Blue Box needs help, says new industry coalition in first report card review
Ontario's Blue Box curbside recycling program has achieved a great deal in its 20 years of operation, but today faces a number of major systemic challenges. These need to be dealt with in order to make the program even more effective and successful, says CERB, the Coalition for an Efficient and Rational Blue Box, an industry coalition representing product manufacturers and packaging material suppliers.
CERB has compiled a "report card" on the Blue Box program, assessing its performance-based on 2003 data-in terms of rationale, efficiency, transparency, fairness and sustainability. Its overall grade, teetering between C and D, indicates elements that are either adequate, with some important improvements needed, or in serious need of significant, comprehensive improvements to enhance productivity.
Although the 2004 program data, due to be released soon, are expected to show improvements, CERB maintains that a number of fundamental challenges remain.
"While we all appreciate the convenience of the Blue Box, the fact remains that after 20 years of operation, it's still only recovering just over 50% of Blue Box materials from Ontario households, That's clearly not good enough," says CERB chair John Mullinder. "In addition to the 40% plus that we are missing, there is also contamination of some of the material that is collected, increasing residue downstream and that also heads to landfill, putting the Blue Box in danger of becoming a form of secondary garbage pick-up," he adds.
Countering the system's chronic underperformance are a number of important positive facts. The Blue Box has become an icon for recycling in Ontario, providing residents a "feel-good" means of doing something practical and beneficial for the environment. The vast majority of Ontarians (96%) have access to the Blue Box system, such that recycling has become a social norm, especially in single-family homes, says the CERB report.
More household material is being reported as diverted than ever (nearly 780,000 tonnes in 2003); this is keeping pace with, and sometimes even surpassing, population and economic growth. In addition, the system is capturing more than 60% of the paper from Ontario households. Recovery rates for old newspapers and telephone books stand at an impressive 75%, followed closely by old magazines and old corrugated boxes at 72%.
Worth noting as well is the fact that the shortfall (or net cost) of the Blue Box program is now being shared equally by industry and municipalities. The 50/50 cost-sharing arrangement and the creation of an effectiveness and efficiency fund under the Blue Box program plan have improved both industry and municipal understanding of how the system works and what challenges it faces.
(It was the program plan and its new cost-sharing arrangement, which came into effect in December 2003, that renewed industry's interest in, and attention to, the Blue Box recycling system and led directly to the formation of CERB.)
In addition, many industry sectors and levels of government have formed both short-term and long-term partnerships to pursue common goals, such as the diversion of more materials from landfill. And there is increased awareness of designing products and packing with recyclability in mind, a spin-off benefit of Canada's National Packaging Protocol in the 1990s, along with an increase in residential recycling efforts during the same period.
One of the leading challenges to be faced is whether collecting all recyclables in the Blue Box makes sense any more, says CERB. The system was originally designed in the 1980s to recycle five specific materials. Today it is being used to collect as many as 24 different material categories. Frequently these are mixed together, leading to contamination and negative impacts on both revenues and system costs.
For example, the coalition points out, container glass used to go directly to production of new glass containers. Now most of it goes into roadbuilding aggregate or landfill because of contamination caused by the way it is handled in the Blue Box system.
The report acknowledges efforts by industry and municipalities to improve the system's efficiency, such as rationalizing the number and location of material recovery facilities and increasing recycling in apartment buildings.
However, says the report, the province failed to ensure that the potential economic impact of today's Blue Box plan on markets, the waste management industry and on consumer prices was studied before the program was launched. CERB also contends that the province is more concerned with whether the industry contribution is viewed as a tax by the public than whether the funding formula is fair or not.
In fact, says the group, the industry funding formula penalizes materials with high recovery rates through the Blue Box over those less widely collected or not collected at all. The province should analyze the best recovery option for each category of materials to determine whether recycling is the best one and whether the Blue Box is the only means of recovery.
CERB is also concerned about the overall impact of the current Blue Box system on Ontario. It says the province should conduct an economic impact study on the long-term implications of Blue Box costs for municipalities and the municipal tax base, for industry competitiveness, for consumers and the ability of the curbside system to divert waste in an efficient, rational manner.
CERB represents more than 3,300 companies. Its member associations include the Paper & Paperboard Packaging Council (PPEC), the Packaging Association of Canada (PAC), the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC) and the Canadian Toy Association.
The coalition is inviting comment on its report, which may be accessed through the CPIA Web site, www.cpia.ca. More information is available from John Mullinder, 416/626-0350, E-mail email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In other Blue Box developments, Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO) is proposing to amend the Blue Box program plan to expand in-kind contributions from the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Ontario Community Newspaper Association. The proposed amendment would expand provisions in the plan dealing with in-kind contributions from members of the two associations.
The provisions would allow municipalities to use in-kind contributions for a broader range of services and all their waste diversion programs (not just Blue Box recycling) and would provide financial protection against major drops in the price of old newspapers.
The Ministry of Environment has posted the proposal on the Environmental Bill of Rights registry for a 30-day comment period ending September 21, 2005 (www.ene.gov.on.ca, registry reference No RA05E0011).