It took four years for 19th century workers, armed with shovels and pickaxes, to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. But that’s a mere moment compared to 21st century Ontario, which may take 24 years to fix its waste diversion problem.
In the words of Then-Environment Minister Elizabeth Witmer on June 26, 2001, the newly-introduced Waste Diversion Act, 2002 would establish “a partnership between industry and the municipalities and lays out the framework for a recycling system that will serve this province for years to come.”
Eighteen years and countless reports later, current Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks Jeff Yurek has received a final report from David Lindsay, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, recommending that the transition to full producer responsibility for paper and packaging in Ontario proceed over the next six years.
In a telephone interview with EcoLog News, Recycling Council of Ontario Executive Director Jo-Anne St. Godard concedes that Ontario has not taken the express lane to blue box reform, but the blue box is a very complex 40-year-old, $300-million business, she adds. It’s not a simple task to turn it over to a group — producers — with no experience in waste diversion. The task has been further complicated by development in the recyclables marketplace, such as the loss of China as a market for plastics, which has decimated the value of some commodities.
The Doug Ford government in Ontario has turned its back on many of the environmental policies of its predecessor, but the transition to full producer responsibility for paper and packaging does not appear to be one of them. Once the transition is complete, blue box contents will be standardized across Ontario. In all likelihood, municipalities will continue to operate curbside pickup, but they will do so as service providers to producers, who will set performance standards and cover the cost.
“We really do have an opportunity here not just to transition to full producer responsibility, but in doing so renew the blue box,” says St. Godard.
The blue box needs it. Diversion rates have remained stagnant for 15 years, packaging has evolved well beyond what regulations require municipalities to collect, and as much as 30% of what consumers put in their blue box ends up in landfills anyway.
The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks has remained firm in its commitment that current diversion levels not be compromised by the transition, says St. Godard. They must improve, and that may compel producers to look beyond the blue box once they take ownership of it. Producers may conclude that some packaging simply cannot be efficiently recycled, and that could give rise to radical changes in material or design.