Is Ontario's Waste Reduction Act beyond saving?

Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley.
Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley.

On Tuesday, February 4, I attended the Recycling Council of Ontario’s Annual General Meeting and one-day conference, the theme of which was Ontario’s proposed Bill 91, Waste Reduction Act. The Act proposes to make producers responsible for end-of-life management of products and packaging and move the province toward extended producer responsibility (EPR). Environment Minister Jim Bradley spoke at the event and even took questions. There was a good panel of experts, including industry reps, at the end.

What I heard at the event, in both the formal presentations and also talking with consultants and various experts in the hallway, convinced me that Bill 91 is a poorly conceived piece of legislation and needs to be replaced with something quite different. Most of the people with whom I spoke felt the problems couldn’t be fixed with tinkering; rather, the whole proposal needs to be withdrawn and the policymakers need to make a fresh start.

I asked some of the experts how it could be that the Liberals got this piece of draft legislation so wrong? Did they not, I asked, confer with different stakeholders and groups like the Ontario Waste Management Association, SWANA, the RCO, etc. and industry groups as they crafted the legislation?

Apparently not. It appears to have arrived as “whole cloth.” One consultant said it appeared to have emerged from a “black whole” and no one knows who created it.

I was one of those people who was very excited about Ontario’s new EPR proposal when it first appeared. At first blush it sounded like what progressive sustainability people have asked for in recent years. In fact, it was something I didn’t expect to see promulgated in my lifetime (or at least during my career).

So it was disappointing to learn in recent months — and at the RCO event — just how wretched and un-savable the legislation is.

I won’t go into a lot of detail — you can read analysis in the forthcoming February/March edition of the magazine (due out at the end of this month) to learn the details. I’ll just mention that there appear to be some fatal flaws.

Many observers seem to agree that what is supposed to shift responsibility to the private sector leaves too much power in the hands of municipalities. This defeats the whole point of EPR.

Everyone seems to agree that establishing a Waste Reduction Authority is a very bad idea. This would be a kind of continuation of Waste Diversion Ontario and would likely employ many of the same people. The Authority will bog down in process, people believe, and endless argumentation between private industry stewardship reps and municipalities. It’s the central planning philosophy all over again.

I was personally disturbed by an off-hand remark that Minister Bradley from the podium. He seemed to suggest that the idea of industry paying for “everything” (or words to that effect) was open for negotiation.

Ugh! In other words, we’re kind thinking introducing EPR but we’re sort of hedging and maybe industry doesn’t have to foot the whole bill and, and, and…

In other words, the “shared cost model” is not necessarily dead.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. It was the Liberals, after all who gave us the Blue Box in the first place. In fact, Jim Bradley was environment minister back in the 1980s when the whole thing got started. Should we really expect one of the architects of municipal curbside recycling to take a tough stand, end the subsidy, and force industry to absorb its externalities in a real producer responsibility scheme?

Apparently not.

It’s a real shame because just as the Ontario government is “blowing” this file, British Columbia is getting it right, at least approximately. I’ve heard complaints about the BC system too, but at least Multi-Material BC will be cutting cheques to BC municipalities this spring, finding the full costs.

So these provincial environment ministers (or their staff) not talk to one another?

I think Bradley should get a copy of the BC program, then sit down with the aforementioned different stakeholders and troubleshoot some of the challenges in the BC program, and introduce a whole new piece of EPR legislation in Ontario.

If that’s not politically “doable” then rewrite what’s being considered heavily to achieve essentially the same thing. It’s a terrible idea to introduce something that’s highly flawed with the intent of fixing it later. That rarely happens.

Let’s do this once, and do it right!



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