Pay-as-you-throw fees and 4 more ways to reduce waste

There are lots of ways to motivate everybody — including people who don’t care about the environment — to reduce their waste, says a report from the Ottawa-based Smart Prosperity Institute.

'It shouldn't be free to pollute': Charge for packaging, study suggests

A worker carries a black garbage bag past a huge pile of blue bin trash at a Toronto transfer station. Right now, factors like the availability of cheap, disposable items, low dumping fees, and high repair costs tend to encourage waste. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Reduce, Reuse and Rethink is a CBC News series about recycling. We're exploring why our communities are at a turning point and exploring ways to recycle better. You can be part of the conversation by joining our Facebook group.

There are lots of ways to motivate everyone — including people who don't care about the environment — to reduce their waste, says a new report from the Smart Prosperity Institute, an environmental-economic think-tank based at the University of Ottawa.

Those methods are mostly a matter of targeting people's wallets and making polluters pay more, according the policy brief released last week.

"It shouldn't be free to pollute," says Katherine Monahan, senior research associate at the institute and lead author of the report.

'It shouldn't be free to pollute,' says Katherine Monahan, senior research associate at the Smart Prosperity Institute and lead author of the report. (Smart Prosperity Institute)

She says factors like the availability of cheap, disposable items, low dumping fees and high repair costs tend to encourage waste.

Economists like Monahan expect that pricing adjusted to reflect environmental costs would discourage waste and drive businesses to produce more durable, sustainable alternatives.

That's been done in other parts of the world and sometimes at a local level in Canada, but the strategy is "under-utilized" across the country, the report says.

"We want to make sure that people don't throw up their hands and say, 'We can't tell people not to consume so much, not to throw away so much,'" Monahan said.

"There are things we can do at a practical level to help change that behaviour."

Here are five:

1. Tax breaks for repairs

Sweden cut taxes on repairs for small items such as bicycles, clothes and shoes from 25 per cent to 12 per cent in 2017. It also offers income tax credits on the labour costs of repairs to appliances such as fridges, ovens and washing machines.

Canada could offer similar tax breaks, the report suggests.
Heavy garbage lines a street in Cape Breton, N.S. Sweden offers tax credits for the labour costs of repairing appliances in an effort to reduce waste. (Wendy Martin/CBC)

2. More deposit return programs

Programs that collect a deposit when consumers buy something and refund it when they return the item for reuse or recycling should be extended to items like batteries and e-waste, the report recommends.

It says they've been very effective for bottles and containers, generating an average 80 per cent return rate across the country.

That's the return rate for alcohol bottles in Ontario, which require a deposit — but the recycling rate for non-alcohol aluminum cans and PET bottles in multiresidential buildings in the province is just half that.

 "There really is that incentive to return items for a small cash reward," Monahan said, "whereas recycling is up to the goodness of your heart."

The non-profit group Environmental Defence has been lobbying for deposits on non-alcohol plastic bottles.

In Ontario 80 per cent of alcohol bottles are returned for a refund. The non-profit group Environmental Defence has been lobbying for deposits on non-alcohol plastic bottles. (CBC)

3. Pay-as-you-throw fees

Most Canadian municipalities charge residents a flat fee for garbage disposal, regardless of how much waste they produce.

"Residents who recycle and prevent waste actually subsidize their neighbours' wastefulness," the report notes.

Most Canadian municipalities charge residents a flat fee for garbage disposal, regardless of how much waste they produce. The report says that means people who produce less waste subsidize their more wasteful neighbours. (Lynne Robson/CBC)

Charges per bag or a bag limit per household can reduce waste by encouraging behavour like recycling and buying more durable items.

That seems to have worked in Stratford, Ont., where residents produced 35 per cent less garbage and recycled 62 per cent more once they were charged $1.75 per bag of garbage.

Of course, such policies can also cause an increase in littering, illegal dumping and recycling contamination, so Monahan says they need to be combined with stricter enforcement of recycling and dumping regulations.

4. Charges for single-use items and packaging

Montreal has banned single-use plastic bags, Victoria's ban comes into effect July 1, and other places across Canada are thinking about bans or levies on plastic bags.

Monahan prefers extra fees or levies over bans because they give consumers more choice and can be increased or decreased  as needed. But both are effective, she says. In the U.K., a charge on single-use plastic bags equivalent to nine cents reduced use by 60 to 80 per cent.

She suggests extending such charges to items like disposable plastic cups and takeout containers.

A patron holds an iced beverage at a Starbucks coffee store in Pasadena, Calif. The report suggests putting a small levy on single-use items like disposable cups, similar to ones charged on plastic bags in many places. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

While some restaurants voluntarily offer discounts for people who bring their own mug, Monahan thinks a more explicit charge is better. She adds that it should be imposed by federal and provincial governments to make such measures more widespread and create a level playing field for businesses.

5. Consumer incentives in industry programs

Many unusual or hazardous types of waste like tires, mobile devices and pesticide containers are handled by industry-run "stewardship" or "extended producer responsibility" recycling programs funded by fees added to the price of an item.

A collection box for used clothes stands in an H&M store. The retailer offers coupons for people who recycle their used clothing there. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

The report recommends altering the fees to provide an incentive for consumers to return items for recycling, such as returning part of the fee when the item is turned in.

It suggests recycling programs run by clothing retailer H&M, electronics retailers Best Buy and Apple and cosmetics retailer Lush are doing things right and boosting the popularity of their programs by offering coupons and discounts to customers who bring in products for recycling.


Emily Chung

Science, climate, environment reporter

Emily Chung covers science, the environment and climate for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a PhD in chemistry from the University of British Columbia. In 2019, she was part of the team that won a Digital Publishing Award for best newsletter for "What on Earth." You can email story ideas to


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?