What a Waste: Failing to Engage Waste Reduction Solutions

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Every day, Ontario generates more than 33,000 tonnes of waste. Over the course of a year, this adds up to more than 12 million tonnes, or more than 900 kilograms per person. Sending waste materials to disposal is problematic, not only because it fills up landfills that must be monitored for the migration of contaminants, but also because disposal typically uses more energy, resources and virgin materials than reuse and recycling. The provincial government has struggled for decades with how to address Ontario’s waste dilemma.

Ontario’s Waste Diversion Framework

Recognizing the need to reduce the waste sent to landfill, in October 1990, the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) set two provincial goals for reducing the per capita amount of non-hazardous solid waste sent to disposal in Ontario; using 1987 as the base year, the ministry aimed to reduce per capita waste disposal by 25 per cent by 1992 and by 50 per cent by the year 2000. As a first major step toward meeting these goals, the government introduced the “3Rs” regulations under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) in the mid-1990s. These regulations required residential “blue box” recycling, as well as waste diversion efforts in the industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) sectors (e.g., manufacturers, restaurants, hotels, hospitals). Unfortunately, MOE’s enforcement of these regulations is lacking.

In 1993, the government announced that it had met its 1992 waste reduction target. This achievement was largely due to the expansion of municipal recycling programs in the early 1990s, which skyrocketed Ontario’s diversion rate (i.e., the percentage of waste diverted from landfill) from about 3 per cent in 1987 to 20 per cent in 1994 (see Figure 5.3.1). However, this initial progress did not continue for long; Ontario’s diversion rate hit a plateau in the latter part of the decade, and the government fell well short of its 2000 waste reduction goal.

In 2002, the Ontario government enacted the Waste Diversion Act, 2002 (WDA) to promote the 3Rs (reduction, reuse and recycling of waste) and provide for the development, implementation and operation of waste diversion programs. The WDA sets the stage for mandatory extended producer responsibility (EPR) – the concept that “stewards” (i.e., anyone with a “commercial connection” to the designated waste, which in most cases would mean the product manufacturers and/or importers) should be responsible for managing the waste generated at the end of their product’s life.

Under the WDA, the Minister of the Environment may designate materials as wastes and request that Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO) – a non-Crown corporation comprised of representatives from industry, municipal and commercial sectors, and the environmental community – develop a diversion program for that waste in cooperation with an industry funding organization (IFO). The IFO: identifies stewards of designated wastes; designs the program submitted for WDO and MOE approval; and determines each steward’s proportion of approved program costs. Generally, IFOs finance programs by charging stewards fees for the products they introduce into the Ontario marketplace.

In 2004, the government set a new target: to increase Ontario’s diversion rate to 60 per cent by 2008. In the same year, the Blue Box Program, the first program established under the WDA, formally entrenched industry funding for municipal blue box programs; industry stewards are required to reimburse municipalities 50 per cent of the costs to collect and recycle residential blue box materials (e.g., aluminum and steel containers, glass bottles and jars, newsprint, and certain plastic containers, as well as additional materials in a number of communities).

Since 2008, Ontario has introduced several more waste diversion programs, including the Municipal Hazardous or Special Waste (MHSW) Program (for paint, antifreeze, fertilizers, oil filters and containers, and other designated household hazardous wastes), the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Program (for computers, televisions and other electronic equipment), and the Used Tires Program (for vehicle tires). Unlike the Blue Box Program, the new programs make stewards 100 per cent financially responsible for the end-of-life management of their products.

Figure 5.3.1. ontario's waste diversion rate.jpg
Figure 5.3.1. Ontario’s waste diversion rate (line graph) and amount of waste disposed and diverted. Prior to 2000, disposal estimates excluded waste that was exported out of the province. Data on the annual amounts of waste diverted and disposed between 1986 and 1994 were unavailable. Sources: Waste Reduction Action Plan (Ministry of the Environment, 1991); Recycling Roles and Responsibilities Final Report (Recycling Council of Ontario, 1998); Waste Management Industry Survey: Business and Government Sectors (Statistics Canada, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008).

