Monday, February 16, 2009

Blue Box Blues

For those who think that the value of their mutual funds has taken a nosedive, consider how the price of recyclables has dropped during the last twelve months. According to Corporations Supporting Recycling (CSR), the per tonne price of aluminum cans has dropped from a high in February 2008 of $2,282 to a low of $1,082 in January 2009; steel cans have dropped from $416 to $31; plastic tubs from $295 to $6; newspapers from $169 to $38; cardboard from $148 to $29; and boxboard from $77 to $3.

Even with industry sharing half of the net cost of the province’s curbside recycling programs, this latest bit of bad news will have a profound impact on municipalities that are already under pressure to stretch their budgets and reduce costs. Geoff Rathbone, Manager of Toronto’s solid waste department estimates that recycling revenues for Canada’s largest city will drop from $20 million to $10 million. In neighboring Durham Region, Public Works Commissioner Cliff Curtis is predicting a drop in revenues from $4 million to $2 million.

“And that is taking an optimistic view,” said Curtis. While it’s unlikely that municipalities will cut the popular recycling programs, projects to expand and improve blue box programs will likely be cancelled. Some municipalities have even resorted to incinerating waste to avoid costly tipping fees at landfills. Niagara Region recently began shipping its undervalued recyclables to the Convanta Energy incinerator in Niagara Falls, New York. Other municipalities have chosen to stockpile recyclables, hoping for an upturn in the commodities market.

This latest round of bad news comes only weeks before Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO) is to submit its recommendations to Ontario’s Minister of the Environment in response to his request for a review of the existing blue box program. The Province established the WDO in 2002 to develop, implement and operate waste diversion programs for a wide range of materials. This latest report will be submitted to Minister Gerretsen on or before March 20, 2009.

The WDO’s first program was developed in 2003, and provided a funding formula to evenly share the net cost of curbside recycling programs with Stewardship Ontario, an organization that acts on behalf of the companies that contribute wastes to the blue box program.

The WDO’s latest report, currently available in draft form, is calling for industry to be fully responsible for recycling costs within five years. This would mean that the companies that profit from the sale of items that ultimately end up in the blue box would also pay for the cost of their disposal.

While on the surface this may seem like a good thing, it’s important to note that this only applies to items that end up in the blue box; effectively creating a financial penalty for companies that produced recyclable waste. For example, a company that produces cleaning chemicals such as window and household cleaners in recyclable containers currently pays 50 percent of the cost of recovering those containers. If the same company produces the same cleaner as a single-use wipe that cannot be recycled, it doesn’t have to contribute to the product’s disposal cost. It should also be noted that the cost of single-use products is at least ten times more than a comparable product packaged in recyclable containers.

Coincidentally, single use products were flooded onto the market just about the same time that industry was called into account for half the net cost of recycling. Thanks to aggressive marketing, these single-use products were successfully parlayed into a billion-dollar industry overnight. The producers of these products were exempted from any financial responsibility for disposing of the wastes that they generated. Just imagine what will happen if industry is forced to cover the full cost of recycling in the future.

As the saying goes, “It’s an ill wind that blows no good.” It’s important to remember that by focusing so much of our attention and resources on recycling, we’ve lost sight of the first two “R”s of waste management – Reduce and Reuse. Maybe this current economic downturn has provided us with an opportunity to add a 4th “R” – rethink.


Waste Diversion Ontario’s draft report, “Blue Box Program Plan Review” is available online at The final report will be delivered to the Minister of the Environment on March 20.


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