How Neighbourhood Food Environments and a Pay-as-You-Throw (PAYT) Waste Program Impact Household Food Waste Disposal

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Researchers from three Canadian universities recently published the results of a study on how pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) waste programs impact household food waste disposal.  The purpose of the study was to gain a better understanding of current household food waste disposal in order to develop and implement more effective interventions to reduce the wasting of food.

The collaborative study from researchers working at Western University (London, Ontario), Simon Fraser University (British Columbia) and the University of Toronto conducted a four season waste characterization study of 200 single-family households across eight neighbourhoods in Toronto.

The City of Toronto provides residents with a pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) waste program that includes a choice of four garbage cart sizes ranging from small,  medium, large, and extra large.  Annual user fees range from $18 (small cart) to $411 (extra large cart).  Each household also gets a green cart for organic waste and a blue cart for recycling at no annual cost.

The results of the research show that, on average, each household disposed 4.22 kg/week of total food waste, 69.90% of which was disposed in the green cart, and disposal increased significantly (p = 0.03) by garbage cart size to L but not XL garbage carts. Of this total, 61.78% consisted of avoidable food waste, annually valued at $630.00–$847.00 CAD/household.

Toronto’s PAYT waste program has been effective at diverting food waste into the green cart but not at reducing its generation. Higher median incomes were positively correlated, while higher neighbourhood dwelling and population density were negatively correlated, with total and avoidable food waste disposal. Regression analyses explained 40–67% of the variance in total avoidable food waste disposal.

Higher supermarket density and distance to healthier food outlets were associated with more, while dwelling density was related to less, total and avoidable food waste disposal.

Distance to fast food restaurants and less healthy food outlet density were both negatively associated with avoidable food waste disposal in the garbage and green cart, respectively. Avoidable food waste reduction interventions could include increasing garbage cart fees, weight-based PAYT, or messaging to households on the monetary value of avoidable food waste, and working with food retailers to improve how households shop for their food.

The researchers conclude that the data from the stud can be used to help formulate avoidable food waste reduction interventions. In terms of the PAYT waste program, this could be accomplished by re-visiting and potentially increasing garbage cart fees. Alternately, PAYT could be switched to a weight-based approach which has been shown to be more effective at source reduction of waste.

Reduce, Reuse and Rethink: Re-defining our goals for a waste management system

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Co-Investigator: “The Waste Wiki” – Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

For the first time in my career, issues surrounding waste management have now become part of mainstream discussion. Whether it be my neighbors asking me “Can this really be recycled?” to growing concerns surrounding single use plastics, people (both the public and policy makers alike), care now more than ever regarding what is happening to our waste. We as Canadians recognize that issues surrounding waste require our immediate attention, and that our waste disposal behavior (both good and bad) can have significant impacts on the sustainability of our environment.

So with this in mind, I thought it would be prudent to revisit the topic of “What is the goal of our waste management system?” While this is a topic I have written about several times in the past, proposed legislative changes – not only to Ontario’s Blue Box program, but waste management legislation across North America, makes it a timely topic for discussion. Now, more than ever, we need to clearly define what our goals are, and whether our existing approaches are helping move us towards achieving those goals.

So, what is the goal of a waste management system? This seemingly simple question is actually surprisingly difficult to answer, as it depends on who you ask and what is being prioritized. While we may here terms like “Circular Economy” and “Zero waste” banded about, what do they actually mean? Are they intended to be aspirational or achievable goals? What is the time frame and the boundaries we use to define a circular system, and what do we choose to prioritize when different stakeholders have competing objectives? I am reluctant to answer these questions, as I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer other than – “it depends”: On who you ask, what you ask and why you ask. With that in mind, before proceeding with our discussion, I want to remind everyone about the three pillars of sustainability: A sustainable system must consider economic, environmental and social dimensions. By definition, we cannot consider a system sustainable if it does not address these three components. This is a critical consideration when deciding what a goal of a waste management system could (or should) be.

Ontario (and Canada) has a recycling problem

Historically, the emphasis of waste management has been on residential recycling. The Blue Box, a ubiquitous symbol of recycling that has been a fixture in our homes for the better part of four decades in Ontario. In fact, my very first memory as a budding environmentalist was washing out peanut butter jars before putting it in the recycling (less to do with concerns surrounding contamination, and more to do with a fear of attracting insects). For many Ontarians, the Blue Box is symbolic of recycling and sustainability, and it is something that we have been extraordinarily good at – which as it turns out, is actually a really bad thing.