The "Eco Fees" Imbroglio and MOE’s Retreat from Product Stewardship
On July 1, 2010, Ontario’s MHSW Program was expanded to divert 13 additional categories of household

hazardous waste (including rechargeable batteries, fire extinguishers, certain household cleaners, mercurycontaining devices, fluorescent bulbs, pharmaceuticals, etc.) from landfill. As with Ontario’s other diversion programs, stewards could choose to either absorb the fees they were charged to cover program costs or pass some or all of the fee along to retailers, who likewise could pass some or all of their cost increase on to consumers. Some retailers chose to add a separate “eco fee” line to their receipts, creating widespread confusion and anger that a “recycling tax” was being imposed by the government. Further outrage occurred when it was discovered that Canadian Tire was charging widely variable “eco fees,” some of which exceeded the amount charged to stewards by the IFO.

After much negative media and public outcry, in October 2010, MOE announced that it was permanently ending the expanded MHSW Program and would provide funding to municipalities to divert the designated wastes from landfill. As a result, the costs of managing these wastes have been transferred from stewards back to taxpayers. Moreover, because of the controversy, MOE appears to have delayed its intended overhaul of the WDA.

For more information on this issue, see the ECO’s July 2010 Special Report, “Getting it Right: Paying for the Management of Household Hazardous Wastes.”

Problems with Ontario’s Waste Diversion Framework

Although residential waste diversion has increased over the past decade, diversion in the IC&I sectors has decreased, such that Ontario’s overall diversion rate (as calculated in 2008) is still only about 23 per cent – practically the same as it was a decade earlier, and well below the province’s 60 per cent target. Furthermore, over the past decade, the amount of waste generated each year has increased (see Figure 5.3.1), further hampering progress in reducing the amount of waste sent to disposal. Clearly, province-wide progress in reducing the percentage of waste sent to disposal has stalled. New and dramatic changes to Ontario’s waste diversion framework are needed to move waste reduction and diversion forward.

The WDA requires that the Minister shall cause a review of the Act to be undertaken within five years of the Act coming into force. In October 2008, MOE initiated this review by posting a discussion paper, Toward a Zero Waste Future: Review of Ontario’s Waste Diversion Act, 2002, on the Environmental Registry. The notice solicited feedback on the WDA and MOE’s proposal to adopt a zero waste vision.

After completing this consultation, MOE posted a Minister’s report on the Registry in March 2010, From Waste to Worth: The Role of Waste Diversion in the Green Economy, which summarized the results of the WDA review and launched a public dialogue on proposed changes to Ontario’s waste diversion framework. In addition, MOE had previously posted a discussion paper and a policy statement on the Registry related to the province’s waste diversion framework: Ontario’s 60% Waste Diversion Goal – A Discussion Paper (2004) and MOE’s Policy Statement on Waste Management Planning: Best Practices for Waste Managers (2007).

These four policy proposals identified a number of problems, which are summarized below.

The WDA Fails to Prioritize Waste Reduction and Reuse over Recycling

MOE observed that “while the 3Rs are mentioned in the Act, the Act could be revised to better promote waste reduction, reuse and recycling, in that order. A key policy outcome is greater reduction of waste at the source. Not producing waste in the first place is the best way to move toward zero waste, and provides the greatest environmental benefits and potentially the greatest economic advantages to society.”

Skewed Cost Structure Makes Landfill Cheaper than Recycling

According to MOE, “on average, waste disposal in landfills is one-third to one-half the cost of diversion. However, the long-term environmental costs of landfills are seldom considered when establishing and operating a landfill. The absence of proper accounting for the true costs of waste results in most waste being disposed of in landfills rather than sent for reuse or recycling – the cost structure is not conducive to diverting waste.”

Diversion Programs Fail to Cover all Costs

Another problem recognized by MOE is that “the only costs attributable to producers in programs are the costs associated with recycling the material collected within the program. The management costs associated with whatever products and packaging are not collected in an approved waste diversion program are borne elsewhere – either by municipalities and their taxpayers, or by other businesses or consumers.”

