There's a lot going on behind the scenes of Ontario's new blue box regulation

This month marks a big change in how recycling works in Toronto - though most Torontonians won’t notice a thing.

What’s happening in Toronto?

Starting on July 1st, Toronto became one of the first cities in Ontario to transition to a new recycling regulation meant to improve recycling rates by putting more of the responsibility on the companies who make products and packaging in the first place. This is a change we’ve been anticipating for years, but the fundamental flaws in the provincial regulation could result in some big environmental problems. That’s why we’ll be watching closely. 

Here’s why most people in Toronto won’t notice a thing: the City workers, (or City-contracted waste companies), will continue to collect the same materials in the same bins on the same schedule. The difference is behind the scenes: recyclables and what happens after collection is now the responsibility of the companies that make those products and packaging. These companies will pay the cost for processing, recycling the materials, and reporting to the province. 

We’re happy to see that the City has retained control of curbside collection, ensuring that Torontonians don’t notice a difference in service, and this means the City will still play a role in helping increase diversion. 

Extended Producer Responsibility: holding companies responsible for their packaging?

Most of your recycling bin is packaging - single-use, disposable plastics, metal, cardboard and glass - used to sell and transport products to you. The amount of single-use products and packaging in our waste is growing, and since more of it is plastic (or complex multiple-material packaging), it’s harder to recycle.. The cost of recycling this growing amount of plastic has skyrocketed, creating problems for municipalities.

For decades, TEA, along with enviro groups from around the world, have been calling on governments to hold companies financially and legally responsible for the full life cycle of the packaging they choose for their products. This will give those companies a reason to reduce the amount of packaging they use, or at least make their packaging easy to collect and recycle. This kind of system is called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). With high enough targets, and combined with other tools (like bans for the worst materials, and refillable packaging requirements), this kind of policy moves us towards a zero waste circular economy. 

Though Ontario’s EPR system has been in the works for decades, sadly, the current provincial government has watered down what could have been an impactful system and given in to industry pressure to weaken this regulation. We now have serious concerns about what will happen next.

The flaws with the new Blue Box regulation could send us backward. The regulation has low recycling targets, lack of transparency for the public, and loopholes that will allow producers to increase their use of problem packaging like non-recyclable foil pouches or ‘compostable’ plastic (which can’t actually be composted in Toronto). These are well-documented by environmental groups, the media, and municipalities themselves have been asking the province to fix it so Toronto doesn’t end up with more garbage to manage. 

What happens now?

This shift to more extended producer responsibility doesn’t mean the City can wash its hands of the problem: over the next few years they’ve got to work hard to get more recyclables out of the garbage, and cut sorting mistakes in the blue bin dramatically. Environmental groups, and all municipalities, will be watching closely to ensure producers do what they’re supposed to, while continuing to demand the Province fix the major flaws in the EPR regulation. 

The rate at which we recycle in Toronto and across Ontario has dropped steadily in recent years - due in large part to more plastic and more complex plastic packaging on everything. 

EPR is just one step in the shift towards a zero waste circular economy that reuses and recirculates valuable resources. 

  • We also need to continue the push for banning the worst single-use materials that are unnecessary, toxic and not easily recyclable into new resources.
  • We need more effective collection systems, like a deposit-return system for all beverage containers, (which could double the current abysmal recycling rate in Ontario).
  • Most importantly we need requirements for companies shift to refillable, reusable zero-waste packaging. 

TEA will be watching the Blue Box transition in Toronto closely, and we’ll continue to advocate for the bigger system changes we need. Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to get updates.