It caught industry observers off-guard, and is still flying below the radar of the mainstream media and public.
In November 2008, Ontario Environment Minister John Gerretsen released a discussion paper, Toward a Zero Waste Future: Review of Ontario’s Waste Diversion Act, 2002. In addition to (no doubt) causing some “OMG!” moments among environmental activists and industry executives, release of the paper triggered a 90-day comment period that ends January 15, 2009.
It’s no overstatement to say the ideas in Toward a Zero Waste Future represent a radical potential change in Ontario with respect to waste management and related policy issues. Simply put, it appears that the minister and his staff recognize the not insignificant shortcomings of waste diversion — as a single approach — and are thinking through what would be entailed if they moved the economy toward true sustain-ability.
Public policy, like science, is a matter of asking the right questions. With its renowned blue box, Ontario is a leader in residential waste diversion via curbside collection. Industry “stewards” pay up to 50 per cent of the net costs of the program (something that’s unknown in other provinces or the United States). With many communities implementing diversion programs for source-separated organics and multi-residential dwellings, the province will eventually achieve its stated 60 per cent diversion goal.
But is this the right answer to the wrong question? Is a sustainable economy simply one that diverts more and more residential waste from disposal? Or does the consumption of products and packaging designed to enter the waste stream in the first place need to be addressed? Experts say the upstream “externalities” of natural resource extraction, manufacturing, distribution and actual use of products represent the majority of their energy and environmental impacts. End-of-life management of these materials is only a small part of a bigger equation.
The discussion paper asks new questions and contemplates moving the province beyond the blue box toward European-style producer responsibility for products and packaging. Implementation of these ideas in the real world bears important implications for the “throwaway” society and a variety of stakeholders, including consumers (who will have to change their behavior), industry (which will have to redesign its products and systems) and the waste management industry (which will have to re-process more materials and cart less off to disposal sites).
This could be the beginning of the “end of garbage” as we know it.
The five-year review
Toward a Zero Waste Future is part of a mandatory five-year review of the Waste Diversion Act that, among other things, created Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO) — the agency that presides over policy development in this area. The WDO oversees the Blue Box Program Plan (BBPP) via which industry stewards and municipalities split the net cost of curbside recycling. The WDO has been asked on a separate track to report back next spring on how the BBPP could be revised to incorporate the ideas in the discussion paper. The WDO also oversees product stewardship program development. So far, it has developed programs for household hazardous waste (HHW) and waste electronics (to be implemented in 2009). The government rejected WDO-designed programs for used oil and scrap tires (although it’s asked the WDO to revisit the latter).
With the five-year review, industry observers might have expected the minister to simply tweak the existing Waste Diversion Act. Instead, the minister’s discussion paper outlines a Zero Waste policy based on four key principles:
(i) The framework should be founded on Extender Producer Responsibility (EPR);
(ii) A greater focus on waste reduction and reuse, not just recycling (i. e., restoration of the waste management hierarchy;
(iii) Increasing reduction and diversion of waste from the industrial, commercial and institutional IC&I sector (which is double the size of the residential waste stream); and
(iv) Greater clarity around roles, responsibilities and accountability.
The WDA discussion paper discusses producer versus shared responsibility, the economic implications of individual producer responsibility versus collective producer action on waste diversion, the tough issue of stewardship costs manifesting themselves as “visible fees” applied over and above the price of products, and the impact of stewardship program design on competition in waste service markets. Specifically, in addition to a greater focus on the first and second of the 3Rs (waste reduction and reuse) the discussion paper proposes a framework built upon the foundation of EPR including:
— The concept that, “… waste diversion programs should shift more financial responsibility onto producers,” while allowing, “… producers to discharge responsibility for their products and packaging in the way that best suits their needs, has the fairest impact on existing markets and meets the public’s demand for successful diversion activities that strive for zero waste and foster a green economy.”
— The concept of differentiating between producers’ products based on the environmental profile of those products (including waste and non-waste factors such as energy efficiency, toxics reduction, greenhouse gas emissions profile, etc.);
— A prohibition on “visible fees”;
— Application of stewardship fees to materials that are not currently recyclable; — A more flexible approach to allowing producers to discharge their existing or future stewardship obligations through individually crafted approaches such as pre-existing schemes, or individual producer-run programs.
In regard to increasing reduction and diversion of waste from IC&I sector, alternatives include revising the existing 3Rs regulations, extending responsibility for IC&I wastes to producers, or designating IC&I wastes on a material-by-material basis.
The Ministry has posted Toward a Zero Waste Future on the Environmental Bill of Rights Registry at www.ebr.gov.on.ca (Registry Number 010-4676).
The implications of all this for consumers and retailers, producers (manufacturers and importers), and managers in the municipal and commercial waste industry are enormous.
The term Extended Producer Responsibility is used almost interchangeably with “product stewardship” but a different definition is emerging for each. The term “product stewardship” is appropriate for programs whose objective is to simply divert specific waste materials (e. g., used oil) from disposal. Such programs usually charge consumers an Advance Recycling Fee (ARF or “eco fee”) in a system of collection points, haulers and processors approved by a collective Industry Funding Organization (IFO). Such programs may achieve the diversion goal and may be appropriate for relatively homogeneous materials like tires.
EPR goes beyond mere waste diversion to make producers truly responsible for the end-of-life management of their products and packaging, on the assumption that this creates an incentive for them to redesign for the most eco-efficient “cradle to cradle” system over the products’ whole lifecycle. Because the producer can’t fob off its responsibility to an IFO/ARF collective, the systems are sometimes called “Individual Producer Responsibility” (IPR). In this high-tech era of RFID tags and GPS systems, some envision the possibility of specifically tracking and charging producers for each item that requires end-of-life management. Short of that, waste composition studies can often determine the approximate fair share of each company’s waste (as electronics manufacturers currently do).