During the summer of 2019, York University conducted a study to gauge what the public thought about various waste management initiatives. Participants were asked to rank, from best to worse, which end of life scenario resulted in the greatest environmental impact (shown in figure 1)

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From the above graph, recycling was seen as the most environmentally preferred option, with reuse second and waste reduction a very distant fourth place. Why does this matter? Because reduce, reuse, recycle isn’t just a catchy phrase – it is the order in which we are supposed to things. Recycling is our third most preferred option.

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Canada has become a victim of its own success – both households and policy makers now conflate recycling with sustainability. If it can’t be recycled, it is characterized as being “bad”. The “waste” problem is often framed as “We aren’t recycling enough”. Just last year, Deloitte made international headlines when they published a report indicating that Canada was only recycling 9% of its plastics. The response from the public was almost visceral – Households and government demanded change, with consumers even going so far as to say that they would be less likely to buy a product if it could not be recycled at the end of its life. Canadians are voting with their dollars and the message is loud and clear “We want recyclable products”.

While the sentiment and intent is in the right place, the approach is not. Not only is recycling not the most preferred outcome, it can actually have adverse economic, environmental and social impacts. Contrary to intuition – not everything that can be recycled, should be recycled. The decision to recycle everything, everywhere, is actually what is compromising the long term sustainability of the system.

Why the next diverted tonne will not (and should not) come from the Blue Box

As noted earlier, the residential recycling system (for printed paper and packaging) has been enormously successful, so much so that policy makers continue to put all of their eggs in one basket, and attempt to drive future diversion from this waste stream. The proposed Blue Box transition in Ontario, which shifts 100% of the physical/financial responsibility of managing the system on to producers, continues to emphasize and prioritize recycling based outcomes. Why this is problematic is threefold:

1)     We are already doing a great job of capturing the “low hanging fruit”. Recycling rates for core Blue Box materials (newsprint/OBB/OCC etc.) are already well in excess of 80%, and future increases in diversion are not likely to come from these materials

2)     The overall packaging mix is increasingly being made up of composite and light-weight materials that are extremely difficult to recycle given existing technology, infrastructure and end markets. If future increases in diversion come from these materials, the cost of recycling is potentially prohibitive.

3)     The environmental benefits associated with recycling many light weight and composite materials are negligible given existing processing technology.

In short, not all recycling is created equal. Figure 3 below summarizes the amount of money you would have to spend on recycling a given material, to abate one tonne of carbon ($/TCO2e).

Figure 3: 

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Using the above example, you would have to spend almost $1500 on recycling to abate one tonne of carbon from plastic film, and only $65 on recycling newsprint to achieve the same result. Let that sink in for a moment – Film is 23 times more expensive than newsprint from a carbon to recycling expenditure ratio.

To further drive home this point, please refer to Figure 4 below:

Figure 4

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Figure 4 shows the change in net system costs that results in a 1% change in the recycling rate, on a material by material basis.

If we wanted to increase the overall recycling rate of the Blue Box program by 1%, and we had to achieve it by increasing recycling of plastic laminates, overall system costs would increase by more than 14%.

Why this matters is that (as noted earlier), future increases in recycling rates are not going to come from core Blue Box materials. As a result of the changing nature of packaging over time (also referred to as the evolving tonne), increasing the Blue Box recycling rate will involve trying to collect and recycle materials such as composite and light weight plastics. To increase Ontario’s Blue Box recycling rate to 70% by recycling composite/light weight plastics (which is about 6% higher than our current recycling rate), we would have to spend in excess of $70 million dollars – and that is assuming that we have capacity within the existing system and end markets to accommodate increased recovery.

This is both prohibitively expensive, and has questionable environmental benefits. Once again, we are forced to ask ourselves, what is the goal of our waste management system? Increasingly, that answer is not going to be about increasing recycling rates, particularly for printed paper and packaging.

This begs two questions: 1) If the next diverted tonne shouldn’t come from the Blue Box, where should it come from? And 2)  If light weight and composite packaging is so terrible, why do we continue to use it?

