The Ford government is overhauling Ontario’s blue box recycling program

And critics say it will be a disaster 

Originally published in the Toronto Star, March 19, 2022

Though it dropped with little notice in the wider world, plunked down with scant fanfare in a late COVID spring, it was, nonetheless, a massive moment for many Ontario companies — not to mention Ontario cities, Ontario towns and anyone who owns an Ontario home, or just lives in one.

Ontario Regulation 391/21: Blue Box was published online on June 3, 2021. It laid out the terms by which Ontario’s entire curbside recycling regime would be overhauled over the next two years.

Under the current system, more than 240 Ontario municipalities run their own separate blue box programs, with the costs split between cities and the companies that produce and sell household plastics, metals, glass and printed paper. Under the new system, the companies themselves, including giants like McDonald’s, Unilever and Loblaws, will be responsible not just for the entire cost of the program, but for running it, too.

The new blue box regulation appeared following years of fevered lobbying by some of Ontario’s largest and most influential corporate interests. It set the stage for a change environmentalists hoped would drive a new era of better, more productive recycling in the province, and kicked off a fierce and barely concealed battle for hundreds of millions of dollars in annual collection and processing contracts.

It was, in other words, a big deal: for almost any company that sold or manufactured household products in Ontario; any company involved in the $2.8-billion Ontario waste management industry; and anyone interested in the environment or the economy of Ontario.

For Doug Ford’s government, the regulation was a defining piece of industrial and ecological policy, one that would touch the lives of almost every person in the province and set the stage for either a generation of household recycling gains in Ontario or several decades of costly and damaging stasis.

The stakes, then, could not have been higher, which is in part why so many players in the recycling world were completely baffled by what the government put out.

“I’ve been around this issue for a number of years,” said Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Circular Innovation Council (previously known at the Recycling Council of Ontario). “A lot of us have, and I remember when it first came out … we were calling each other going, ‘I don’t even know how to read this.’ ”

The idea behind Ontario’s big recycling change isn’t new or novel. Other jurisdictions, especially in Europe but more recently in North America too, have been off-loading recycling costs and responsibilities to paper and packagingproducers for years.

But what the Ontario government came up with wasn’t built off any of those existing models, according to experts in environmental policy. Instead, critics say, it was a made-in-Ontario mishmash, a unique regime that even some with decades of experience in waste management and environmental consulting have trouble understanding.

“Don’t beat yourself up if you find it confusing. It’s confusing to people who’ve been in the industry for 30 years,” said Denis Goulet, president of Miller Waste Systems, a garbage and recycling company headquartered in Markham.

That confusion could have serious consequences. More than eight months after the regulation was published, industry players are still struggling to build a workable system off the government model. With the transition to the new regime set to begin in less than 16 months, and a provincial election campaign just weeks away, many are worried the various players won’t have enough time to get a functioning system off the ground before the summer of 2023, when the new regime is set to kick in in Toronto before rolling out across the province over the following two and a half years.

That kind of delay could be costly. It would force some municipalities to sign expensive contract extensions with existing suppliers (Toronto has already made provisions to extend its current contracts if necessary) or work out new deals in a tight market already constrained by supply chain backlogs. (The lead time to buy a new garbage and recycling truck, for example, is now somewhere between 18 months and two years, according to industry sources.)

But timetables and deadlines are only part of the story. The larger issue, according to many in the recycling sector, is that they don’t believe the Ford government’s blue box regulation as currently designed will be good for either companies in packaged good industries or for the environment.

The main goal of having a recycling system paid for and run by the companies that produce paper and packaging is simple: to get a better recycling system, one where less packaging ends up in landfills and more raw materials are repurposed and put back into the economy. But that only works, according to both environmentalists and industry experts, if the government lets the market do its job, by setting high standards and then getting out of the way.

Critics charge that the Ford government’s plan does neither.

“The government did exactly what we were all fearful of them doing, which has been to be too prescriptive in the process,” said St. Godard.

The regulation sets recycling benchmarks that environmentalists say are far too lax to spur real change and lays out a process that some in the recycling sector believe is much too cumbersome to allow for market innovation to thrive.

“I’ve been involved in the waste system for more than 30 years and I’ve never seen anything as f-ed up as this,” said one senior industry official who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about an ongoing, commercially sensitive process. “I think the blue box is going to be a disaster at this point.”

“If waste becomes an external cost of doing business, then you would treat that cost just like you would any other,” St. Godard said. “And through the competitive tensions of the marketplace, you would be incented to design better, and you may even — (in a) utopia — design it so that you get that product or package back and integrate it into your own production cycles.”

The current transition takes that idea and pushes it into hyperdrive. In 2016, the then Liberal government introduced the Waste-Free Ontario Act, which aimed to move the province to a full EPR system. The legislation established the principle, already standard in Europe, that producers should be fully responsible, not just for the costs of the curbside recycling system, but also for the operation of the system itself, including contracting, collection and processing.

What the Liberals did not do, however, was lay out exactly how that system was supposed to work in Ontario. Instead, in 2018, they lost to Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives and left the details up to the new government.

How exactly the Ford government came up with its own regulation is still something of a mystery, even to some who have been intimately involved in the blue box process. Most agree, however, that it involved some mix of ideology, influence and ignorance about how recycling policy works in the real world.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, wanted the province to set high benchmarks for recycled materials and strict reporting and auditing requirements for producers.

(Those pleas, according to environmentalists and some industry sources, were largely ignored. “This government has completely marginalized the environmental groups,” said another industry source who is still actively involved in the negotiations.)

Waste management companies, meanwhile, wanted a seat at the table and a regime that would allow them to protect their investments and existing infrastructure.

All of that sounds very complicated. And it is. But it’s not unprecedented. Many other jurisdictions have managed the transition to full producer responsibility. There was no need for Ontario to reinvent the wheel. And yet, that’s what the province did.

The new Ontario system laid out in the regulation published last June is unlike any other in the world, according to Duncan Bury, an Ontario consultant who has spent more than 25 years working on EPR.

“This is a unique Ontario (he paused here to laugh) special case,” he said. “What they’ve developed is way more complicated than it needs to be, and I think there’s real worries about how this will actually roll out.”

The new regulation created a complex system whereby producers would sign up with competing Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs), which would in turn create rules to divide recycling pickups among themselves geographically across the province and then contract out those pickups to waste management companies, all under a heavily proscriptive regime that ran some 36 printed pages and almost 17,000 words.

The Star spoke to almost a dozen executives and consultants who have worked on every side of this file. Almost to a person they expressed some confusion about the new rules.

“This is the most bizarre approach to packaging regulation and EPR we’ve seen,” said St. Godard.

“It’s just so obtuse, you cannot understand what the hell they’re talking about,” added Bury.

It’s also, according to some at least, not particularly rigorous.

“Clearly, the targets are not as robust as they should be on plastics, which is a critical issue to everybody,” Bury said.

Nor are the reporting requirements strict enough, St. Godard believes.





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