A wasted opportunity: Ontario's Waste Diversion Act fails to prioritize waste reduction

October 28, 2015 - As the birth place of the Blue Box, the world’s first curb-side recycling program, Ontario was once a leader in waste management.

Today, Canadians are producing more waste than anywhere else, and communities in Northern Ontario are generating more on average than their southern counterparts.

In terms of who produced the least amount of trash of 226 municipalities representing 98 percent of the province’s population, Sault Ste. Marie ranked 159th, Sudbury 189th, Thunder Bay 197th and Timmins 207th, all well above the provincial average of 367 kilograms per person. Most of this material ends up in landfills.

Landfills produce 25 percent of the country’s methane emissions, a greenhouse gas with twenty times the heat retention capacity of carbon dioxide. Landfills leach toxic chemicals into soil and water while squandering the energy and natural resources. In Northern Ontario, landfills are filling up. In September 2015, Dryden had to close one of its landfill sites, and as a result of receiving an unexpectedly high tonnage of material, the Sault Ste. Marie site now has less than seven years left.

There are better ways to deal with waste. Recycling produces less greenhouse gases, uses less energy, and has less environmental impact than extracting raw materials. In 2004, recognizing the need to divert more material from landfills, the Ontario government set a target of 60 percent diversion rates by 2008. More than a decade later and seven years past the goal date, the average residential diversion rate is 47 percent, falling well short of the target.

In Northern Ontario, these rates are even lower. Small populations and long distances make collection and transportation costly, and material recovery facilities are few and far between. Timmins has resorted to sending its recyclables 400 kilometers south for sorting five times a week, while Cochrane sends its recyclables to Quebec. As a result, on top of producing more waste, we are sending less of it to be recycled and more to landfills. Sudbury’s relatively high 45 percent diversion rates are still below provincial average, Thunder Bay is not even half-way there at 20 percent, and Timmins recycles only 8 percent of materials.

With high waste generation rates and inefficient recycling, it is time to focus on tackling the problem at its root. After all, the best way to deal with waste is to not have to deal with it in the first place.

Ontario’s Waste Diversion Act framework is failing to prioritize reduction over diversion, while additionally not meeting its recycling targets. Part of the problem is that the responsibility for waste management has been placed on municipalities, despite their having no control over product or packaging design or recyclability. This arrangement means that taxpayers are burdened with the cost of managing waste that could have been prevented with a more deliberate design.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a policy approach that aims to shift this responsibility upstream, off of consumers and onto producers by making them accountable for end-of-life product management. In doing so, the financial load is lifted from municipalities and taxpayers, and producers are financially incentivized to take a life-cycle approach to product design, from the selection of materials to its reuse, recycling or disposal.

The Waste Diversion Act set the stage for producer responsibility by requiring that industry reimburse municipalities for 50 percent of Blue Box fees. However, this cost structure is deeply flawed and does little to advance environmentally friendly design.

First, the amount is distributed evenly across producers, meaning no individual producer is incentivized to redesign products to use less packaging or be more easily recycled. Second, while producers are made to contribute to recycling fees, they pay nothing for the disposal of materials that end up in a landfill. Ironically, this incentivizes producers to use non-recyclable materials that will stay out of the Blue Box stream.

In the absence of a complete overhaul of our throwaway consumer culture, much of the capacity for waste reduction lies in the hands of producers, who currently see little benefit in redesigning for reduced environmental impact. EPR provides one policy approach that could provide incentives to close the loop on materials, but is unlikely to work unless the current legislation is binned.

Once home to innovative waste management policies, Ontario’s outdated Waste Diversion Act is putting too much energy into diversion strategies rather than focusing on reduction, leaving municipalities and taxpayers to deal with the mess. What a waste.

By Holly Dillabough, former policy intern with Northern Policy Institute

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