IPR is considered most appropriate for product and material streams where (a) the brand owners can be identified, (b) the materials are heterogeneous, and (c) t
he products lend themselves to redesign. Perhaps the best example is waste electronics and electrical equipment (WEEE) — computers, laptops, cell phones and other devices — for which design for the environment (DfE) opportunities abound. Hewlett-Packard, for example, has redesigned its laptops to facilitate ease of dismantling and recycling, and to include fewer screws and fewer different metals and plastics. Sony has inked a deal with recycler GEEP that encourages customers to return its products to stores and special depots, recognizing the opportunity to establish a customer relationship over the entire product lifecycle. (See article, page 19.)
But it would be wrong to assume that EPR only suits complicated gadgets. EPR/IPR makes can trigger dynamic change for simple packaging types such as the containers used for soft drinks and other beverages.
Ontario (ironically) is home to two very different leading systems for the management of used beverage containers (UBCs). The blue box manages non-alcohol UBCs in what’s called the “shared cost” model (municipalities and industry split the costs) and also the “basket of goods” (wherein high-value materials such as aluminum cross-subsidize less valuable materials such as mixed plastic). In good times, when commodity prices are high (as they’ve been until recently) the “basket of goods” looks like a winner. But when prices crash, municipal partners are reminded that the system can be expensive. More importantly (from an EPR perspective), a lot of containers (50 per cent or more) are still sent for disposal (in part because single-serve drinks are often consumed away from the home). UBC recovery rates stalled years ago, and now even the Aluminum Association is supportive of deposit- refund systems. (See news item, page 60 and article, page 21.)
The other system in Ontario is the one operated by The Beer Store that recovers the brewers’ UBCs and packaging. This may be one of the world’s best examples of true EPR; the system recovers 97 per cent of bottles and 83 per cent of cans. Better yet, local producers predominantly use standardized bottles that are refilled, an approach that’s higher up in the waste management hierarchy. The Beer Store recently agreed to also accept all the province’s wine and liquor UBCs for recycling, after these were also placed on deposit. Best of all, containers managed in this industry-run system are kept (for the most part) out of municipal programs.
The minister’s discussion paper, simply put, envisions extending this kind of system to as many products and packaging types as possible.
It’s difficult not to imagine that used soft drink containers will also eventually be placed on deposit, given the success of The Beer Store system. This would make Ontario’s system more harmonious with the other Canadian provinces, most of which already have deposits in place. Indeed, the industry might embrace deposits voluntarily if and when it has to pay the full cost of managing not only its discarded containers collected in the blue box but also those that end up in landfill (as the discussion paper contemplates). The question remains whether or not the government will go to the next step and insist that all (or some portion) of soft drinks be sold in refillable containers (as was the case only a few decades ago). This controversial move would subject the government to lobbying from some deep-pocket corporations and their trade associations, yet high-speed sterilization and refilling plants in Germany (and elsewhere) demonstrate that refillable glass and PET containers are a viable alternative; soft drink containers could be managed in an EPR system similar to that of the brewers.
It’s likely that those industries whose packaging materials are currently managed in the blue box will lobby to maintain the status quo, at least initially. And it’s likely that companies would contract with municipalities to collect certain materials going forward, even in an EPR economy. After all, they have the trucks and infrastructure in place.
Barbara McConnell, spokesperson for Stewardship Ontario (the IFO for the blue box program), was quoted in an article by Mark Saborin in our affiliate EcoCompliance.canews letter saying, “We believe that the shared responsibility model is, of course, a really effective way of ensuring that both parties have a shared commitment to the process and making sure that blue box programs are efficiently operated.”
Municipalities represented by the Association of Ontario Municipalities (AMO) and the Association of Municipal Recycling Coordinators (AMRC, now renamed [see article, page 6.]) have been calling for 100 per cent industry funding for years. However, some municipalities may be reluctant to “let go” and realize that if industry is paying the whole bill, it morally has the right to choose whatever system it likes, as long as it meets the minister’s objectives.
Some municipalities may balk at the discussion paper’s mention of “manufacturer’s networks” and other alternatives, but these are really just different names for product stewardship or EPR programs. Municipal staff shouldn’t fret about losing their jobs any time soon; industry will still need their services, although who they report to might change. There will likely be some rationalization of material recovery facilities (MRFs) and other infrastructure, but local governments will still be involved in running depots for household hazardous waste, WEEE and other yet-to-be designated materials. And they’ll probably still be responsible for organic waste collection. Landfills, already short of capacity, will enjoy a reprieve as volumes sent for disposal will decline over time.
Ministry staff are aware of the Product Stewardship Councils that have popped up in BC, California, Oregon and Washington, plus more recently in a half-dozen other jurisdictions (e. g., Vermont). These councils endorse the concepts promoted by Bill Sheehan’s Product Policy Institute (PPI) that envisions EPR for all “product waste” and municipalities primarily managing organic wastes.
That such a vision could become reality would’ve been hard to imagine only a few years ago, but the ministry recognizes that the public may be ready for it. And the recent collapse of prices for recycled commodities may have created a “useful crisis” to push the agenda ahead.
We will watch developments in the year ahead and report back to readers about whether and how events unfold as Ontario considers Toward a Zero Waste Future.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Is a sustainable economy simply one that diverts more and more residential waste from disposal?”
“Ministry staff are aware of the Product Stewardship Councils that have popped up in other jurisdictions.”