Those of us working in the field of municipal waste diversion are going to hear the term “best practices” more often as the private sector begins to work more closely with public officials to address our society’s waste generation. The term was brought into sharp focus at a meeting of municipal officials convened by the Association of Municipal Recycling Coordinators (AMRC) in London, Ontario on September 28 — the last in a workshop series also held in Ottawa, Sudbury and Toronto. The purpose of the meeting was to formulate a municipal position with respect to a concern that has been voiced by the companies (or “stewards”) whose packaging materials are managed via the blue box: that if they’re going to fund the blue box, they want to ensure that municipal recycling programs are run efficiently.
This is a reasonable concern, given that program performance varies widely. Difficulties arise, however, when different stakeholders opine as to what is “efficient.” In Ontario, stewards fund 50 per cent of net blue box system costs via their organization, Stewardship Ontario. Which members pay what amount is determined by a funding formula that attempts to establish fairness among the costs that different materials impose on the recycling system. (See articles “Towards Nexus” and “Blue Box Family Feud,” April/May 2006 edition.) In the end, there’s a legal obligation for the system to achieve “nexus” — an opaque term that simply means the price charged to stewards should correspond closely to the cost of the recycling service.
With stewards having paid $81 million up to March 2006 for their half of curbside recycling in Ontario, it’s easy to imagine that, for them, an efficient system would be the least costly. But there are definitions. One could argue that the most “efficient” recycling system is the one that diverts the most material — up to 100 per cent of blue box materials, say — regardless of cost. Such a recycling system could be a manager’s dream, with expensive communications programs, a fleet of new high-tech collection vehicles, special carts or bins, state-of-the-art separation equipment and screens, shredders and balers, and plenty of workers on the sort line. But a gold-plated system in every community could impose huge and unreasonable costs on producers and taxpayers alike. In fact, recycling more material increases costs.
Public and private stakeholders have an interest in finding some kind of “value-for-money” middle ground — recognition of common sense “best practices” wherein a high percentage of available blue box materials are diverted at a reasonable cost (whatever that is).
The AMRC meeting was professionally facilitated, and was attended by municipal program operators, Stewardship Ontario reps, and consultants led by KPMG. This was no mere gabfest; consultants have been hired to work with some seconded municipal staff to conduct a $2-million study of the most- and least-efficient recycling programs in Ontario, identified with information from the municipal “data call” (detailed reports from each blue box program in the province) and other sources. The consultants will report to the Association of Municipalities in Ontario (AMO) and Stewardship Ontario.
The meeting included plenary and small group discussions from which comments were summarized on flip charts. (Meeting notes are available at the AMRC website at www.amrc.on.ca) Most delegates seemed to agree that worthwhile insights will be gleaned as the consultants visit more than 30 facilities on the “poor performers” list, and perhaps as many high-performing plants, and share what they learn.
The discussion over funding allocation was the most challenging. Certain participants felt some kind of carrot is needed to spur innovation and change in municipal systems, lest the operators of less efficient programs simply take the stewards’ funds but continue with “business as usual.” An idea had bubbled up from previous meetings that the steward funds should be divided into two parts: something like 70 per cent given to municipalities with no caveat, and 30 per cent awarded according to a sort of best practices scorecard. For instance, having a user-pay or “bag tag” system (to encourage recycling) might count for a certain number of points, as might having a good public education program. Another, similar model was favored by the group that would pay the 30 per cent (or even a higher portion) as a percentage of costs. (It was noted that this scheme is about divvying up the financial pie, not changing the size of the pie itself. Over time, therefore, as programs increase their efficiency and become more homogeneous across the province, points awarded for further efficiency gains will be less valuable.)
Important objections were made. For example, user-pay systems are outside the scope of blue box programs and are determined by elected officials. Also, each item on the list of strategies that garner points needs to be rated. A user-pay scheme where people are allowed three free garbage bags per week shouldn’t score as well as one in which residents get only one free bag. Most municipal staff agreed it’d be useful to have a list to show elected officials of approved activities that will automatically trigger higher funding levels. Yet there was concern that a best practices program could run afoul of the “nexus” concept and trigger a legal challenge by industry. (A legal opinion will be sought.)
The nuances are subtle and challenging in how program efficiency will be measured and how funding and incentives will be implemented in Ontario. However, there’s little doubt that the consulting team will discover much in the year ahead about what works best in recycling plants and other components of the waste diversion system, and dissemination of this information will benefit recyclers across Canada. We’ll report their findings in this magazine as soon as they’re known for the benefit of all.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org