recycling box

From the Blue Box to Waste Free Ontario

Canadian provincial governments are exploring ways to jump start a new era of material recovery and waste diversion.

Canadian provinces, like their state counterparts, have experienced stagnant recycling rates for a decade. In response, provincial governments are exploring ways to jump start a new era of material recovery and waste diversion. None of the conceptual solutions are more ambitious than those found within a recent law enacted by the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Ontario in June 2016. Nearly six months after Waste Free Ontario Act, (WFOA) attained Royal Assent, we explored its current status and implementation updates at the Canadian Waste to Resource Conference.

WFOA is a mechanism to launch the true legislative initiatives incorporated within it. These additional laws include the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act 2016 (RRCEA) and the Waste Diversion Transition Act 2016 (WDTA). The first establishes a supervisory authority with oversight of administration and enforcement. It also suggests a host of programs, goals and objectives for implementation. The latter repeals the longstanding Waste Diversion Act of 2002 and is tasked with developing the mechanisms under which the change from existing policies and programs to those proposed will appear seamless to Ontarians.

The need to revise or repeal the Waste Diversion Act of 2002 was widely supported. Frustrated municipal government officials were screaming for relief from the battle for fair and timely compensation under the Blue Box program. Widely considered as a trade off to thwart deposit legislation on refillable containers, the blue box program was supported by the soft drink industry, who in 1987 seeded the system with $20 million which grew to $45 million when joined by other packagers and retailers. Under the Waste Diversion Act of 2002, these groups promised to pay 50 percent of the net costs of municipal residential curbside recycling collection. On the surface, it sounded like a good deal. Instead, determining the net cost became a contentious process, a problem common to other legislated producer funded programs. Arbitration resulted between the parties.

Dissatisfaction with the blue box program financials, public concern for climate change, and the emerging philosophy fora circular economy set the stage. With liberal leaning legislators in place, the timing was finally right to push for change.

That doesn’t mean passage of WFOA was any less challenging. In fact, two failed attempts preceded the passing of the current legislation. Stakeholders expressed strong views and concerns for the skeletal nature of this enabling legislation. Provincial officials believe the law could establish Ontario as the 21st century leader in North American environmental policy. Groups like the Ontario Waste Management Association (OWMA) are more cautionary. They point to the extensive list of unknowns, which remain to be vetted in a small window of time before other political priorities conflict or cause the abandonment of the regulatory process. Other stakeholders fear the law cannot be implemented effectively, if at all.

One of the major tenets of the legislation is a leap from the previous convoluted 50% monetary reimbursement program toward full producer responsibility for paper and packaging.  In addition, programs for other consumer goods like tires, which already have a stewardship system, as well as those yet unmanaged are ultimately expected to be supported by some type of producer funded mechanism. For existing programs, a shift in the organization responsible for overseeing those functions may be the sole change.

Municipalities are hopeful that the new system will cover all of their operating costs without event. Municipal officials, processors and other service providers, however, fear the early service frameworks developed by policy makers are advancing without sufficient input from field experts. Based on the law, producers may act independently, in groups, or negotiate other arrangements to manage their brand/product obligations. The number of potential producers coupled with the freedom to design collection systems for a vast array of materials is what drives successful EPR programs. Without sufficient criteria and constraints, municipal officials warn that inadvertent service disruption and fragmentation could occur. The absence of draft guidance for several transitional elements has heightened these concerns. Collaboration, communication and cooperation between producers, municipalities and service providers could minimize the glitches.

To say WFOA, RRCEA, and WDTA are lacking definition and clarification is an understatement. The vague and abstract language offers broad latitude for development of the programs and policies suggested by law. The words, or lack of words in many instances, only hint at the depth, power and control which could result from overly aggressive regulations. There is also danger that regulations that lack clarity could replicate the problems inherent with the Blue Box reimbursement program. If you are exposed to laws and regulations on a consistent basis, you recognize that ambiguities and unintended consequences commonly occur from poorly or inadequately worded phrases. Still, the critical mass of undefined roles, responsibilities, and financial obligations in WFOA is disquieting.

Even with its growing pains, Waste Free Ontario is a progressive platform for any jurisdiction to consider. Whether it stands as a rock of ages or falls like a house of cards is dependent on keeping things simple, convenient, realistic and understandable.

Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a transitioning marketplace.

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