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Changing the financial equation

Changes proposed for Ontario’s Blue Box program could see municipalities get out of the recycling business, or paying for it, at any rate.

A report submitted last week to the province recommends producers of packaging material take on the full cost of recycling their products. Currently, costs are split 50-50 between the industry and municipal governments.

The report from Ontario’s special advisor on recycling and plastic waste, David Lindsay, allows for municipalities to stay involved, perhaps by bidding on contracts to provide collection and/or sorting of materials, but puts the onus on industry to come up with a workable solution. The goal is to retain the curbside collection, making any changes seamless to residential users of recycling programs.

At the Region of Waterloo, director of waste management Jon Arsenault says there’s a good chance producers would be looking to piggyback on existing collection contracts, at least during any transition stage. Less clear is whether the materials gathered would continue to go to local recycling centres or be directed to some other, perhaps centralized location.

In the region, both the collection and processing of recyclables are handled by private contractors.

How much involvement the region would continue to have should the recommendations be implemented remains to be seen. The report allows for scenarios as diverse as municipalities getting completely removed from the process to producers essentially contracting with municipalities to keep doing what’s already in place.

Arsenault foresees the prospect producers might work with the region to maintain current contracts for curbside collection.

“We could administer that contract,” he suggested. “That could probably be the producers’ preference.”

That would have the advantage of making the transition seamless to residents, he noted.

“Ideally, no one knows any different,” he said, making any transition and change “as painless as possible.”

While there may be curbside pickup, the region may end up getting out of the processing business, as the items collected at the curb are hauled to a different location.

“It may be that we’re not involved in running a processing centre in the future,” said Arsenault, noting producers have an incentive to find better, cheaper ways to process recyclables.

“They’re better positioned to be innovative.”

The report submitted last week the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) follows a consultation process that involved all stakeholders, including industry groups and municipalities. Eventually, all were on board with the recommendations.

“Canadian Beverage Association (CBA), Food & Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC) and Retail Council of Canada (RCC) support the mediation process that led to Mr. Lindsay’s final report to the minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks,” said FCPC spokesman Anthony Fuchs in an email. “The transition to extended producer responsibility (EPR) has many complex issues, however the stakeholders involved worked together to consider the best path forward. The document submitted to the minister reflects the many discussions between the participants.”

Municipal groups were understandably more welcoming of the recommendations, as province-wide they currently spend some $130 million a year on residential recycling programs.

In Waterloo Region, that figure is $2 to $4 million in any given year, depending on the market prices for recyclable materials.

“The idea to make the people who are making this packaging responsible for dealing with it is the way to go,” said Dave Gordon, senior adviser on waste diversion for the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO).

Putting the onus on the industry would create “a direct connection back to the brand owner,” and could prompt the industry to reduce materials or come up with different packaging options, he added.

There are already a number of factors going into packaging – costs and availability of materials, for instance – and recycling would become another pricing criterion, Gordon suggested.

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Arsenault, too, sees plenty of incentives for the industry to find ways to reduce costs, both at source and with the recycling programs. Having complete control over the cycle makes more sense in the regard.

Currently, the region has to deal with an ever-changing range of packaging materials that people may be putting in the blue boxes even though they’re not readily recyclable. There’s also the issue of fluctuating markets for recycled goods that wreaks havoc with budgeting. With the changes, it would be up to the producers to solve the recycling issues.

“It makes a lot of sense. I’m cautiously optimistic we may see this happen,” said Arsenault.

What any new programs might look like remains to be seen.

It could involve something akin to the longstanding deposit-return system used for glass bottles and perhaps some aspects of the environmental fees tacked on to the likes of electronic goods.

Whatever the outcome, everyone’s on board with the idea that those who make the products should be responsible for closing the loop, the full lifecycle of the products, he noted.

“We think it’s the right thing to do.”

Now, all the players are waiting to see what the province does with the report.

“The devil’s in the details with regulations,” Arsenault said of how and when the province might act. “What we want is for the province to say ‘this is what’s happening by such-and-such a date,’ to give us certainty.

“I think we can make it work.”

Any new regulations won’t come overnight, noted AMO’s Gordon.

“It’s going to take some time, but we should get to it,” he said, adding the recommendations seem like a good fit given Ontario’s leadership in recycling and the stakeholders’ consensus.

“I think the timing is good. There was  agreement around the table.”

Any changes ultimately enacted would be subject to a transition period, which the reports recommends be phased in over six years.

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