A new book by established environmental lawyer and author David McRobert says it’s time to unravel the dark side of the relationship between the soft drink industry, recyclers and public health.
Published in mid-July, My Municipal Recycling Program Made Me Fat and Sick [CreateSpace, 2012] explores the evolution of the Blue Box in Ontario, and how soft drink companies and other manufacturers may have used growing concern for the environment as a smokescreen to save money and win packaging freedom.
McRobert wants to see the McGuinty government impose a combination of a tax and deposit system on soft drinks and other non-refillable containers to fight obesity, create local jobs and improve the environmental and energy performance of the system. He says the taxes and unredeemed deposits could be used to fund clean tap water to Ontario's Aboriginal Peoples and educate consumers about healthier diets and lifestyles.
McRobert argues that the recycling public policy tradeoff in the early 1980s led to bargain basement prices for cans of soda, but a high cost to the health of people caught up in the sugary, caffeinated buzz.
“The darkest side of the public policy tradeoff was that the Blue Box allowed soft drink companies to lower the price of their product,” McRobert told EcoLog's Solid Waste & Recycling magazine. “In relative terms, pop is much cheaper than other beverage products on a per unit basis and voraciously consumed in homes and workplaces. This has further stressed our health care system, which already was coping with a spike in diabetes and obesity rates.”
McRobert adds that the public was "drawn into the mix because it wanted to be active participants in sending less waste to landfill".
The new book, subtitled How well intentioned environmentalists teamed up with the soft drink industry to promote obesity and injure workers, explains how the public policy evolution of recycling was based on the premise that reusable containers would be phased out. The 75 per cent ratio for glass refillable soft drink containers was never reached because the soft drink industry had trouble with the targets. Instead, McRobert says, there would be a new system based on throw-away containers that were potentially recyclable but not subject to deposits.
McRobert supports the concept of recycling of paper, plastics and other materials, but stresses that public policy should focus on the 3Rs hierarchy of reduction, reuse and recycling. He says he began to fight the shift away from reusable containers during his time at Pollution Probe when he was a waste campaigner in 1990 and 1991.
Many people felt "empowered by the ability to sort their waste into recyclables, compostables and dry waste,” McRobert explains, noting this still was a vital policy achievement. "I worked on the 3Rs regulations and the related laws and policies at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment in the early 1990s and this was the beginning of a remarkable transformation in our behaviour," he adds.
The problems that bedeviled recycling systems in the 1970s continue today, McRobert says. Decades later, Blue Boxes are overflowing with low-value recyclable materials. McRobert notes that municipal taxpayers are footing a large part of the bill for multinationals that have a system designed for “everything from recyclable water bottles to paper board.”
Meanwhile, technical problems with the Blue Box system keep growing, including well-intentioned people putting metal containers with ignitable and explosive materials into the box, McRobert says.
McRobert is well known in policymaking circles from his November 1994 to June 2010 tenure as senior advisor and in-house counsel to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, and also from his work as a senior policy advisor at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment from 1991 to 1993. He was a part-time faculty member and course director at York University between 1994 and 2009 and, in addition to lecturing, has written a list of books on environmental topics. Prior to that, McRobert’s experience included working for Pollution Probe on climate change and 3Rs issues and the Workplace Health and Safety Agency in Toronto.
McRobert’s other recent books include: Risky Business: The Use, Management, Transport and Disposal of Asbestos in Ontario (March 2012); and We Don't Want to Start That Tire Fire: Cases and Materials on Lafarge v. the (Ontario) Environmental Review Tribunal (April 2012).