Time to get serious about reducing waste

The following article ran in the Woodstock Sentinel Review in January 2014.  It explains why Ontario needs a new Waste Diversion Act from the point of view of local citizens fighting a proposal for a major commercial dumpsite in their community.

By Steve McSwiggan

You diligently take your blue box and green bin to the curb each week, always drop your empty juice bottle into the recycling bin in the park, and try not to print things at the office in order to save paper.  And then you find out that the fourth largest landfill in Canada could be coming to your neighbourhood.

That’s the reality for the people of Ingersoll in Oxford County, who are facing a proposal by Walker Industries to develop a massive landfill in part of a limestone quarry on the outskirts of their town.  It makes you ask yourself, “Why are we still dumping valuable materials into giant holes in the ground?”

Mostly because we haven’t made it clear to manufacturers, importers and the construction industry that they need to get serious about all three Rs: reducing, reusing and recycling.  Today, the average Ontario resident recycles twice as much of their waste as those in the commercial-industrial sector. That matters, because two-thirds of the waste being produced in Canada comes from these non-residential sources and Walker Industries suggests that the bulk of the material that would be buried in its giant Oxford dump would come directly from commercial-industrial sources, including construction sites (while leaving to door open to also receiving municipal waste).

But just as importantly, industries here have not had a strong incentive to reduce waste in the first place.  Instead, they’ve largely stuck municipal taxpayers with the bill for disposing of excess packaging and throwaway products.

Currently in Ontario, a relatively small group of large companies contribute funds to the arm’s length Stewardship Ontario, which in turn provides funding for municipal recycling programs.  But companies contribute only 50% of the cost of running such programs and contribute nothing toward the cost of disposing of products that can’t be or aren’t recycled.  It’s a pretty sweet deal, especially when you compare it to systems like Europe’s Green Dot program.

The Green Dot system is how the vast majority of European companies comply with the European Union Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, which makes companies 100% responsible for the costs of disposing or recycling the packaging they produce.  While just over 1,500 companies participate in the Stewardship Ontario program, an estimated 130,000 companies participate in the Green Dot system across Europe.

The result is that European companies have taken the need to reduce waste seriously because the cost of dealing with waste now directly affects their bottom line.  While GDP growth in the EU from 1998-2007 was 48%, packaging waste production increased by just 16%, meaning companies there have successfully reduced the waste generated by their products.  In places like Germany, 94% of packaging is recovered and 74% is recycled – far above what we are achieving here.

Systems like Green Dot, where companies prepay waste handling fees for every product they produce based on a combination of weight and types of materials used, are based on the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility.  In Canada, our provincial and federal environment ministers agreed in 2009, that this approach should be adopted here.

Four years later, the Ontario government took a first step toward doing so by introducing a new Waste Diversion Act to the legislature in 2013. The bill actually has support from both affected industries and environmental organizations, although it still requires strengthening of some of its provisions, particularly around producers taking full responsibility for commercial and industrial waste, including reducing construction and demolition waste sent for disposal.

Forcing companies to think twice before wrapping their latest and greatest thingamajig in three layers of plastic and cardboard is obviously well overdue, as anyone who has tried to open one of those impenetrably sealed blister packs can attest.  But the Waste Diversion Act has become a victim of political jockeying in the Ontario legislature and progress toward refinement and passage has been painfully slow. Getting this act in shape and passed into law should be a focus for all parties when the Legislature returns in February.

Along with the act itself, we also obviously immediately need a framework for much stronger industrial-commercial waste reduction, reuse and recycling programs, particularly recognition that one industry’s waste could be another’s raw material.  This is an area screaming out for innovative new approaches that can spur new businesses and increase employment.

Simply disposing of waste (either dumping it in a hole or burning it) should be our absolute last option for dealing with leftover materials.  It is widely recognized that all landfills eventually leak toxic leachate into the surrounding environment and they also produce large quantities of climate-destabilizing methane gas.  And incinerators turn our air into a landfill by burning the very things that are best diverted: plastics and kitchen and garden waste. For both dumps and incinerators, the truck traffic, odours and noise disrupt communities while valuable natural resources – and significant amounts of energy – are wasted when materials are disposed of instead of being re-used or recycled.

To add insult to injury, for the Ingersoll landfill, Walker Industries is proposing to bring in soil to cover the trash from “brownfield” (e.g., old factory or industrial sites) across Ontario.  We don’t know what will be in this fill, but it certainly raises concerns about additional toxic contamination.

The bottom line is that it’s time to finish a strong Waste Reduction Act before we fill yet another hole with stuff that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Steve McSwiggan is Chair of the OPAL Alliance in Ingersoll, Ont.