There’s been a lot of buzz lately about our recycling system since China, the world’s biggest recycling market, stopped taking most of the world's recycled plastics. This decision has a huge impact on recycling systems around the world - including here in Ontario - and it highlights the problems that arise from not holding companies responsible for the packaging they create.
This news doesn’t mean that ‘recycling’ doesn’t work. Rather, it exposes a key flaw with how most recycling is actually done: most ‘blue box’ recycling is a last-ditch alternative to disposal in a system which relies on single-use products and packaging.
To tackle the challenges of plastics and recycling, our governments need to hold companies responsible for the packaging they create.
Companies don’t pay the price for recycling: municipalities do
A key problem is that the companies that design, produce and profit from disposable products and packaging are removed from the consequences of those choices. They don’t face consequences or rules to stop them from choosing materials that are expensive, difficult or impossible to recycle. For example, any sort of black plastics, like takeout containers, are not recyclable.
Instead, the public pays the price: municipal governments scramble to collect and sort the materials, constrained by their budgets and our environment suffers when plastics don’t get recycled.
This system is unsustainable and unfair. It relies on the public to pay for it through municipal taxes and waste collection fees. Each municipality has different priorities, budgets and facilities to deal with recycling - which is why the recycling rules are different in each town and city!
Shifting to EPR and a circular economy
In a circular economy, resources are kept in a loop where materials are reused, repurposed, and recycled. Ideally, they are recycled or repurposed close to home to reduce environmental impacts and create local jobs.
Holding companies responsible is called Extended Producer Responsibility and this principle has been implemented in Ontario and around the world. For example, alcohol bottles and cans are collected by the Beer Store, ensuring higher quality recycling and a nearly 90% return rate. This also keeps these containers out of the municipal recycling bin and the landfill.
New rules in Ontario: an opportunity to shift our recycling system in the right direction
The good news is that Ontario has an opportunity to move us in the right direction and push producer responsibility further. The Province of Ontario has already taken some big steps, most significantly by passing the Waste Free Ontario Act in 2016. This is a major step forward, and, if implemented right, it would reward producers that reduce their packaging, choose easy to recycle materials, and incorporate recycled content into their products, and those who don't will face the consequences. It will also grow the local green economy: reusing, recycling and composting creates 10 times more jobs than disposal in a landfill or incinerator.
The Waste Free Ontario Act has set the right framework. Now, the Province of Ontario has to write the regulations that will transition to a system where companies are responsible for recycling. This is a long process that environmental groups are monitoring closely.
What the Toronto Environmental Alliance is doing - and how you can join us
Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) is the leading watchdog on waste issues in Toronto and Ontario. We need the Province to hear that Ontario is ready for a circular economy, that we’ve had enough of disposable and wasteful plastic packaging and that it’s time for companies to be held accountable for the environmental harm of what they’re selling!
In addition to our work as a policy expert, stakeholder and coordinator of other environmental NGOs, TEA regularly highlights opportunities for Ontarians to add their voices and advocate for a more sustainable and just waste system. Sign up for email alerts to stay in the loop!
Your voice helps to ensure the Province hears loud and clear that we’ve had enough of disposable and wasteful plastic packaging and it’s time for companies to be held accountable for the environmental harm of what they’re selling.