As for where our next diverted tonne will come from, please refer to: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/where-our-next-diverted-tonne-come-from-diversion-calvin-lakhan-ph-d/

The second question is a bit trickier, as there is a subjective element to how you choose to evaluate the merits of a particular packaging type. Why a producer makes the packaging decisions they do is largely a function of economics and safety – some factors include: Does the packaging I use make it safe to transport materials, protect the product, avoid spoilage or contamination, increase shelf life, increase the number of units I can place on the shelf/in the store, allow for easy brand recognition etc.

The increased adoption of light weight packaging can be attributed to the benefits of durability, transport and ease of consumption, while also allowing for a reduction in overall packaging used. Interestingly, when taking a life cycle approach, the environmental impact of light weight and composite packaging can actually result in superior environmental outcomes when compared to conventional packaging. This may seem counter intuitive, given the relatively low recyclability of these materials, but upstream benefits (packaging reduction, logistical efficiencies when transporting materials, avoided food waste/spoilage, discretionary consumption etc.), actually outweigh whatever you lose from not recycling that material.

All things being equal, the recyclability of a package his historically ranked as a relatively low priority for producers.

In a 2017 study conducted by the university examining the relationship between packaging fee rates, and packaging recycling performance, there was no statistically significant correlation between the two. Even for products such as paper laminates and plastic film, where the corresponding fee was significantly higher than all other materials, recycling rates remained largely unchanged, or did so in response to broader macro market conditions. The price signal sent by the fee, was insufficient to change packaging choices.

With that being said, the optics surrounding whether a package can be recycled (and more broadly, diverted) has now become a key issue for producers, and increasingly, you are seeing brand owners talk about solutions for how to recycle their products. The rise in prominence of organizations such as Terracycle speak to just how important “recyclability” has become for consumers. We have spent the better part of 40 years inundating the public with the message “recycling is good for the environment” and attempting to change that narrative is extraordinarily difficult. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that the government is continuing to develop policy that prioritizes recycling as a preferred end of life option. Between consumer demand and government legislation, producers face the daunting task of trying to recycle the unrecyclable, and in doing so, incurring a bill that is experiencing double digit percentage increases in recycling system costs year over year.

The importance of a socially sustainable waste management system

Historically, waste management (at least in a Canadian context), has not been seen through the lens of social sustainability – somewhat of a surprise, given how socio-economic inequality manifests itself in the form of impeded access, awareness and exposure to waste. Much of the existing academic research on environmental justice has been on the unequal distribution of environmental hazards and benefits along racialized lines, where there are consistent indications that waste facilities and waste related hazards are disproportionally located in lower income areas (or those predominated by minorities).

In all fairness, the connection between waste management and socio-economic inequality is not something that is top of mind for most policy makers. Generally speaking, there is an idea that a municipality will provide waste management services to a particular area, support that initiative through a combination of promotion and education efforts, and hope for sustained public participation. However, the costs of service delivery, the means and mediums of engagement, service accessibility and affordability vary widely, even within the same city.

Economic Exclusion

Taking a step back for a moment, I want to share with you three brief anecdotes that capture how seemingly oblivious our waste management system is with respect to social sustainability. These are actual conversations I have had with people in my day to day life

1)     “Consumers should purchase fewer packaged goods and opt for things like fresh produce instead of getting something shipped to us from half way across the world”.

2)     “We don’t need to use plastic film anymore, consumers can go out and buy reusable beeswax clingwrap”

3)     “Packaging programs focused on reuse (Loop) are going to be revolutionary and cut back on the amount of packaging waste we generate”

All of these are valid observations… but not necessarily ones that are realistic for many households. What people can and choose to purchase is largely a function of economics –those of us that have the luxury of being conscientious consumers, can shop locally and avoid pre-packaged goods. However, it is important to recognize that the ability to do so is a luxury – in a focus group conducted of more than 1800 consumers in the Greater Toronto earlier this year, more than 80% of respondents indicated that price was the primary determinant for making a purchase. If possible, respondents indicated that they would like to make more sustainable purchases, but budgetary restraints largely impeded them from doing so.

More than 60% of respondents also indicated that they did not have the ability to travel outside of a 5km range to make daily purchases, and often shopped at specific retailers because of a mix of multiple factors such as: convenience, price, familiarity and purchasing agglomeration (one stop shopping). In a 2019 analysis of consumer purchasing preferences in the Greater Toronto Area, households characterized as “low income” (household income less than $40,000 per year) consumed 18.4% more pre-packaged goods (namely grains, produce and frozen meats), when compared to families whose household income exceeded $100,000 a year. There is an inverse, statistically significant correlation between household income and % of prepackaged foodstuff of overall weekly purchases.

