and subsequent misleading media coverage -- that took place in July has damaged the cause of extended...


The fiasco that was Ontario’s “eco fee” program for household hazardous wastes, and the ill-informed and mal-intended political debate — and subsequent misleading media coverage — that took place in July has damaged the cause of extended producer responsibility (EPR).

Those of us who hope to see true EPR in our lifetime must be naïve, I suppose. Did we expect this vast sea change in the end-of-life management of products and packaging to transition without a hitch?

I’ll try to sort out the mess for readers.

In July 2008 Ontario introduced the first phase of the Municipal Hazardous or Special Waste (MHSW) program to divert products like paints, solvents, used oil filters, anti-freeze and batteries from landfills and waterways. Stewardship Ontario (an industry-based, not-for-profit organization created in 2002) established, funded and implemented the program. The wastes are mostly collected at municipal facilities on special drop-off days, then sent for safe recycling or disposal, with industry footing the bill. This program has diverted more than 20,000 tonnes of haz-waste per year since its inception, and has saved taxpayers an estimated $500 million in costs.

On July 1, 2010, Stewardship Ontario expanded its program to include more wastes, such as aerosols, cleaners, thermometers, fluorescent lights and pharmaceuticals. Before we get into where things went awry, let’s be clear that this expanded program is highly desirable, assigning responsibility for end-of-life management of these hazardous materials to producers whose liability concerns will (over time) encourage them to gather more materials and keep them out of the environment.

The problem with Phase Two of the program was several-fold. The first (non-trivial) matter was its roll-out with little or no public education program on the same day the province introduced the Harmonized Sales Tax. Within a few weeks this led to a cascade of negative effects. Second, the program allowed producers to either internalize the costs or pass them along as a visible “eco fee” at the cash register. As Environment Commissioner Gord Miller noted in a special report, the different fees on apparently similar items were random and confusing for consumers, who immediately viewed them as a tax, though none of the funds flow to government. The opposition politicians saw their chance to present the fees as yet another tax grab, and wrongly portrayed them that way in sensational news conferences.

Retailers were confused as well. Some said the different fees were due to different chemical formulations and toxic ingredients in apparently similar products. Stores inevitably grossly overcharged in some instances, charging vastly more than, say, the one-cent fee that might have been appropriate on a given item. (It didn’t help that the Liberals started the program on the very same day that the controversial HST came into effect.) Lost on the opposition was the reality that taxpayers have been shouldering the cost of household hazardous waste disposal for decades, and the MHSW program shifts that cost to industry. Other misunderstandings perpetuated in the media included the silly notion that the eco fees are charged on materials that are ultimately “consumed” and not recycled (e.g., cleaners, aerosols) when it’s the management of the used containers (normally bearing chemical residues) for which the eco fee often pays.

The response of Stewardship Ontario (which ducked for cover for weeks) and Environment Minister Gerretsen (whose messaging appeared mixed and weak) will likely become a staple item on “what not to do” in public relations courses while Waste Diversion Ontario (the entity that approved the plan) never appeared on the public stage at all. At about the same time that Canadian Tire (and other retailers) announced it would stop charging the eco fees (until the mess is sorted out), Minister Gerretsen held a news conference and announced that — while the program would continue — the confusing eco fees would be canceled. (And, you guessed it, the Ontario government would pay for the program for three months while it re-thinks the whole situation.) Meanwhile, the Waste Diversion Act compels industry to pay into the program, so industry quickly pointed out the disconnect in the minister’s statement.

Two more flaws remain in the program that need rectifying. First (as Miller pointed out) is that the stewardship program charges the producers themselves uniform fees, so there’s no financial incentive for a given company to reduce the toxicity of its products; different environmental performers pay set fees regardless. What’s needed is “individual” producer responsibility in which companies are directly accountable for end-of-life product management. Second is the fact that opportunities to conveniently and safely dispose of household hazardous wastes are few and far between in many municipalities. Haz-waste collection days occur only a few times in the calendar year in some places, or require people to visit inconvenient depots with limited hours of operation during the work week. Those producers need to be held to recovery targets so they have an incentive to provide more drop-off locations and make returning MHSW easier for consumers.

All of the above-noted problems can be rectified, and retail “eco fees” will not re-appear (the minister says), but the public relations damage is immense and now people’s tolerance for such things as a deposit-refund system and return-to-retail (which might be appropriate for certain items, such as batteries) will be next to nil. Perhaps most damaging is that the political will to introduce sweeping changes (already drafted) to the Waste Diversion Act may be gone for good.

Let’s just hope that the revised program gets things right. There many not be another chance.

(For different perspectives, see articles on pages 20 and 54.)

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at gcrittenden@solidwastemag.com


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