Opportunities and risks for Ontario's Blue Box overhaul

New regulations on recycling and Ontario’s Blue Box are currently in development. This is a critical, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a low-carbon, circular economy. However, there are significant risks if it isn’t done right.

The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks is shifting Ontario’s Blue Bin program to one fully paid for by manufacturers and producers instead of by municipalities. For many years, TEA and other environmental organizations have been calling for this approach, known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

If done right, Extended Producer Responsibility regulations hold companies accountable and give them an incentive to reduce and redesign the products and packaging they create. This is key to shifting towards a low-carbon circular economy that conserves resources and creates local green jobs.

However, we’re concerned that if the new Blue Box regulations aren’t done right, the new system will perpetuate the waste and plastic problems we currently face. At worst, we’re concerned this system could create loopholes that allow companies to continue to use plastic that is complicated or impossible to recycle, to promote burning plastics through incineration, or reduce access to recycling services in some communities.

These are our top concerns for what could happen with the Blue Box overhaul: 

  • Major loopholes could mean that plastics and overpackaging continue to increase. Producers want the regulation to have low and broad recycling targets, leaving big loopholes so they can continue using low value and unrecyclable materials without facing any consequences when most of it ends up in the garbage or the environment.
  • Non-residential waste could be left out entirely, so the majority of packaging waste won’t be collected. Two-thirds of waste in Ontario is created in non-residential places like workplaces, schools and shopping centres, also known as the Industrial, Commercial and Institutional (IC&I) sector. Leaving this sector out would mean producers aren’t accountable for most packaging waste in Ontario.
  • Recycling bins on streets, in parks and on beaches could decrease or disappear altogether across Ontario. Many municipalities currently provide recycling services in public spaces, public buildings, schools, and civic centres. However, the regulation may leave these spaces out, and recycling bins could disappear.
  • Residents could be treated differently based on where they live, and waste collection services could be reduced. Residents in multi-residential buildings (condos, apartments and co-ops) with private waste pick up may not get Blue Bin services after 2026, if at all. Residents in small or remote communities may lose their recycling services, and long-term care homes and other institutional settings wouldn’t be part of the program.
  • There could be an increase in the amount of plastic burned in Ontario. Pro-incineration groups want to reclassify burning plastic as a type of waste diversion and promote the burning of contaminated waste from poor recycling as a form of renewable energy instead of looking at ways to reduce plastic or improve recycling.
  • We could lose Ontario’s best waste reduction success. Ontario’s deposit return system for alcohol containers has led to the highest collection rates: 97% for refillable beer bottles and 79% for wine and liquor (in contrast, drink containers without a deposit have a 45% recycling rate). But the new regulation - instead of expanding that success - could result in an end to that deposit system, and we’d see fewer refills and recycling.

These regulations are in development right now. During this process, environmental groups and the public have been shut out of discussions. We are closely monitoring these regulations with other environmental and health organizations, and looking at how we can make sure environmental concerns are heard.

Today, we joined 51 environmental and civil organizations to call the Ontario government to fix the Blue Box and move the province to a circular economy. Our joint statement sets our expectations for the regulations to address waste in Ontario. Read the joint statement with our recommendations.

Emily Alfred is the Waste Campaigner for the Toronto Environmental Alliance.