Poor Diversion of Organic Waste

Organic waste represents about one-third of the total waste generated in Ontario. Despite MOE considering a program as early as 2002 and acknowledging in 2004 that reaching Ontario’s 60 per cent goal would be “determined in large part by finding better ways of dealing with the large portion of solid waste that is made up of organic materials,” there is still no province-wide organic waste diversion program or target.

Poor Diversion in the IC&I Sectors

Ontario’s IC&I sector generates approximately 60 per cent of the province’s waste, but its diversion rate is only about 13 per cent. MOE recognizes that “for Ontario to build a greener, more sustainable economy that encourages businesses to harness opportunities to be innovative, and drive toward a zero waste future, increasing diversion rates within the IC&I sectors, preferably through approaches consistent with the framework of [EPR], is essential.” MOE has also identified that “many small and medium-sized businesses are not captured under the [3Rs] regulations, even though, in aggregate, they probably generate more waste.”

No Financial Incentives to Reduce Waste

MOE acknowledges that “current programs under the Act do not encourage producers to focus on waste reduction first, reuse second, and recycling third. Instead, they generally focus on finding the least costly means of collecting and recycling materials.” Since steward fees are generally uniform across producers, MOE recognizes that “there is no direct financial incentive provided to individual producers to reduce their costs through product design, such as designing a product that is easier and cheaper to recycle. The lack of direct financial incentives to improve product design can be an impediment to reducing waste, increasing reuse, and ultimately striving for zero waste.” And although stewards under the Blue Box Program pay fewer fees when they reduce their packaging or use materials that are easily recycled, MOE notes that “incentives for producers to strive for zero waste are reduced, since they are not fully responsible for all costs and are too far removed from the end-of-life handling of their products.”

Lack of Fairness in the Way Costs are Allocated

Because the costs of the Blue Box Program are not borne wholly by stewards, but also by municipalities (and therefore taxpayers), MOE observes that “a municipal taxpayer who generates little waste may in fact end up paying into the system more than his or her fair share of the cost of managing the waste he or she generates.” Inadequate Coverage of Materials under the WDA

In its 2009 report on the WDA review, MOE admitted that “the programs under the WDA, while important, will only result in incremental gains in the provincial waste diversion rate. The materials designated, are significant from a pollution prevention perspective, but represent a relatively small portion [15 per cent] of the total waste generated.”

Lack of Ministry Oversight and Authority

The ministry has noted that while the Minister may accept or reject a proposed waste diversion program, the Minister cannot modify it once received. Moreover, the Minister lacks the ability to enforce timelines related to program development and implementation and the Act provides no authority to penalize any party in these circumstances.

In addition to identifying problems with Ontario’s waste diversion framework, MOE’s policy proposals discussed a laundry list of forward-thinking possible solutions (see box on waste diversion solutions).

Waste Diversion Solutions Discussed in the Ministry of the Environment’s Policy Proposals

  • Impose a surcharge on waste sent for disposal
  • Ban designated materials from disposal
  • Develop a long-term waste diversion schedule to: designate residential and industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) materials for diversion (including construction and demolition materials, vehicles, small household items); set timelines and milestones for each material; and set five-year material-specific collection and diversion targets
  • Shift the basis of Ontario’s waste diversion programs from extended producer responsibility (EPR) to individual producer responsibility (IPR), i.e., make individual producers fully responsible for meeting waste diversion requirements for both residential and IC&I waste
  • Establish penalties for producers who fail to meet outcome-based requirements
  • Require that all waste diversion programs clearly include separate reduction, reuse and recycling components
  • Redefine stewardship costs (i.e., steward fees) to better recognize variation in the environmental costs amongst producers’ products and packaging
  • Reduce steward fees proportional to the expansion of the reuse of their products
  • Prohibit producers and retailers from making their environmental management costs (i.e., steward fees) visible as separate charges at point of sale. MOE notes that requiring producers to internalize these costs as another factor of production (which can be mitigated through product design, manufacturing and packaging decisions) acts as an incentive to reduce both the costs and the waste associated with their products
  • Require retailers to take back products at end-of-life
  • Incorporate deposit return systems for certain products and/or packaging
  • Require product labelling that indicates the product’s environmental impacts
  • Set mandatory waste diversion targets for municipalities
  • Require all waste generators in the municipal and IC&I sectors to report waste diversion statistics, including quantities of waste disposed and diverted
  • Amend the 3Rs regulations to: increase the scope of their coverage; include more definitive data reporting requirements; and strengthen enforcement measures to encourage the IC&I sectors to divert as much waste as possible
  • Increase residential organic waste collection and centralized composting in Ontario’s largest


