The warning signals come even from committed environmentalists such as Kingston, Ont., Mayor Helen Cooper. Like millions of other Ontario residents during the 1980s, she warmly embraced the province’s blue-box program—diligently setting aside bottles, cans and newspapers from her family’s garbage for recycling. But Cooper now says that she is hauling her blue box of recyclable material to the curb each week with less enthusiasm. Like many municipal politicians in Ontario, she says that the cost of operating the system has nearly doubled in some Ontario communities and may be ballooning out of control. The result, she adds, is that some municipalities are considering scrapping the program. “More and more people are concerned,” said Cooper, who is chairman of the 670-member Association of Municipalities of Ontario. “It has become so expensive that we do not have any money left for other environmental concerns.”
In Ontario, birthplace of the blue-box program that won a United Nations Environmental Award in 1989, the concept is coming under
increasing fire. For one thing, the cost of operating the program, the largest of its kind in North America, has soared because of inefficient collection methods. And the prices for old newspaper, the system’s major income generator, have collapsed. At the same time, the ubiquitous plastic boxes are at the centre of a growing political storm over who should pay for the recycling. The resolution of that question could determine whether the boxes will disappear from 2.8 million Ontario homes now using them or, as Ontario’s NDP government intends, the program will expand and become even more entrenched. Declared provincial Environment Minister Ruth Grier: “The blue boxes are here to stay. They are an innovative idea that allows people to participate in the waste problem.”
But as Ontario struggles to find a way to reduce the cost of operating and financing the revolutionary program, dozens of other communities across Canada are launching recycling programs partly based on the Ontario model. In Nova Scotia, the provincial government and private industry will spend as much
as $900,000 to help launch recycling programs across the province this year. Vancouver and Calgary have concluded recycling experiments and are embarking on full-blown recycling programs. And in Edmonton, members of a nonprofit society working on a unique recycling program have found global markets for garbage. But as the blue boxes spread even farther, the question of who should pick up the tab will also grow.
The blue-box program started in Kitchener, a southwestern Ontario city of 160,000. In September, 1983, a transportation and wastedisposal firm, Hamilton-based Laidlaw Waste Systems Ltd., introduced the concept of special containers—blue plastic boxes—in which households could put recyclable goods at the curb for pickup. That program collected glass, steel cans and newspapers from 35,000 households. In 1986, blue-box recycling spread rapidly across Ontario after the provincial government and the province’s major bottlers, led by Toronto-based Coca-Cola Beverages, agreed to help fund its expansion. In return, the thenLiberal government of Premier David Peterson dropped its plan to levy a deposit on aluminum cans that the soft-drinks industry intended to introduce. Such a plan would have made the industry responsible for their collection and disposal.
From there, the province’s major bottlers formed a recycling agency, Ontario Multi-Material Recycling Inc. (OMMRl), which has distributed $23 million to 476 communities across the province to finance creation of blue-box programs and help pay for the purchase of equipment, including special collection trucks. The province subsidizes the program at a rate of almost $30 million a year. Originally, communities were to have absorbed the full cost of collecting and sorting waste, and of shipping the recycled product, after five years. But because costs have been far higher than expected, the province has agreed to continue some funding, covering 30 per cent of community costs.
Even at that, many municipal officials now say that the program has grown too expensive for local taxpayers. In Metropolitan Toronto, officials calculate the cost of collecting a ton of recyclable goods at nearly $200—and its resale value at just $60. Unless new financing appears soon, municipal officials warn, the blue boxes may vanish as quickly as they appeared. Said Metro Works commissioner Robert Ferguson: “If we can’t bring some order and reduced cost to this, the program is in trouble.”
The private sector, the provincial government and environmentalists have all proposed solutions, but a comprehensive long-range plan is still several months away. For its part, the Ontario Soft Drink Association announced last week that it would help offset the cost of collecting and recycling pop containers within the bluebox system with direct grants to communities. Last week, association officials gave Metro Toronto $100,000.
