Local government isn’t always best — and the blue bin proves it

OPINION: Not for the first time, municipal recycling systems are in crisis. If the Tories want to save the blue-bin program, they’ll have to accept that cities can’t do it all
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 13, 2019
Provincial law requires municipalities to run curbside collection of recyclables. (iStock.com/elvis901)

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In an age when election results can mean wild swings in areas such as environmental policy (see Ontario carbon tax, 2018), it’s reassuring that the Progressive Conservative government, like the Liberal government before it, recognizes that the blue-bin programs serving most Ontario residents aren’t financially sustainable. This isn’t just an Ontario problem: across the continent, municipalities have been struggling to divert garbage from landfills since China decided it no longer wanted to be the world’s waste bin (and who can blame it). Experts are saying that the Canadian recycling industry is in crisis.

But if it isn’t just an Ontario problem, it’s still very much an Ontario problem. And, since it’s provincial law that requires municipalities to run curbside collection of recyclables in the first place, any solution will have to start at Queen’s Park. Last week, we got our first sense of what the solution may look like under the Tories, when special adviser David Lindsay released a report on the future of the blue bin. The report’s recommendations — the most important of which involves shifting the costs of the blue-bin program from municipalities to industry — echo the policies of the previous Liberal government.

The good news, especially given that MPPs won’t be returning to Queen’s Park until October, is that the government won’t need to pass a new law. Instead, it’ll be able to build on a 2016 law passed by the Liberals: the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act. Lindsay’s report advises the government to start consulting on detailed regulations — ones it could pass using the power of the act — that would shift Ontario to a system in which manufacturers and retailers bear the responsibility for packaging and other waste.

This is a big deal and just the latest twist in the long, strange saga of the blue bin. Curbside recycling in this province initially grew out of a dispute over what to do about plastic bottles as the beverage industry moved away from refillable glass bottles in the 1970s. In 2017, then-environmental commissioner Dianne Saxe reported that Ontario “made a brief, but ineffective, effort to preserve the market for refillable glass soda bottles. It adopted and tried to enforce a law that required reusable bottles and a law requiring equal advertising for soda in refillable bottles, but it could not stem the tide of the new disposable containers.”

So we got curbside recycling collection instead, first in Kitchener in 1981 and then provincewide after 1994 in cities of more than 5,000 people. It was initially funded primarily by municipalities and the province, although businesses contributed as well. Those early years were a sweet deal for industry: according to one 1998 estimate, the province paid $210 million that year; municipalities, $340 million; and businesses, only $41 million. The fact that a movement led by activists who wanted industry to clean up its act resulted instead in a mandatory municipal program that was and remains extremely expensive for towns and cities to operate is a nice example of Ontario realpolitik. The initial hope was that selling recyclables would pay for the cost of collecting them — that never happened, and government has been literally paying the price.

Things started to change late in the last PC government, when a 2002 law forced industry to bear more of the recycling costs. The Liberals then introduced their law, which requires the province to publish and commit to a plan to transition to a waste-free economy, in 2016. And now, for the first time since activists first started urging change 50 years ago, we’re within sight of a system that sees producers (and not the province or municipalities) shoulder the financial burden of collecting the waste they were initially responsible for creating.

As Lindsay notes, this isn’t just about saving money for municipalities (though it is about that, too).

“When producers — the companies that design, create, and market products and packaging — are responsible for diverting the waste from their goods, they have incentives to redesign their products, make them easier to recycle, and use more recyclable materials,” the report states. “Producers can reintegrate these wastes into new products from reliable streams of recovered materials.” This is about matching incentives to behaviour: so long as government subsidizes the blue bin, businesses will have no motivation to curtail their own wasteful practices.

Of course, what Lindsay has given the province is only a roadmap. It will be up to the government, and environment minister Jeff Yurek, to decide how much of his advice it wants to follow. The report points to the patchwork of different rules governing blue bins across the province as a problem that needs addressing. One big question the government will need to answer, then, is whether it really wants to be the body responsible for regulating what goes in blue bins from Windsor to Kenora. But if the province is going to have an integrated, comprehensive recycling system, somebody is going to need to make such decisions. And the province — or an agency created by the province — is really the only body that can.

The situation provides a useful, and cautionary, lesson about public policy: provinces may enjoy using municipalities as dumping grounds for the problems they don’t want to deal with (whether that’s infrastructure, housing, or social services), but there are some problems that are simply too big for municipalities to deal with. It would be better for everyone if it didn’t take a crisis for provincial governments to realize that.

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