Solid Waste & Recycling

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The Politics of Waste

By the time this article has been published, Ontarians will have elected a new provincial government. Although waste-related issues are unlikely to have a major impact on the overall electoral results, they are sure to be one of the most...


By the time this article has been published, Ontarians will have elected a new provincial government. Although waste-related issues are unlikely to have a major impact on the overall electoral results, they are sure to be one of the most difficult files the new government will face. Over the years waste issues have been a major thorn in the side of government from the Interim Waste Management Authority to the threat of a US border closure to eco fees.

The problem with the waste file in politics is that it’s largely a zero sum game. No matter what you do you never come out smelling like roses – not much chance for a political “win.” With approximately 12.5 million tonnes or waste generated annually in the province and serious waste system challenges, the government cannot hide from making decisions. All this waste has to go somewhere despite the notion that nobody wants it in their backyard. It’s time that an integrated waste management system based on domestic infrastructure and domestic capacity was championed by the province.

Every government arrives with lofty of goals to increase diversion and reduce the amount of waste generated. The complexities of these issues, however, do not lend themselves to simple solutions (or solutions without consequences). As a result, governments tend to fall into three traps.

The first trap is the “do nothing and hope for the best approach,” which involves sharing stories of enlightened businesses that had an epiphany and voluntarily changed their wasteful ways. The “do nothing” approach has only led to ongoing crisis management, continued reliance on US waste disposal capacity and the reason we divert so little waste. Although recent waste diversion initiatives have led to some progress, Statistics Canada indicates that the industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) sector has a diversion rate of just 18 per cent diversion rate; the residential sector sits at about 42 per cent.

The second trap too many governments fall into is compromising policy to ensure a day’s worth of positive media. This one “good day” usually comes with months and years of problems. This was certainly the case with the Waste Diversion Act that made numerous compromises to producers and as a result has mired the government in ongoing problems. One would be hard pressed to find any stakeholder who would not agree the Act needs revising.

Finally, governments too often want to control all the decisions made around waste management in an effort to protect the itself and control public backlash. Yet in doing so the government essentially takes ownership of the consequences of decisions it neither wants to make, nor has the expertise to make.

A new approach to waste diversion is needed – one that: assigns clear accountability to producers for waste diversion; sets rigorous standards and targets; clarifies roles and responsibilities; recognizes the inherent value of waste as a resource; and, maximizes the economic and environmental benefits of waste diversion. This will not be easy.

Huge economic interests are at stake for producers who want to minimize costs and risk. Retailers want prices to remain competitive and many are producers as well. Municipalities want to eliminate recycling program costs from the municipal tax base and industry-funded organizations want to ensure their longevity. Service providers have a financial interest in increased diversion and waste management in general. All these groups want to control system to ensure their interests are protected.

Hopefully, the premier will elevate the profile of the environment portfolio and choose a seasoned veteran as minister with the fortitude to guide change and make the necessary tough decisions. If difficult decisions are made early in the mandate, there will be far less chance of issues plaguing the government into the next election cycle.

Rob Cook is Chief Executive Officer of the Ontario Waste Management Association in Brampton, Ontario. Contact Rob at rcook@owma.org


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