Ontario’s Bill 90, the Waste Diversion Act 2002, received Royal Assent on June 27 and established a new organization: Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO). The WDO will report to the provincial environment minister and oversee a number of Industry Funding Organizations (IFOs) that will pay 50 per cent of the net cost of handling their materials in municipal recycling programs. (Their half is currently estimated at between $17.5-million and $30-million.)
The result of current negotiations between the various stakeholders over who pays what and how this system (a central-planner’s dream) will work should be fascinating. For at last the full costs of recycling various materials will come into the open!
Roughly 4.2 million households in Ontario recycle about 700,000 tonnes of material. (A further 325,000 tonnes of organic waste is composted in centralized facilities.) Most of the recycling occurs via the famous curbside blue box — the first program of its kind anywhere. Three quarters of the material diverted from landfill (by weight) is fibre (including old newsprint, cardboard, etc.), almost 15 per cent is glass, 6.2 per cent is metal and 3.8 per cent plastic.
Despite its success as an altar for the genuflections of environmentally concerned citizens, blue-box recycling apparently has certain limitations, and Ontario has hit a wall at about 30 per cent diversion. Success is especially limited in cities like Toronto where half the population lives in high-rise apartments. Despite years of scolding, the public still throws half its aluminum pop cans in the rubbish — a terrible waste when one considers the environmental lifecycle of aluminum and the “embodied energy” in all those cans. (The system differs from most other provinces where privately operated deposit-return systems may capture in excess of 80 per cent of all beverage containers at no cost to taxpayers.)
In any case, the packaging producers finally have to get out their pencils and calculators and (apparently with more than a little tension) negotiate with one another about which industry should pay what slice of the money-losing blue box pie. (Then figure out how to charge this back to their members.)
Pity Diane Brisbois the rep from the Retail Council of Canada who spoke at the plenary session of the Recycling Council of Ontario’s annual conference in Belleville in September. The most she could do was admit her organization is a “newcomer” at the table whose members are “supportive” of recycling and are now beginning to try and figure out what constitutes their fair share. Unfortunately for her clients — the Walmarts and the Sears of the world — the other players saw this freight train coming at them from a long way down the track. For instance the Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC), aware from way back that its heavy products fill three quarters of the blue box, commissioned activity-based costing analyses that look not only at weight and volume, but also the time that it takes to collect, sort and bundle each item from the various fibre streams. How’d you like to argue with them? Since the grocers and soft-drink companies invented the blue box in the first place in order to avoid deposit-return systems, one must assume they are equally equipped with boxes of studies that show the low system-cost of their “light” (though bulky) containers.
The blue-box sponsoring industries recently warned the municipalities that they’d better cooperate with the WDO to get the system (i.e., the funding) in place before the next provincial election, expected next spring. Critics say there’s a risk that certain industries with an interest in Ontario’s current recycling system will try to stack the WDO board, nominate their preferred executive director or otherwise manipulate the system (e.g., influence the Industry Funding Organizations) to preserve the status quo — i.e., a system in which beverage containers will never be put on deposit, diversion rates won’t ever match those of other regions, and industry will only ever pay half (not all) of net recycling costs. Unaccountable, unelected bureaucracies deserve such suspicion.
But the draft WDO agreements talk about reduction and reuse and there’s nothing in the legislation that inherently blocks deposit-return legislation in future. Environment Minister Chris Stockwell has asked for “quantity targets” for each material and is already on record as supporting deposits for containers generated by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. In the meantime, the LCBO is offering $5-million annually for municipal recycling, yet unless the LCBO is privatized these funds are more like a taxpayer contribution. Should they really count toward industry’s “half”?
Also, the environment minister could mandate that organic waste must be composted and not sent to landfill. It’s not clear from an energy and environmental life-cycle perspective that it makes sense to truck large volumes of kitchen scraps and yard waste to centralized plants. Some say that backyard composting (for houses) and kitchen sink “garborators” (for apartments) make more sense. In any case, municipal waste managers challenged with getting over the “50 per cent” diversion hurdle may find centralized organics diversion irresistible as it will increase the size and prestige of their programs.
In that case, the WDO will face a huge challenge figuring out who should pay the (potentially staggering) net system costs of composting potato skins peels and carrot tops in centralized facilities. Proxies for the soft-drink industry have thus far seemed all-powerful in lobbying government policymakers to do their bidding, but they’re nothing compared to a crowd of angry farmers!
Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of this magazine. Send your letters to: