Scrap eco-fees and let the private sector do it

By MPP Toby Barrett

Last week I voted in favour of legislation that, if the government keeps its word, will eventually scrap eco-fees for garbage recycling and will transfer the cost and responsibility for waste diversion to the private sector.

The Ontario Opposition has long championed a plan to increase waste diversion by eliminating eco-tax programs and make businesses responsible for meeting recycling standards and targets. We must now ensure government follows through.

When I was Environment Critic in 2004, then Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky promised me, during Question Period, that she would increase the garbage diversion rate from 25 percent to 60 percent by 2008. It’s now 2016 and Ontario’s diversion rate has remained stagnant at just 25 percent.

We need to get waste diversion right because we have diminishing landfill capacity and we are told Ontario relies on the United States to take roughly a quarter of our garbage every year. That translates into lost jobs, lost revenue and, ultimately, a weaker economy in Ontario.

According to the Ontario Waste Management Association, the province exports roughly 3.5-million tonnes of garbage annually, primarily in Michigan and New York. This is an industry that generates $2.5 billion in annual revenue and employs about 11,000 people – economic activity and employment that could be encouraged back in Ontario.

A report from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario found job creation could be as high as seven jobs for every 1,000 tonnes of waste diverted, as opposed to less than one job for every 1,000 tonnes landfilled.

Since 1989, we have been consistently closing landfills, including our local Haldimand-Norfolk Tom Howe site. But developing alternatives has been encumbered by increasing costs, lengthy approval and assessment processes. Recovering a greater amount of waste and looking to the Industrial, Commercial, Institutional (ICI) sector to accomplish this would help alleviate the diminishing land capacity to store it. This would allow municipalities to free up funds for other projects.

In 2012, the Auditor General’s annual report found that the ICI sector generated approximately 60 per cent of Ontario’s waste, but managed to divert only about 12 per cent – hence the kind of pressure we see on locations like Edwards Landfill, east of Cayuga.

According to Stats Canada, in 2008 Ontario ranked fifth out of eight provinces in efforts to keep waste from ending up in landfills, diverting only 22.6 per cent. In contrast, Nova Scotia led the pack with a diversion rate of 45 per cent, double our rate at that time.

To create the proper conditions for an effective circular economy for waste, we need a government that sets measurable and achievable recycling targets for businesses, establishes environmental standards and enforces the rules — then gets out of the way.

The recycling of waste material is a business, not a government program. To move forward, the market shouldn’t be wrapped in red tape and the bureaucracy of eco-fees. It should be open to competition – to encourage efficiency, productivity and advanced environmental protection.

With the right regulatory system, business would be more amenable to invest in recovering tires, plastics and metals that could be recycled into new products and marketed across the country and around the world. But to unleash this potential, we have to go beyond the mentality of eco-fees, and simply get government out of the way.