Per capita, Canadians are the world’s wastrels, tossing out approximately one tonne per person per year, according to a new analysis of waste policies by Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission entitled “Cutting the Waste: How to save money while improving our solid waste systems”. Put another way, Canadians account for only 0.5% of global population, but generate 2% of global municipal waste.
The policy response has been the typical Canadian patchwork. British Columbia, for instance, has invested heavily in extended producer responsibility programs. Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have put landfill bans in place.
In its report, though, Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission argues that the economics of waste are too complicated for a single solution. Recycling programs can be costly and may give rise to unforeseen environmental costs. Extended producer responsibility is difficult to extend to organics. High tipping fees may encourage generators to dispose of their waste elsewhere. Landfill bans and other hard limits on waste disposal can be costly to enforce and are burdensome if there is no viable alternative.
Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission concludes that many solutions will have to be applied. Rather than focussing on waste reduction and diversion, it urges policy-makers to focus on the efficiency of the waste management system.
Several factors work to make waste disposal inefficient in Canada. For instance, there is a weak link between the cost of disposal and the price paid by generators. Households typically pay all or a large portion of waste disposal costs through property taxes, which are unrelated to the amount of waste generated. Tipping fees at landfills typically are well below the actual cost of management, which gives a break to commercial generators.
However, thanks to porous municipal boundaries, a municipality that raises tipping fees may see its disposal volume, and related revenue, fall as generators shift disposal to a less-costly landfill. High fees can also encourage illegal dumping. And because the cost of disposal is set locally and varies from one place to another, a cost increase in one location won’t be felt by upstream producers.
There are five ways waste management can be made more efficient, says Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. The most effective would be a more widespread adoption and harmonization of extended producer responsibility programs. Because of the complexity of these programs, this would be a long-term initiative.
More immediately, municipalities should raise tipping fees to cover the full cost of disposal and implement pay-as-you-throw policies that compel households to pay for the cost of the waste they generate. Municipalities should also address organic waste management, though there is not one cookie-cutter solution. Measures will have to be tailored to local needs.
Finally, policy-makers need data to inform decision-making. There is no consistency in data collection and availability across Canada.