But they said that there would be no more grants if the province institutes a deposit system as part of an expanded blue-box program. Said Stuart Hartley, director of the Torontobased Soft Drink Association: “Once you take our containers out of it, you are taking out a large part of the revenue side. I think you would be killing the blue box.”
The province has not committed itself one way or another on how to fund the system. But Grier told Maclean’s that she is leaning towards a system that would place the responsibility for paying for blue-box recycling on industry. Said the minister: “Waste is being created by a whole lot of generators, and yet the public sector is responsible for disposing of it.” She added that her government plans not only to retain the blue-box program, but to expand it even further. Currently, 2.8 million of Ontario’s nearly four million households use the boxes, and another 400,000 homes will be added by 1995. The program will also be expanded to include such institutions as schools and hospitals and 400,000 of Ontario’s 700,000 apartments.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s private-sector recycling group, OMMRI, has broadened its base since its beginnings and now includes a cross section of Ontario industries, including newspaper and grocery firms. OMMRI has another $45 million to dispense to Ontario communities to offset the cost of collecting recyclable goods.
But its officials add that they want to see which way the Ontario government goes before committing the money. If, for instance, the government decided to fund the blue-box system by imposing a special tax on products in recyclable containers, then “all bets would be off,” said Coca-Cola president Neville Kirchmann. He added: “It’s a very fragile situation right now.” But blue-box supporters argue that the program may not be unacceptably expensive when compared with its alternatives. OMMRI executive director Mark McKenney, for one, said
that the costs have to be balanced against the environmental benefits of—and savings from—developing garbage as a resource and decreasing the need for new landfill dumps. Noted Grier: “We do not factor in the true cost to the economy.” Added the minister: “For example, we use less energy to create bottles from recycled glass than to create new bottles.
But these factors are not calculated in.”
Supporters also dismiss as myth the perception that warehouses are filling up with recyclable waste because there is no market for it. Nyle Ludolph, a waste-management consultant with Laidlaw who supervised the creation of the Kitchener blue-box program, said that there is a market for all the products that are currently being recycled—clear glass, steel and aluminum cans, newspapers and some plastics. Those markets are not as lucrative as the program’s initiators once anticipated—newspaper, for instance, accounts for half of all recycled waste, and its price has fallen to $10 a ton from $75. But Ludolph said that he expects prices to rise again during the next two years, when the eight new newspaper de-inking mills across Canada start operations. Meanwhile, some accumulated newspaper has been shipped to processors in South Korea and Nigeria, at a cost to Ontario taxpayers of $1 million.
As well, some aggressive recyclers maintain that, with some strong salesmanship and a little imagination, it is possible to market almost any material pulled from a household’s trash. In fact, officials at the Edmonton Recycling Society, which started in 1988 and now serves 67,000 homes, have found markets around the world for their products and claim that all but six per cent of what they gather is recycled, including milk cartons that are shipped to Italy, where they are turned into high-quality toilet paper. “Stockpiles are a myth in recycling,” said society executive director Cornelius Guenter. “We have been successful in marketing but we have to be aggressive about moving it.”
Across Canada, other recycling programs are at varying stages of development. Like Ontario, the Nova Scotia government is working with private companies and associations to help finance recycling in the province. An agency called the Nova Scotia Resource Recovery Fund provides municipalities with as much as 70 per cent of the cost of setting up a recycling program and pays as much as 50 per cent of the operating costs during the first 18 months of operation. Fund officials say that they plan to pump $900,000 into provincial recycling programs this year alone.
In Montreal, officials say that they are counting on an increase in newsprint prices to help finance their rapidly growing system. And while Winnipeg has decided not to proceed with recycling, other major western Canadian cities, like Vancouver and Calgary, are pushing ahead with relatively new recycling programs. Vancouver now has 90,000 homes—roughly half the population—in its 16-month-old bluebox program. In Calgary, the city council is now considering expanding an experimental program in which residents in some districts could take bottles, cans and newspapers to local recycling depots. Said the city’s recycling coordinator, Wyn van der Schee: “Residential recycling programs make people more environmentally conscious.” But the question, even in an age of acute environmental concerns, is whether the blue-box campaign is simply too expensive for everyone’s taste.
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