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The Long and Winding Road to Zero Waste

When I first joined CELA in the mid-1980s, an intense public policy debate was well underway in Ontario on what to do with the ever-increasing amount of municipal solid waste (MSW) being generated within the province.However, much of this debate tended to focus on how and where Toronto and other communities should dispose of MSW, rather than on how to prevent countless tonnes of waste from being created in the first place.

Since that time, CELA has observed various well-intentioned steps (and counterproductive missteps) regarding waste management in Ontario, particularly as the provincial government has tried to walk a fine line between enhancing waste diversion and facilitating waste disposal.

In recent decades, for example, the Ontario Government has:

  • established but then repealed a ban on the incineration of MSW;
  • created the ill-fated Interim Waste Authority and Ontario Waste Management Corporation;
  • developed rudimentary 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) regulations that ushered in the popular (but costly and limited) Blue Box program;
  • enacted legislative reforms that streamlined environmental assessment requirements for landfills and energy-from-waste facilities;
  • passed the Waste Diversion Act, 2002 and created Waste Diversion Ontario;
  • backtracked from controversial “eco fees” which were being imposed upon consumers at the point of sale; and
  • approved numerous public and private waste disposal sites across the province.

Fast forward to 2013, and we see many of the same policy issues from Ontario’s “garbage wars” in the 1980s and 1990s being re-argued among key stakeholders within the waste sector:

  • How can we maximize waste diversion?
  • Should producers and/or retailers be required to take-back their products?
  • Who should pay for diversion costs, and how?
  • Should there be packaging regulations or landfill bans?

These and other questions are currently being raised in relation to Ontario’s Waste Reduction Act, 2013 (Bill 91). Introduced for First Reading in June 2013, the Act proposes to repeal the Waste Diversion Act, 2002 and replace Waste Diversion Ontario with a new Waste Reduction Authority armed with wide-ranging powers and responsibilities. In essence, the overall goal of the Act is to establish a new waste reduction regime which makes producers responsible for waste derived from their products.

Despite this laudable goal, CELA and other environmental groups have recently sent a written submission to the Ontario government that outlines some concerns about Bill 91, and offers certain recommendations to strengthen the Bill and improve the related Waste Reduction Strategy.

Among other things, the groups’ submission recommends that:

  • the Act should include key environmental principles (i.e. “polluter pays”, precautionary principle, etc.) and specific waste-related objectives (i.e. “zero waste”, 3Rs hierarchy, etc.);
  • the Ontario Government should not delegate enforcement powers to the Waste Reduction Authority;
  • greater accountability and transparency is required in relation to the Waste Reduction Authority, which should be subject to Ontario’s freedom-of-information legislation; and
  • individual producers (not industry associations or third-party collectives) should be solely responsible for complying with standards under the Act.

It is anticipated that the proposed Waste Reduction Act, 2013 will be referred by the Ontario Legislature to Standing Committee hearings in the coming months. These public hearings will give concerned citizens, municipalities, environmental groups and other stakeholders an important opportunity to ensure that the new Act is amended and implemented in a manner that makes some meaningful progress on the road to zero waste.