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As cans, bottles mount in landfills, firms get free ride

Published in the Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/News/GTA/article/516482  

October 13, 2008
CHRISTOPHER HUME

If Ontarians were as good at cleaning up their garbage as creating it, this would be one of the most pristine provinces in Canada.

But we're not. And when it comes to dealing with drink containers – paper coffee cups, pop cans, plastic water bottles and the like – we rank among the worst in the world, let alone the country.

Lest one be lulled into the sense that nothing can be done to deal with the lowly single-serve beverage container, consider the case of Germany, where fully 98 per cent of all these nasty little receptacles are recycled. In Ontario, by contrast, most end up in landfill.

And to add insult to injury, in Toronto, property tax payers help support the businesses responsible for making the mess.

"The companies love the status quo," says Franz Hartmann, general manager of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. "We're subsidizing their profits."

He's talking about the Tim Hortons, Starbucks, McDonald's and Coca-Colas, the fast-food, quick-service outfits that carry on as if they have a government-mandated, if not God-given, right to make huge profits without regard to the real costs of their activities.

Cleaning up after their mess, they argue, is our problem, not theirs. So far, we've pretty well let them have their way. And because many are required to pay half the costs of Toronto's Blue Box program, about $60 million annually, they can claim they are doing their bit. But that's not enough, not by a long shot.

The fact is, however, that despite the city's best efforts to control the oceans of trash these businesses create, the real power lies with the province. So far, Queen's Park has preferred inaction.

Hartmann's argument is based on the concept of "extended product responsibility." Basically, that means forcing corporations to "take responsibility for their products and/or the packaging of those products."

Most agree the best method is a deposit system. That's how we handle beer bottles, and the same approach could be extended to everything from paper cups to plastic bottles – even wire hangers.

The big problem lies with collection, something with which no retailer wants to be saddled. When the province introduced liquor bottle deposits last year, the Beer Stores, which already had a collection system in place, became the return point.

But let's not forget that back in the old days, pop and milk came in glass bottles that were returned for a deposit. But that was dismantled and business turned to one-time containers – typically cans and plastic bottles – that enabled them to cut costs and increase profits.

Instead of making business pay to reuse and recycle, taxpayers would henceforth pay the price of dealing with the ever-increasing amounts of garbage they produce.

This is madness, of course, especially now that the market for used materials – glass, paper, metal – is stronger than ever. For example, each aluminum can that ends up in an Ontario landfill – roughly one billion annually – is worth about three cents. That means we're throwing away more than $30 million every year. Reusing these cans would also cut greenhouse gas emissions by 94,000 tonnes.

"We have a long, long way to go to catch up with other jurisdictions," Hartmann says. "Ontario has to take the lead. It's time to tell the companies the free ride is over."

Christopher Hume can be reached at chume@thestar.ca.

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