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COLUMN: Waste management remains a challenge

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 10/26/2018 7:18:00 AM

October 2018 may mark the beginning of the end of quiet on the landfill front in Canada. Statistics Canada released a report, “Materials diverted, by source”, stating the amount of diverted residential and non-residential waste increased by only 1.4% per year over the eight years 2008–2016. And that is not taking into account that the amount of waste generated, excluding waste diverted, has increased by more than 1% per year over the same period. 

Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, a group of academic and think-tank economists who are striving “to align Canada’s economic and environmental aspirations,” released on October 16, 2018 a report entitled “Cutting the Waste: How to save money while improving our solid waste systems”. This at least presented some optimism that solutions are available, though whether its report drills deeply enough into the problem of garbage is an open question. (See also “Focus on efficiency, not diversion, to deal with waste: Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission” in the October 19, 2018 issue of EcoLog News.) 

It is not as though the issue of waste management has been ignored in Canada. Provinces have been working on extended producer responsibility programs and, in some cases, have implemented such programs. Many municipalities have been working on waste diversion programs, with particular emphasis on recycling and composting initiatives. Many brand owners have put ‘recyclable’ labels on their products and packaging. However, these programs have not produced the desired reduction in waste going to landfill and many have hit a temporary brick wall. 

Rather than presenting solutions to the stall in waste reduction and diversion, Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission presents five rather general recommendations, which it claims will make waste management more efficient, making “waste management systems work more like well-functioning markets”. The most significant recommendation proposes transferring more of the cost of waste management to consumers, a suggestion that will almost certainly raise the same firestorm of opposition as the proposed carbon tax. 

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission’s recommendations except that, while they might usefully stimulate public and stakeholder discussion, they are unlikely to solve the waste dilemma. 

So far, extended producer responsibility, a system that makes industry ‘stewards’ pay some or all of the cost of waste diversion, has been relatively non-controversial among voters in the provinces where it has been implemented, though not so much among brand owners in industry, but Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission’s proposals are likely to change that. 

While not expressed in detail, the report certainly seems to support the view, supported by a number of studies, that landfill costs in Canadian municipalities are kept artificially low. Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission appropriately asks: “If recovering and selling the resources embedded in waste can generate benefits, why does the private sector not provide more opportunities for households and the commercial sector to recycle and compost?” 

Three of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission’s five recommendations would, if implemented, have a significant and not necessarily positive impact on extended producer responsibility programs. 

Recommendation #2 is that municipalities should charge households directly for waste disposal. A few municipalities in Canada have already implemented pay-as-you-throw through such tools as resident-purchased bag tags, but widespread adoption of such programs is likely to raise concerns of inequity. Families with more children in the household almost certainly generate more waste, and low-income families likely generate more waste per capita than more well-to-do families. Cheaper goods are very often less durable than their more expensive equivalents and low-cost food items often come with more packaging. 

Surely it is inequitable from an environmental economics perspective that industry stewards have to pay for recycling and organics processing through extended producer responsibility programs, while residents have to pay the costs of garbage disposal even though they have little control over the amount of garbage that their households generate. 

Recommendation #3 is that provincial governments should expand, reform, and harmonize extended producer responsibility programs. A fantastic suggestion, but this is Canada and there is a lack of harmonization of almost everything among provinces. 

Harmonizing extended producer responsibility is so far from being a political priority that it is difficult to imagine Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia, with three different provincial governments, agreeing on this recommendation. Even if they were to sign an extended producer responsibility harmonization agreement, it would take years to deal effectively with the waste and plastics crises to achieve implementation (think interprovincial free trade!). Even in the likely event that it were to be done on one occasion, we would only have to wait until the next round of provincial elections for one or more to decide they wanted to do extended producer responsibility differently. 

Having urged harmonization, Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission then suggests in recommendation #4 that provincial and municipal governments should implement policies that improve how organic waste is separated and managed, designed according to their own contexts. Hasn’t Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission said in recommendation #3 that provincial governments should harmonize extended producer responsibility programs? 

Is it not likely that if there are different policies and, therefore, different mechanisms for separating and managing organic waste in each province and municipality, then the costs of that activity will vary from municipality to municipality? If the policies and costs vary, then surely extended producer responsibility programs must vary to meet local requirements. 

Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission has published a useful report on waste management in Canada, something that too many governments seem reluctant to do. It presents the dilemmas of waste management and extended producer responsibility in a clear way but its solutions seem far from complete and somewhat less than practical. 

The one aspect that Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission did not explore is the question why municipalities are the operators of many of Canada’s waste management systems. One would have thought that if the goal is a market-based solution to our waste management challenges, then transition to a model in which the private sector is the operator would at least be worthy of discussion, if not of implementation. Somehow this approach has been left out of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission’s equation.

Nevertheless, Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission’s report is a useful summary of many of the challenges of waste management and at least a couple of its recommendations, full-cost tipping fees and more and more timely data on waste management in Canada, should be adopted as priorities for all governments. 

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He was selected by Environment Canada to be the principal author of the waste management chapter in the report The State of Canada’s Environment 1991. Colin can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone), (416) 362-5231 (fax), and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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