The expectation that households have the ability to readily switch between products based on packaging type doesn’t appear to be a realistic one. People might like the idea of Loop or beeswax and want to engage in more sustainable consumption, but at present, they are priced out of “taking part”.

A perhaps more insidious impact on consumers is the potential impacts to their cost of living attributable to increases in recycling system costs. As noted above, the costs of operating our recycling system are rapidly increasing, and these costs are ultimately born by consumers. In both late 2019 and early 2020, York University conducted research to better understand the link between an increase in basket of goods costs and increases in the steward obligation. While I have received many critiques and questions pertaining to how prices for packaged goods change in response to changes in the steward obligation (see post script for explanation), our research showed that consumer basket of goods prices increased by 6-12% (depending on locality). The economic and social impacts of this are potentially enormous, as lower income families are disproportionately affected by increases in packaging costs. As stated earlier, they purchase more prepackaged goods as a proportion of their overall purchases when compared to high income families.

While the ultimate intent of producer responsibility is to have the generator bare the financial costs of end of life management, the magnitude of those impacts is relative to the consumer’s ability to absorb them. As such, when we ask ourselves “What should the goal of a waste management system be?”, it is imperative that we also give thought to “How do we account of social sustainability?”. A focus on recycling/diversion based outcomes paints an incomplete picture of a much more complex and nuanced problem. What good is a circular economy if not everyone can participate or benefit from it?

Reduce, Reuse and Rethink

I will go on record and say that I think if we pursue an approach premised on prioritizing recycling above all else, it will be destined for failure. Shifting financial responsibility onto producers will not magically fix what is broken, and I think it naive to assume the financial incentive will result in fundamental shifts in producer behavior.

To echo a position I have shared in the past, the province needs to embrace a “macro approach” when it comes to sustainable materials management – Viewing end of life waste management as separate from other stages of a products life cycle is too myopic in scope.

Past emphasis on recycling rates and the recyclability of materials is no longer compatible with the changing nature of packaging. Recycling should not be the main objective, but rather, emphasis should be placed on promoting sustainable outcomes.

If a particular packaging type cannot be readily recycled, but abates more carbon at a lower cost (i.e. avoided food waste), should that be discouraged? Will forcing producers to pay 100% of the cost of recycling light weight plastics result in technological innovation and new end use applications? Or will it result in a bill in the hundreds of millions for Ontarians?

At present, the way waste management systems and legislation are designed is “siloed” – Blue Box is a distinct entity from the Green Bin, which is a distinct entity from waste electronics etc. While this may be a necessity from an operational perspective, it is imperative to take a step back and look at the entire waste management system. There is an opportunity cost to whatever decision we make – a dollar spent on one end of life management option is a dollar not spent on another. As such, our priorities should be designed to reflect what we want to achieve in waste management as a whole. Policies and legislation need to enable the province to work towards that goal in an economic, environmental and socially sustainable way. Measuring success in terms of diversion or recycling rates is no longer good enough.

APPENDIX (Calculating increases in consumer basket of goods)

As an example, the proposed increase in the steward obligation in Ontario resulting from the transition to full producer responsibility is $135 million dollars (this is a known number). The university’s methodology uses a six step process:

1) Quantify the potential reduction in the municipal tax base resulting from the transfer of recycling and landfilling costs onto producers (if any)

2) Determine how producers respond to the increased obligation. We operate under the assumption that stewards are not going to internalize any of this $135 million dollars, and that it it will either manifest itself in one of two ways a) costs are transferred to consumers (both directly via the fee allocation model and indirectly via increased pricing, b) contraction of the company resulting in job losses etc. (a less likely scenario, but one that does have a precedent – most of our modeling assuming consumers absorb this cost).

3) Examine the existing basket of good costs across localities (basket of goods costs vary significantly depending on whether it is rural/northern community, urban areas etc.) – part of this analysis is to also to determine the relative price elasticity of the consumer good basket within those communities. We calculate relative price elasticities for a range of consumer goods and household services using measured data in dozens of cities across Canada. Elasticity is very much a function of locality – price elasticity in Northern Ontario is sometimes 200% greater than in Southern Ontario, i.e. you increase the transportation costs for 4 litres of milk by 50 cents, the corresponding price increase in Red Lake is more than $2.00. This also explains why our modeling shows that the increase in the price of consumer goods resulting from producer responsibility is more acute in certain communities.

