Recycling programs in Ontario heading for slow overhaul

Under the Waste-Free Ontario Act passed in 2016, producers of recyclable waste will cover the full cost of recycling programs. However, with the transition expected to take seven years or more, Ontario's environmental commissioner says municipalities will be footing the bill for some time yet.

Industry will cover the full cost of recycling, but the transition could take years

New rules from the province will force industry to foot the bill for recycling, but it could take seven years to make the transition even if the province approves a plan by June. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Municipalities in Ontario might be on the hook for recycling the holiday detritus in curbside bins this year, but that will change under new provincial rules to shift responsibility to industry. 

Ontario's environmental commissioner Dianne Saxe just wishes the transition would happen faster than the seven years it's currently expected to take. 

"'Polluter pay' is one of the founding principles of environmental law, and Ontario is actually the only place in Canada where the actual producers of packaging have paid so little," said Saxe, speaking on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

Changes a result of 2016 legislation

In 2016, the Ontario government passed the Waste-Free Ontario Act, which moves the onus from government to industry to collect and recycle paper products and plastic packaging. 

Last month, Stewardship Ontario — a non-profit funded by the industries that generate recyclables — released a draft plan for meeting the province's new rules. It outlines the challenge of moving to a "polluter-pay" model for recycling, including the need to replace more than 400 collection and processing contracts between communities and recyclers, and suggests it will take seven years to build a new system for the province.

"By 2025, assuming the draft plan is approved by June 1, 2018, Ontarians will enjoy a fully integrated, province-wide" system for recycling paper products and packaging, according to the draft.

If the plan isn't approved by the province by early June, however, the decision could end up in the hands of a different government, since Ontarians head to the polls on June 7. 

Big savings for municipalities at stake

The new plan will eventually mean savings for municipalities, which currently spend about $130 million a year on recycling programs, according to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.

Selling the recyclables that are collected does generate some revenue, but Saxe estimated it amounts to less than a third of the cost of recycling programs. The market for used paper to make newsprint has shrunk, she said, and some newer lightweight plastics are difficult and expensive to recycle.

A woman stands next to a tree and smiles for a portrait.
Ontario's environmental commissioner, Dianne Saxe, says shifting to a "polluter-pay" model should eventually lead to less waste and a choice by industry to use materials with better potential for reuse and recycling. (Office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario)

Changes in China will also be felt here, Saxe said. For more than a decade, that country has been importing large amounts of recyclable plastic, including the film plastic used to make shopping bags. That willingness was driven by demand for the recycled material within the Chinese market and a pool of inexpensive labour to do the processing.

Lately, Saxe said, labour costs in China have gone up. Between that, and the fact that recyclables from North America are often quite contaminated with non-recyclable material, China's interest in those imports has waned. Reduced demand for Ontario's packaging waste will likely mean less revenue for municipalities. 

New rules could ultimately mean less waste

On the other hand, once industry is footing the entire bill for recycling, a shrinking market for recyclables could lead to a shift in the amount and type of waste being produced, Saxe said, because it will create incentives to limit packaging and to use materials with better reuse and recycling potential.

"Right now we have mostly a 'take, use once and throw away' culture and that's simply not sustainable," said Saxe, who described Ontario's waste and recycling challenges in a report last October called Beyond The Blue Box

Getting producers to foot the bill for recycling is a step in the direction of building a "circular economy," where materials are produced with an eye to their future uses, Saxe said.

"Unfortunately about 95 per cent of the plastics that we use today do not get used again for an equivalent value, and many of them are choking the oceans."

Change could threaten recycling in small communities

The 'polluter-pay' model, however, could come with an unwelcome side effect for small communities, Saxe warned.

In British Columbia, producers already pay a much greater share of the cost of recycling than in Ontario, but only about 70 per cent of the population has recycling service, Saxe said. 

"The producers focus on doing what's least expensive," Saxe said. "People in areas that are more remote, or smaller populations, are harder to serve."

In Ontario, all municipalities with a population greater than 5,000 which provide curbside garbage pickup are required to provide curbside pickup for recycling, Saxe said, but some worry that's in peril with the move to a new model for recycling paid for by industry.

"It's certainly a risk," Saxe said.