Ontario's recycling system needs to be overhauled - but let's do it right

The Minister of the Environment has announced that Ontario is moving ahead to shift Ontario’s Blue Bin program to one fully paid for by manufacturers and producers - also known as an Extended Producer Responsibility system. Our Waste Campaigner Emily Alfred breaks down what this means for Ontario, the benefits to this approach, and the significant risks if it’s not done right.

Responding a Special Advisor’s report, the Ontario government announced its next steps to revamp Ontario's Blue Box program and transition it to a system that is paid for by the companies and producers whose products and packaging are collected in the Blue Box.

For many years, TEA and other environmental organizations have been calling for Ontario to the move to a full producer responsibility model to hold companies accountable for the waste they create. However, we’re very concerned that if it's not done right, it will perpetuate waste and the plastic problem we currently face, and at worst, reward companies that continue to use plastic that is complicated or impossible to recycle, or promote burning plastic as the only solution. 

Producer Responsibility

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is the principle of holding the producers (i.e. manufacturers, brand owners) of products and packaging responsible for the full life cycle of what they put on the market. It’s a best practice in dealing with waste and creating a circular economy. If done right, not only would a strong EPR system in Ontario force companies to pay for recycling, it would also force them to shift away from wasteful packaging that is hard or impossible to recycle, and take the burden off municipalities who are constantly scrambling to cope with new types of packaging entering the market. Products like black plastic and stand-up plastic pouches are impossible to recycle in a city like Toronto and contribute millions of dollars a year in costs for recycling contamination.

Ontario’s Blue Bin Program

Ontario’s Blue Box program has reached a critical point: when it started nearly 40 years ago, it collected mostly paper, metal and glass. Over time, however, things have changed and the average Blue Box is now full of single-use plastic products and complicated plastic packaging that is expensive to collect and hard to recycle. This has increased costs for municipalities, polluted the environment, and made it harder to find a market to recycle and use this low-value plastic.

In Ontario, the Blue Box program is a shared responsibility: municipalities operate the recycling program, and producers pay a portion of the costs (up to 50%). As the cost of recycling has gone up and as materials have become more complicated, the Province of Ontario committed to moving to a full producer responsibility, where producers would be 100% responsible. The Waste-Free Ontario Act was passed in 2016, but very little has happened since then. The current government confirmed a commitment to EPR and asked an advisor to outline the next steps.

How an effective EPR system could help solve Ontario’s waste woes

TEA and other environmental organizations have been advocating for years to overhaul how waste is managed in Ontario, and to put the responsibility for recycling on the companies who create these products and packaging - that will push them to change wasteful packaging practices.

While we strongly support the principle of holding companies responsible for what they put on the market, in order for EPR to be effective in Ontario, the system needs to:

  • Use high targets and regular increases to push real change. For example, the report suggests that a target of recycling just 50% of plastic sold to residential markets is an ‘aggressive’ target, but that means in 2025 half of all plastics would still be in the environment, or in our landfills. In contrast, we know that collection rates of 90% are already being achieved in other provinces for some plastic (drink containers with deposits), so we shouldn’t settle for less than 90% in Ontario if we want to see a real change.
  • Ensure there are no loopholes for hard to recycle materials. Producers argue that they shouldn’t have to be responsible for packaging that is more difficult to manage (like foil wrappers, ‘compostable’ packaging, ‘stand-up’ pouches etc), or that they should have lower collection targets for them. But if these are left out, producers won’t have any reason to invest in recycling technology, or make different packaging choices. In fact, giving producers a free pass for the worst materials would actually give them an incentive to choose difficult materials instead of choosing reusable or easier to recycle materials that have higher targets! 
  • Speed up the transition to full Producer Responsibility and don’t include further delays. The report recommends a transition that will take 6 years until 2025, plus a delay for collection from multi-residential households, plus delays for complicated hard to manage packaging and materials. It could be a decade before there is any real impact!
  • Include reduction targets, recycled content requirements and bans for the worst materials. To drive real change, new regulations can’t simply focus on recycling, but on getting businesses to change their wasteful practices and reduce unnecessary packaging, use recycled content (to build a local recycling economy) and use bans to eliminate the worst materials that simply can’t be safely and reliably reused or recycled. 
  • Require high-value recycling and don’t let incineration or “waste-to-fuel” replace recycling. The oil and plastics industry have long advocated that burning or melting plastics for fuel should be considered a form of recycling or waste diversion, especially for the worst materials. However this destroys the resource and maintains demand for more oil and new plastic, plus it's bad for the environment and human health! If companies are allowed to burn plastics, they won’t have any reason to reduce waste or redesign their packages. Producers should have to ensure their packaging gets recycled, and that the materials actually get recycled into new products of equal, or higher, value.

Extended Producer Responsibility is an important principle for transforming how we manage materials and resources and create a zero-waste, circular economy in Ontario. However, effective EPR systems must be carefully designed, with strong timelines, high targets for recycling and no loopholes so companies can leave behind the materials that are most difficult to recycle or to deny recycling service to hard-to-reach communities.

TEA will be making our concerns clear to the Province and watching the development of regulations closely.