4) Using a logit-loglinear regression model, we adapt an input-output table that has been regionalized for the Ontario market (or whatever province we are examining). A log-linear analysis is necessary to specifically isolate what percentage of the $135m increase in the steward obligation specifically manifests itself with respect to price changes in the consumer basket of goods.

5) As noted in step 3, we know that certain communities are much more sensitive to changes in the prices of goods based on their relative elasticity measure. Using the output of Step 4, we then apply how price changes manifest in specific communities across Ontario (or a given province). This is how we develop a range of estimates for potential increases in the consumption basket.

6) Once we have determined the potential change in the consumer goods basket, we then backout potential savings resulting from a potential decrease in the municipal taxbase (if any) to arrive at our final estimates.

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About the Author

Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior.

Program Launched to Recycle more plastic from Farms in Canada

Cleanfarms, non-profit environmental stewardship organization, with support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, recently announced a three-year 1.3 million project aimed at recovering and recycling more plastic from Canadian farms.
The innovative multi-year initiative will ramp up this fall.  It will provide more Canadian farmers with opportunities to manage plastic waste in environmentally responsible ways.
The project, funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Canadian Agricultural Strategic Priorities Program (CASPP), has been developed and is being executed by Cleanfarms, the national, non-profit industry stewardship organization that has programs in place across Canada to recover and manage non-organic farm waste, most of it plastic, for recycling or environmentally responsible disposal.
Entitled ‘Building a Zero-Plastic Waste Strategy for Agriculture’, the project has three broad-based objectives:
  • to build consensus on the appropriate management of non-organic agricultural waste;
  • to survey farmers to establish current patterns of disposal before and after pilots and education programs; and
  • to demonstrate best practices in ag waste management through pilot programs conducted throughout Canada.

Canadian agriculture currently uses about 40,000 tonnes of plastics annually in the process of growing crops and raising livestock, most of it in plastic containers, grain bags, twine and bale/silage film. Though plastic is essential throughout the farming industry, managing the end of lifecycle of plastics is a big challenge that requires forward-thinking solutions.

Cleanfarms already operates five permanent programs across Canada, the best known of which collects small plastic containers that are 23 litres and under for recycling. In 2019, farmers returned 5.5 million containers bringing the total number returned since the program began 30 years ago to 131.5 million. The containers are recycled into new agricultural products such as tile drainage pipes.

The CASPP/Cleanfarms project links with a recent initiative undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada through Environment and Climate Change Canada to quantify the types and volumes of on-farm plastic wastes and identify recycling facilities for agricultural plastics across Canada.

Inspiring Advice at the Women in Waste Webinar

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The Ontario Chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA Ontario) and the City of Toronto recently hosted a webinar entitled Women in Waste.  The purpose of the webinar was to showcase inspiring women in the Ontario waste industry.

Featured speakers for the event included the Betsy Varghese (Waste Management Technical Group Strategist at Dillon Consulting), Charlotte Ueta (Project Director, Business Transformation EPR, City of Toronto), Daina Conley (Manager, Community Recycling Centre Operations, Region of Peel) and Sherry Brotherston (Operations Team Lead, Halton Region).  The moderator for the webinar was Eileen Chen (Household Hazardous Waste Operator, Region of Peel).

During the webinar, each featured speaker shared their experiences in various sub-sectors of waste management and discussed the challenges they faced in male dominated work places. The women shared their daily life routines and their motivations.  The discussed who their mentors were and how they were able to overcome the challenges they faced.

One motivation shared by the majority of the panelists was the excitement of working in an industry that is constantly changing.  They shared their passions on working in an industry where their contributions help improve the environment.  They also described the great feeling they get when they are working on a project that results in environmental improvements.

Each panelist agreed that having a trusting and supportive mentor helped them grow their passion in the industry.  One panelist talked of a mentor that helped put wings to her dreams and provided her with opportunities to expand her abilities.  Another panelist added that her mentor’s communication style and guidance on different approaches to difficult situations was magical and fueled her passion.  To this day panelists still network with their mentors in the industry.

Another key point raised in the webinar was balance between work and personal life.  Panelists admitted that family commitments made for challenging times are work and that they had to say no work opportunities on occasion.  One panelist described the initial difficulty of working late-night shifts after coming back from maternity leave but soon adapted to it.

