Monday, May 26, 2008

The Bottle's Lament

On Saturday, April 26th, a wonderful era ended on Prince Edward Island. With the simple zip of a pop can, Environment Minister George Webster put an end to the province’s 24-year ban on non-refillable pop containers. P.E.I. had the distinction of being the only jurisdiction in all of North America where pop and beer could only be sold in refillable bottles. A similar ban on non-refillable beer bottles had been in place since 1973.

The lifting of the "can ban" marks a complete about-face for P.E.I., which was once touted as Canada's greenest province. As recently as 2003, former Premier Pat Binns defended the ban explaining that glass was better for the environment.

"A pop bottle is refilled on average 17 times," said Binns. "You can imagine the energy that saves compared to filling a can in Montreal, driving it all the way to P.E.I., putting it through recycling and back into the mainstream again. Environmentally, glass is much better product than a can that's been used once."

It's also much more expensive for soft drink manufacturers to collect and refill pop bottles that it is to use cans. Cans, on the other hand, are much lighter and more durable that glass containers, which means lower fuel costs and less breakage.

Ironically, in taking a stand against the mighty soft drink industry, the PEI ban was the impetus for the industry's decision to fund Ontario’s blue box program. If tiny little P.E.I., with a population less than the City of Oshawa, could put a dent in the industry's profit margin, other jurisdictions might soon follow. The industry moved quickly to create Ontario Multi-Materials Recycling Inc.(OMMRI) and forged a partnership with Ontario municipalities to share the costs of establishing the province's curbside recycling program. Over the next four years, the soft drink industry contributed over $20 million to the program and successfully removed any threat that Ontario might follow P.E.I.'s lead.

As the curbside program expanded, so did the industry's financial support. From 1990 to 1995, OMMRI members contributed an additional $45 million to expand the blue box to over 94 percent of all households in Ontario. Somewhere along the line the province's requirement that one third of all pop be sold in refillable containers conveniently disappeared.

With the threat of refillables removed from the equation, OMMRI shifted from being an industry funding organization to an advisory role. Working with municipalities, OMMRI and its successor organizations OMMRI II and CSR (Corporations in Support of Recycling), identified ways to make the program more cost effective.

The question, of course, is more cost effective for whom? Silica, the raw ingredient in glass, is one of the most plentiful and readily available substances on Earth. Aluminum, on the other hand, is a very expensive metal that is extracted from bauxite at enormous environmental cost.

"It's a sad day, not only for the environment in P.E.I., but for the environment in those far-away countries where aluminum is mined under extremely exploitive conditions," said Sharon Labchuk, leader of P.E.I.'s Green Party. "This is a huge step backwards for the environment and social justice."

It's a huge step back for P.E.I., too. In 1989, when my family took its first trip down to the island, I proudly took a case of pop along with us for the ride to reduce the amount of garbage we would generate on our two-day journey. Once in P.E.I., I asked a local resident where I could recycle my cans.

"We don't recycle cans in P.E.I.", was the reply. I was about to arrogantly enlighten him on the values of Ontario's blue box program when he continued, "We have two main industries in P.E.I. - farming and tourism - we don't need a bunch of garbage littering up our fair countryside or trucks from the mainland polluting our roads. Refilling bottles locally is much better for the environment and our economy."

And it's much more effective. Despite the success of Ontario's blue box program, it's been estimated that 500 million cans a year still aren’t recycled.

In lifting the ban, P.E.I. has lost more than its unique deposit-return system. By bowing to public pressure, it has put convenience over environmental stewardship, and in doing so has extinguished a brilliant example of hope.


Okay, there is one more out there. With a system-wide recovery rate of 99 percent, The Beer Store has diverted 70 billion beer bottles from Ontario landfills by reusing the bottles 12 to 15 times on average.


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