  • Provide training to small businesses to help increase their waste diversion rates
  • Change Ontario’s Building Code to require new multi-unit residential buildings to provide convenient source separation services for residents
  • Streamline the governance and administration of waste diversion programs by: clarifying the roles and responsibilities; introducing a clearer set of checks and balances; introducing more effective compliance tools and penalties; and expanding the composition of industry funding organization Boards of Directors to include non-industry representatives

ECO Comment

For decades, MOE has continued to propose progressive and potentially effective solutions to improve waste reduction and diversion. For example, as early as 1991, Ontario’s Waste Reduction Action Plan mentioned that MOE was considering banning recyclable materials from landfill and setting minimum tipping fees for publicly owned landfill sites. Since that time, MOE has posted multiple documents on the Environmental Registry that offer both recurring and new potential solutions.

As of September 2011, however, none of these policy proposals have become decisions. Moreover, notwithstanding the positive steps taken in establishing stewardship programs for used tires, WEEE and some MHSW, the ideas these documents offer have largely gone unimplemented. Most unfortunate, as a result of the July 2010 “eco fees” imbroglio (see box on “eco fees”), MOE’s intended overhaul of the dated WDA appears to have been shelved.

One of the biggest problems with Ontario’s waste diversion framework is that municipalities have been made responsible for managing waste, yet they have no control or influence over the design and recyclability of consumer products or the markets for the collected materials. With no other options, municipalities have tried implementing stop-gap solutions, including expanding landfills, encouraging recycling, and even burning garbage for energy. However, none of these options reduce waste generation, and some might even encourage it. Likewise, while provincial initiatives that focus on the actions of waste generators and managers – such as requiring municipalities and the IC&I sectors to develop waste diversion targets, composting and recycling programs, and monitoring programs – may be useful in improving recycling rates, they do not address the more fundamental issue of source reduction.

Much of the capacity for source reduction lies in the hands of product producers, who currently see little benefit in designing reusable, repairable and recyclable products that cause little environmental damage. Instead, consumer convenience, attractive appearance, and other product features drive design much more than “designing for the environment.”

One possible solution is to make stewards fully responsible for collecting and managing their products as waste, with full-cost accounting principles applied so that long-term environmental impacts and protection are included in the cost. If disposal costs were increased to create a disincentive, designing for re-use and recycling, practicing source reduction activities, developing markets for collected materials, and minimizing overall environmental impact would become more attractive.

The ECO recognizes that global manufacturing and distribution systems make it difficult for a single jurisdiction, like Ontario, to dictate product requirements. Nevertheless, managing a product’s wastes as an extension of the production and consumption system – and ensuring that the costs and benefits of waste management accrued to producers – would resolve many of the problems identified by MOE.

MOE’s multiple policy proposals clearly indicate that the ministry is aware of the many forward-thinking options for advancing waste reduction and diversion. The ECO urges the Minister of the Environment to engage these solutions and follow through on the many ideas available to improve Ontario’s waste diversion framework. Moreover, the ministry needs to better educate the public and industry on the implications and importance of EPR, steward fees, and other waste reduction initiatives in order to gain their support and ensure smooth implementation.

For ministry comments, please see Appendix C.

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This is an article from the 2010/11 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2011. "What a Waste: Failing to Engage Waste Reduction Solutions." Engaging Solutions, ECO Annual Report, 2010/11. Toronto: The Queen's Printer for Ontario. 91-97.