Panelists acknowledged that it important as professionals to recognize that no person can do it all and that it is important to acknowledge one’s own feelings and to be kind to yourself and appreciate your best efforts.

For each panelist in the webinar, overcoming the obstacles of work in the waste industry wasn’t easy.  Each relied on the help and advice of their network and mentors.  It helped that they have a passion of the industry and are confident in what they can contribute to the sector.  Getting recognized for a doing a great job certainly helps build confidence and motivation for further success.

Panelists acknowledged that the waste industry profession is not seen by the general public as glamorous work.  It can be messy and require hands-on attention.  However, it is also an industry that needs professionals to work on policies and procedures, budget and plan, and to manage and lead.  The profession needs scientist, engineers, researchers, and planners.  In all facets of the waste industry, women can be found that have made great contributions.

The mission of Women in Waste is to promote the synergic involvement of all genders in the sector and appreciation of their work.

Dispelling Misinformation about Packaging EPR in Ontario and Canada

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Written by Neil Savio Menezes, President at EcoCompass

Ontario is at a critical juncture for the future of recycling in the province. Regulations are being drafted to transition Ontario’s Blue Box program to full producer responsibility which will make producers of residential packaging, paper and packaging-like products (PPPP) operationally and financially responsible for managing their materials at the end-of-life. This concept has been discussed ad nauseum for almost two decades in Ontario following the introduction of the Waste Diversion Act in 2002 which gave us our current shared responsibility model.

While there has been no shortage of debate on the merits of transitioning recycling costs from municipalities to producers over the years, the noise has recently grown louder following stakeholder consultations by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP). Well informed debate is a crucial element of good policymaking but I’m concerned by the misinformation and half-truths circulating and their potential to influence policymakers into weakening the proposed regulations. We are at risk of losing sight of what is most important: implementing a proven policy tool as equitably as possible.

In my experience, clarity is best achieved through thoughtful analysis of good data. Over the last decade, I have worked with producers, municipalities, packaging suppliers, government agencies and stewardship programs to analyze data that has been used to inform arguments on both sides of this debate. I have conducted Activity Based Costing (ABC) studies, updated annual producer fees, verified municipal recycling costs, optimized municipal recycling operations and assessed the limitations of British Columbia’s producer responsibility program. Needless to say, I have had unparalleled access to an abundance of data that has enlightened my views on these issues. Arguments based on misconceptions and data missteps, as outlined below, are muddying the conversation and this is my attempt to cut through the noise.

Claim 1: EPR will not save taxpayers money.

Under a full producer responsibility, municipalities will no longer be regulated to collect and process recyclable materials. This responsibility will now fall on producers, where the regulations will set targets for their materials and they will need to find a way to meet them. Some municipalities may still incur costs if they opt to continue recycling services for non-eligible sources or non-eligible PPPP under the new regulations; however, with one less service for municipalities to provide, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where municipalities will not see net savings overall. These savings will not translate into a cheque in the mail to residents or a direct reduction in property taxes given that recycling programs tend to represent a small percentage of a municipality’s total annual budget (e.g. $60 million out of $11.12 billion in Toronto or 0.5% in 2018), but the savings do free up funds to offset other municipal costs. With the financial toll of COVID-19 rising, these savings could not come at a better time for cash-strapped municipalities.

Claim 2: Costs of Producer-Led EPR are rising in British Columbia and the same will happen in Ontario.

British Columbia adopted a full producer responsibility model for PPP in 2014. As the only province to have done so, it is often used as the benchmark for producer responsibility in Canada. Opponents of producer responsibility have latched onto rising costs in BC to argue that producer-led programs are no more effective than a municipally-operated program. This argument is being made in Ontario to influence policymakers but they should be wary of drawing concrete conclusions from the BC experience about the efficacy of full producer responsibility.

For one, Recycle BC (formerly Multi-Material British Columbia) did not service all municipal programs when it started. Notably, City of Vancouver did not fully transition to Recycle BC until October 2016. As municipal programs were added each year, it follows that Recycle BC costs would increase in turn. Secondly, the program is relatively young. With only five years worth of data and much of it not publicly available, any modeling or projections for Ontario based on the BC experience are imprecise at best. Lastly, BC has a parallel beverage deposit program that removes much of the high-value materials (PET and Aluminum) from the program. Given that this is not an apples to apples comparison, using BC data to estimate system costs in Ontario under full EPR is nonsensical. A direct comparison of system costs between BC and Ontario, without accounting for these variations is misleading, and inaccurate.

