Why manufacturers might be better at recycling than Ontario municipalities

Ontario's new recycling plan will make manufacturers responsible for what goes in to provincial blue boxes. Tim Gray of Environmental Defence explains why he thinks it might work.

Ontario's new recycling program will roll out starting in 2023

Ontario's new plan for how recycling is handled in the province won't be completely in place until 2025. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Starting in 2025 Ontario's blue box program will no longer be the responsibility of municipalities across the province.

Instead, it will be run by product manufacturers, a change the Ontario government says would reduce waste and save municipalities millions of dollars each year.

Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said Thursday the transition will happen in phases starting in 2023.

He said recycling rates in the province have been stalled for 15 years and as much as 30 per cent of materials currently put in blue boxes are sent to landfills.

Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada's oceans and plastics campaign said "Ontario and all provinces need to make producers take full responsibility for the entire life of their products and packaging, and move towards a ban on all single-use plastics. If collection and recycling efforts aren't paired with a ban, millions of tonnes of throwaway plastics are still being produced and are flooding our communities, with continued massive costs to taxpayers and the environment." 

Ontario's new recycling plan will make manufacturers responsible for what goes in to provincial blue boxes. Tim Gray of Environmental Defence explains why he thinks it might work.

Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, spoke with the CBC's Conrad Collaco about the new changes to recycling in Ontario. You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above.

Tim Gray, Environmental Defence 
Tim Gray, Executive Director at Environmental Defence. (Twitter)

Why is the province moving to one streamlined recycling program?

They want to transfer the cost from municipalities and taxpayers to the actual producers of products and the theory being that this will allow the manufacturers to simplify packaging. Change it. Streamline it. Find new ways to sell the collected material from the blue box and reduce costs and increase recycling rates.

Well that's what we know the position is from Environment Minister Jeff Yurek who says as much as 30 per cent of what we currently throw into our blue bins ends up in landfill. How do you believe that this streamlined program, for as much as we know about how it all work, would improve our recycling rates?

It makes sense to do this because we should include the costs of packaging in the price that is paid for goods and the producers should do that. It's going to be most economically effective and efficient for them to do it. The key here though, is we still don't know what the standards of recovery are going to be. How much waste actually has to be brought back in and how is that going to be enforced? Are there going to be incentives for the businesses to achieve those recovery rates or penalties if they don't achieve them? And then the creation of new markets for the materials that are collected is really important. So, the province is going to need to say, for example, 40 50 60 per cent of the plastic packaging sold in Ontario has to be recycled material. It can't be new material and that'll help to create a market. So, there's still a lot of work to be done here. 

What reason would you say there is to believe that manufacturers would be better at this than municipalities?

Economies of scale and incentive to meet the targets or have to pay taxes or penalties that are imposed by the province. So, that's going to be key — to see those targets set at a high level. And, also I think the province needs to go a bit further here and stipulate some of the recovery mechanisms that companies should use. For example, every other province in Canada except for Ontario and Manitoba has a deposit return system for plastic bottles, sort of like what we have for beer bottles and we know those systems work incredibly well. You can get recovery rates up in the 80s and 90s because once something has a monetary value then it's gonna get returned. So, that's something the province needs to think about. And then we have all of the commercial and industrial waste that is going to, mostly, directly into landfill in Ontario and that's about 60 percent of our waste stream and this blue box change, of course, doesn't address that in any way. 

How could we see packaging change as a result of this plan?

I think that they will. We're looking to see bands of material that can't go into the blue box. So, we're hoping to see things like those black plastic clam shells that you have in takeout containers, multiple layered packaging that can't be recycled, stuff that has toxic chemicals in it. All this stuff needs to get banned. And then we need simplification of packaging so that it's easier for the companies that are now running the blue box to process that and make it into new material. So, I think you will see some simplification because the economics of that will make sense for the companies. 

Any indication yet from manufacturers about whether or not they're interested in running the program?

Well, they've been supportive of it and they don't have a lot of choice. Legislation was passed by the last government and now the current government is moving that program forward. This is the way that the world is going around who's responsible for waste and we know that it improves recovery rates and also recycling rates when it happens.

Anything else you'd like to see?

I really think that we have to move ahead on dealing with industrial waste, as I mentioned, and waste from restaurants, etc. and also that we ensure that the list of things that goes in the blue box is as long as possible because if you shorten that list, well we know that it goes directly into the landfill or into the environment. So, that list of things in the blue box needs to be really inclusive when they wrap this all up.


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