The busiest industry rep in Canada during November had to be Cathy Cirko, VP of the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC), whose members found themselves in the crosshairs of a City of Toronto staff report released November 4, 2008 that called upon retailers to reduce in-store packaging. The report recommended that the city use newly-acquired legal powers to force retailers to reduce single-use hot drink cups, plastic shopping bags and plastic food packaging. It also proposed banning the sale of bottled water at city civic centers by the end of 2011.
It wasn’t a good day for plastics.
Release of the report triggered a flurry of meetings, phone calls and news releases at the end of which some of the plastics industry’s objectives were realized. The outcomes offer insights for any jurisdiction that plans to tackle these materials; the issues are more complex than they might at first appear.
Toronto staff propose that retailers be made to offer discounts between 10 and 20 cents for purchases made with refillable packaging, such as a travel mug. The obvious target here is coffee shops. (Tim Hortons already offers such a discount.) The report also recommends banning cups that aren’t compatible with the city’s recycling program, which is not equipped to separate paper cups from plastic lids. (See article, pages 50-52.)
By December 31, 2010, food service retailers in Toronto must develop a reusable or refillable takeout food container, or takeout food service protocol, the report recommends, with fines ranging between $100 and $400. The plastics and restaurant industries quickly pointed out the serious health issue that trumps environmental concerns. In the end, restaurants and the in-store food service counters of supermarkets (e. g., where you buy your BBQ chicken) were given a couple of years’ reprieve to come up with a solution.
Industry succeeded in getting Toronto to agree to add polystyrene (foam) packaging and film plastic (shopping bags) to its curbside recycling program (effective December 8, 2008). Cirko says there are “strong markets” for these materials. However, this may not be an inexpensive decision. A Stewardship Ontario spreadsheet of activity-based costing data shows the full net costs of collecting and processing blue box materials. Province-wide, 59,213 of film plastic is generated, of which only 417 tonnes (1.6 per cent) is collected and recycled at an average net cost of $1,691/tonne. About 21,971 tonnes of polystyrene is generated, of which only 4,222 tonnes (4.3 per cent) is recycled for $2,090/tonne. Perhaps with its economies of scale Toronto can reduce these costs, but they’re still sobering. Return-to-retail would yield a better quality material and, some might argue, keep costs where they belong in the private sector.
The outcome regarding plastic shopping bags was interesting. Instead of adopting staff’s rather cumbersome recommendation that shoppers who bring their own reusable bags be given a small refund, Mayor David Miller negotiated a side-deal with the grocers via which they agreed to charge five cents for each plastic bag requested. In a surprising amendment passed by council, retailers will be required to provide alternatives for free to customers, interpreted as including reusable bags, cardboard boxes, carry-out totes, and paper bags. (Some grocers already do this.)
The positive side is obvious: people are being given a price signal to choose reusable bags or bins to lug their groceries and other merchandise home. Reuse is higher up the waste management hierarchy, so this is (so far) good. By not banning plastic tic bags, people still have the option to choose plastic bags if they want, but the “polluter pays.”
But Cathy Cirko points out that in Toronto (as elsewhere) 69 per cent of the carry-out bags are reused as either a kitchen catcher or a liner bag for organics containers. So, if people choose reuseable bags they may have to buy bags for garbage or organics bins, at a cost of around 14 cents a bag.
This is one of several arguments that EPIC offers in favour of plastic shopping bags that you can read for yourself at www.myplasticbags.ca Some are valid, but I think the five cent charge is a reasonable middle-ground. Fewer plastic bags overall will reduce the not-inconsiderable costs of recycling them. Many people will likely adopt a logical compromise strategy: they’ll bring reusable bags for most of their groceries, and pay five cents for enough bags to meet their kitchen-catcher needs and thereby avoid paying the higher cost of purpose-made garbage bags.
We hope Toronto monitors the results and costs of its new blue box additions and allows for future adjustments as needed. Once you’ve added them to a program, it’s hard to take them out.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy firstname.lastname@example.org
“The polystyrene and film plastic that Toronto has added to its recycling program are the most expensive materials in the blue box.