Claim 3: EPR will be an economic burden on Ontario households.

According to a York University Study, a transition to 100% producer responsibility in Ontario for PPPP has been modeled to increase the “basket of goods” costs for consumers by anywhere from 6-12%. As always, the value of a model is dependent on the quality of the data used and the assumptions made by the modeler. According to my calculations, the increase is more realistically less than 1% – a number that would barely register on an individual receipt. Unfortunately, the study has not been released to allow for a proper peer review. I tried to replicate the results of the model from a bottom-up and top-down approach, and I can’t come close to the results:

Example 1: Let us cherry pick the most damaging example of the impact of producer responsibility on an individual product in the Blue Box. The simplest way to do this would be to pick the material with the highest cost to manage (EPR fee) and the lowest retail cost to consumers.

In Ontario’s program, the packaging with the highest EPR fee is a multi-layered drink pouch, also called a plastic laminate. The cheapest product I could find was a case of 10 juice pouches that retails for $2.00 (20 cents per pouch). With a weight of 4 grams per pouch and a 2020 EPR fee of 35 cents per kg, this would equate to a total EPR fee of 0.14 cents for each pouch. The EPR fee on a case of ten drink pouches would be 1.4 cents today, and if you doubled it (transition to full producer responsibility) it would be just under 3 cents or 1.5% of the total cost. A household would need to buy approximately 700 juice pouches to see a one dollar increase to their grocery bill over the course of a year. If that’s as scary as it gets, I don’t think consumers have much to worry about.

Example 2: Even the “frightening” example above overstates the impact to consumers as it incorrectly assumes that brand owners will apply the packaging recycling fee to every bill. System costs post-transition will be addressed through national or international pricing structures. In other words, the cost of recycling borne by producers post-transition will be spread out across all of their products across Canada. To put things into perspective, retail sales were over $225 billion in Ontario and $605 billion nationally in 2018, according to the Retail Council of Canada. The Blue Box program at its current cost of $300 million a year represents a total of 0.15% of total retail sales in the province, or 0.05% nationally. Since producers in Ontario are already footing half the bill today, you can see how negligible the cost will be in the grand scheme of things.

Claim 4: There have yet to be any examples in Canada where stewards have been able to develop new end markets or viable end use applications for composite and light-weight materials.

Ultra-specific statements like these always illustrate to me either an inherent bias or a lack of understanding of producer responsibility. Limiting the discussion to Canada where EPR is relatively new obscures the impact EPR can have on recycling investments. In Europe and Asia where EPR has been around for decades, this policy tool has resulted in significant investments to recycle obligated materials, including those that are considered difficult to recycle. One example is Hahn Plastics which manufactures new plastic products from used rigid and flexible plastics. I had an opportunity to visit their facility three-years ago and saw first-hand how the Packaging Regulation introduced by Germany in 1991 has incented investments in innovative processes to recycle lightweight plastics.

However, if citing Canadian examples of end market development for composite and lightweight plastics is the only way to settle this debate, we need look no further than these examples of EPR-induced investment:

When examining the impact of EPR, it’s also important to remember that Canada is unique compared to other jurisdictions in that EPR has been applied at the provincial level rather than nationally, or entire trade blocs as is the case with the European Union. Even with a patchwork of policies across the country, Canadian stewards, steward organizations, municipalities and other stakeholders have made significant investments to improve sorting operations and develop successful end markets for recyclable materials. Take glass recycling for example: Stewardship Ontario funded a glass recycling facility in 2008 and Éco Entreprises Québec (EEQ) committed $40 M to improve glass recycling in Quebec. These investments were made under a shared financial responsibility model. As full EPR spreads across Canada, economies of scale will fuel even greater investment.

I will admit that not all investments have been successful nor will EPR guarantee success after transition; we have seen facilities shutter their operations despite significant investment here in Ontario. However, the current status quo will see investments slowdown until there is clarity and commitment to move forward. We have seen other provinces adopt innovative approaches to recycling and producer responsibility as we fall behind. This transition is an opportunity for Ontario to lead once again.

Claim 5: Packaging that offers greater environmental benefit, such as carbon abatement, but is expensive to recycle should not be recycled.

