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Fee and Loathing - NOW Magazine

Fee and loathing: Can Ontario Rebound from its ugly eco fee freak-out?

July 22, 2010
Paul Terefenko
NOW Magazine

Three weeks. Less than it takes a discarded apple core to disintegrate. That’s how long it took Stewardship Ontario’s current eco fee plan to fail.

Environment Minister John Gerretsen’s tail-betwixt-legs pullback of the eco fee program Tuesday (July 20) is being described as a 90-day rethink.

Under pressure from a growing tax revolt, the minister is now assuring the public that dinging consumers for the recycling of everyday toxic products will not be in the revised plan. 

Will we see a newer, clearer system, or is this the end of a grand idea?

Certainly, the fiasco, which left consumers standing at cash registers paying fees they knew nothing about, was seen by enviros as a failure on many fronts. But not all of them have the same concept of how the costs of recycling polluted packaging should be borne. 

Some think the manufacturers of toxic products should pay the full tab for safely discarding soiled packaging, while others favour some level of consumer fee to encourage responsible buying decisions.

What everyone agrees on, however, is that Stewardship Ontario, run by reps from major corporations like McCain Foods, Clorox and Unilever, should be ushered out of the scene.

“The delivery and design of the program sucked,” says Toronto Environmental Alliance executive director Franz Hartmann. The primary problem? Allowing the industry to set up its own eco cost solution.

“The government said to arm’s-length body Stewardship Ontario, ‘Go set up a system and let the industry figure out how to do it.’ They came up with one that was confusing to the consumer and the retailer.”

A major problem was that some producers chose to absorb recycling costs while others didn’t. This meant consumers often didn’t know they were paying a fee for a polluting product.

What previously successful enviro programs – like the $5 tire tax – had in common, says John Bennett, Sierra Club Canada’s exec director, is that “they educated the public.”

Bennett doesn’t agree with the idea that fees should be buried like dirty secrets. “What’s wrong with embedding costs [early on] is that we lose the value of understanding what things cost in our society,” he argues. 

“I’ve always thought people are smart and if you give them the information in a way they can understand, they’ll make the right choices.”

Those who support consumer fees feel they’re fair because they affect only those who choose to play with nasty chemicals when alternatives exist. Plus, the fees pay for the disposal of problem products, which frees the city to divert funds to other public services. 

That a council run by the merchandising industry failed to adequately sell its message is an irony not lost on Bennett. “There’s nobody better at marketing things and getting people to accept price changes than the retail industry,” he says. 

So how hard was it to sell the actual facts of a hazardous chemical’s lifespan? Very hard this time, it seems. 

That’s why Bennett suggests the program be run by the government.

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath agrees with this part of the argument. “These industry types sit around a table with no accountability, with nobody to answer to, and they think it’s okay not to let consumers know [about the eco fee] until they hit the register. How arrogant is that?”

But she disagrees with Bennett about the advantages of levying fees on bad items in the hopes of shaping purchasing behaviour. In her vision, reworked eco fees should hit producers alone. 

“The onus should be on the companies that produce these materials,” says Horwath. She says the failed eco fee plan had no incentives encouraging R and D into the creation of less toxic products, and was simply a way for a self-regulating industry to pass costs on to everyday consumers.

Hartmann agrees. He thinks the way to encourage producer responsibility is to amend the Waste Diversion Act to forbid companies to pass the costs of toxic recycling on to consumers. 

“We could amend the act to put principles in place saying to producers, ‘Go out and innovate. Here are targets, and if you don’t meet them, penalty, penalty, penalty.’”

Companies that are lazy on the hazardous chem front would end up having to absorb higher production costs. Those that innovate or abandon harmful ingredients would be rewarded with lower costs and more sales at the retail level.

But Amanda Harper Sevonty, director of marketing and communications at Stewardship Ontario, says it’s far too early to talk about changes, and emphasizes that “we have no jurisdiction or authority to step in and say to a manufacturer, ‘You have to absorb the cost.’”

Harper Sevonty says Stewardship Ontario will be “working with the government to develop a new system that works for consumers and protects our landfills and waterways.”

Bennett figures there’s little chance of that happening. “Environmental measures are never treated by government as seriously as other measures,” he says. “When the government abandons things this quickly, 90 days turn into 120 and then into forever. I think this [about-face] could have set the effort back decades.”

As published here: http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=176023