Setting ambitious recycling targets through producer responsibility does not need to come at the expense of low-carbon packaging. In fact, a recent commitment by major corporate players demonstrates that light-weighting and source reduction can go hand-in-hand with recycling targets. Just a few weeks ago, 60+ brands, retailers, government agencies and NGOs signed the US Plastics Pact. Companies like Coca-Cola, Unilever, Wal-Mart, The Clorox Company, and others agreed to take measures to eliminate problematic or unnecessary packaging by 2025, and by the same year, take steps to ensure all packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable; recycle or compost 50% of plastic packaging; and, increase the average recycled content or responsibly sourced bio-based content in plastic packaging to 30%. This commitment does not prioritize one environmental issue over another, it recognizes that the combined issues of climate change, resource scarcity and plastic pollution require a suite of measures to overcome. I firmly believe that this embrace of circular economy principles by major corporate players and recognition of the control afforded by full producer responsibility to create circular material flows will improve the lifecycle impacts of packaging in Ontario.

It’s time to move forward.

The transition toward full producer responsibility has been a long-time coming and most stakeholders believe it is the right path forward. Unfortunately, we are seeing a repeat of lobbying efforts to derail this process using exaggerated cost estimates and other misleading arguments as opponents have successfully done in the past. To keep it on track, policymakers must be guided by sound logic and robust data.

Regulated outcomes like producer responsibility policies, coupled with strong corporate commitments, are what is necessary to drive change. Give producers the freedom to decide which is the more economical decision: either change their packaging to meet targets or develop end-of-life solutions for packaging materials that do not have one today. This is the basic intention of full producer responsibility. Ontario has an opportunity to support companies in their pursuit of a circular economy by getting the incentives right, leveling the playing field and giving them the certainty they need. Let’s cut through the noise and get this done.

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About the Author

Neil Savio Menezes is the President at EcoCompass, an environmental consulting firm that specializes in helping municipalities and companies achieve their recycling and diversion goals.

Fun with Waste: Transforming e-waste into post-apocalyptic landscapes

Photographer Benjamin Von Wong uses his photography as a way to make a positive social impact. Thought-provoking as they are beautiful, Von Wong’s high-concept series are innovative in their use of materials.

For his e-waste landscapes project, Von Wong used 1,800 kg of e-waste to create post apocalyptic landscapes.  The significance of the 1,800 kg explained Von Wong in an interview in My Modern Met, it that it equals the approximate amount of e-waste an American might use over their lifetime.

Virtual Ontario Environment and Cleantech Business + Policy Forum

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When businesses and entrepreneurs face uncertainty, we know what to do.  Gather more information.  Build our networks.  Develop new markets.  And never stop looking for intelligence we can use.

That’s why a growing number of Ontario environmental and cleantech companies and organizations from across Ontario’s environment and cleantech sector will be attending the first virtual Environment and Cleantech Business + Policy Forum, organized by the Ontario Environment Industry Association (ONEIA).  The eighth edition of this event will feature speakers and panels on investment trends and key markets, an annual Q&A session with Ontario Deputy Ministers and our Skip Willis Award presentation. Plus networking opportunities with more than 150 attendees!

The popular Policy Roundtables will be hosted in the week leading up to the Business + Policy Forum from September 14-18. Hear the latest on sector-specific topics around water, excess soils, climate resiliency, brownfield remediation, waste and organics.

Here are four (4) key reasons to attend this event:

  • Learn where key markets and potential investment are going. The speakers and panels will feature leading investment, finance and market experts who will discuss where key areas of environment and cleantech will be going in coming years.  What will grow?   What will face challenges?  Where should businesses look to expand?
  • Hear “what’s next!” Our popular “QuickPitch” competition will see emerging entrepreneurs from a range of new businesses share their pitches with the audience.  This always entertaining, rapid-fire format will share new business models from new companies across the environment and cleantech space.  Your next partner or supplier (or competitor) could be on the stage!
  • Gain insight into the priorities of key ministries. Our “Chat with the Deputies” is a popular feature of the Forum.  This moderated discussion with Deputy Ministers from the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks and the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Job Creation will see them share their strategic insights into their priorities and take questions from the audience.
  • Expand your networks. The Business and Policy Forum features a “who’s who” of companies from across the environmental business sector, as well as senior investment, government and policy people.  Meet new contacts through our online networking sessions or on your own time through private messaging and hold video meetings directly in the virtual platform.