Premier Doug Ford’s government is weakening the powers of the independent recycling regulator that was supposed to hold producers of electronics or household hazardous waste accountable for the products they sell.
Citing a desire to reduce “red tape,” Environment Minister Jeff Yurek’s office told the Star that the new Resource Productivity and Recycling Authority (RPRA) “makes Ontario a less competitive place to do business, which increases costs for consumers.”
It is unclear what precipitated the minister’s decision, although Yurek and his staff have been the focus of a lobbying campaign by the industries that sell computers, printers, paint and household cleaners. In letters and emails obtained by the Star and during a Dec. 5 meeting with Yurek, lobbyists complained of “red tape” and “scope creep” by the oversight authority.
It is also unclear how the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks plans to move forward. For now, the loss of RPRA’s strong regulatory powers to investigate industry recycling claims means Ontario will have no way to independently track if materials are recycled or sent to landfill. The recycling industry says the decision will rule out business investments in new plants and recycling technology.
The minister’s office said it will continue with “strict new recycling regulations,” including higher diversion targets and new blue box standards.
But without strong and independent enforcement, those new recycling plans will not work, said Rob Cook of the Ontario Waste Management Association.
“They are missing the point that it is all for naught if you don’t have the full oversight of RPRA,” Cook said.
The recycling authority was created in 2016 as part of Liberal legislation called the Waste-Free Ontario Act and the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act. It operates on funding from the producers and regulations set by the government.
RPRA was designed to act as an external regulatory body that would have the power to verify where materials are sent. One of the problems with the old recycling system involved the dumping of plastics in countries like China, with lax environmental laws. China has now closed its doors to “contaminated” materials from other countries, including Canada, highlighting the need for stronger regulations.
The Liberals and the Conservatives put the existing industry-controlled recycling programs on notice with “wind-up” letters detailing when those programs would end. They were considered monopolies by people in the waste management industry, and the new legislation was to open the industry to competition by allowing new companies to run the recycling programs.
Tires were the first to fall under the authority’s watch. Since January 2019, Ontario tire recyclers have invested or have planned to invest $13 million in processing plants and technology, said Peter Hargreave, president of Policy Integrity consulting.
The Ontario Electronics Stewardship, the industry-controlled recycling program, was told to end its operations at the end of this year and Stewardship Ontario was told to wrap up its household hazardous waste program by the end of June 2021. Stewardship Ontario also oversees the blue box program, which is supposed to go through a major change as well, with the producers of plastics, packaging and newspapers taking full responsibility for the costs of recycling.
In other words, a huge transformation of the industry was underway, with promises of regulations for targets to divert from landfill combined with RPRA’s oversight to ensure proper recycling actually happened.
A few months ago, it appeared that Yurek was moving ahead with those plans. He sent the “wind-up” letters and expanded RPRA’s mandate by adding a digital registry for hazardous waste.
Regulations that were expected to have a fall 2019 deadline still haven’t passed. And that left the door open to the producers’ associations, who lobbied against change.
One of the lobbyists, Shelagh Kerr, president and CEO of the Electronics Product Stewardship Canada, sent a letter in November to the government asking it to regulate “mature” recycling programs under the ministry’s Environmental Protection Act. Kerr also asked the government to control the regulatory powers it gives to RPRA.
The ministry is now starting a new search for “oversight models that have been used in other jurisdictions,” its statement said.
Cook, of the waste management association, said before the 2016 legislation was written, the ministry studied numerous models in other jurisdictions. Many had serious flaws, he said. As a result, the government designed RPRA. Ministry staff who worked on the waste-free plans won an Ontario Public Service Amethyst Award for “outstanding achievements.”
The fight over RPRA’s existence is just the latest in a long struggle between the corporations that produce materials and the waste management industry that recycles them.
In the middle is a government that claims it is sympathetic to business.
In recent months, lobbyists for the producers repeatedly cited red tape, a buzz term the Conservatives have used so often they put an associate minister in charge of its reduction. The recycling industry asked the government to support jobs and business investments by keeping the authority intact.
Last week, before the government’s new position on RPRA, Cook said its continued existence would ensure a “level-playing field” between progressive companies that already invest money in recycling and those with a more lackadaisical approach.
“I think the concern is that this (lobbying campaign) is really a thinly veiled attempt to avoid oversight and accountability,” he said at the time.
“Let’s not sugarcoat this,” added Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario.
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“We all know there is some creative accounting that has happened around the recycling industry. Folks are being told that materials are going into the recycling system when they are going into landfill. That is not new. We have seen that time and time again. It is very important to ensure that we have transparency,” said St. Godard, who wants RPRA left intact.
Ontario municipalities want Yurek to stay with RPRA — citing its importance to transition plans for the blue box program once producers of plastics, packaging and newspapers are expected to pay the full costs of collecting and recycling. Dave Gordon, of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, said a strong authority is “critical.” RPRA, Gordon said, will “ensure that outcomes are real and targets are met.” The old system has a “limited ability to reduce the free riders,” he said.
Large and small waste management companies are speaking against the loss of RPRA. The waste management industry does not want the government to regulate recycling programs, as the electronics association requested.
“The ministry does not have the resources to enforce the regulations,” said Denis Goulet, president of Miller Waste Systems, a major Canadian waste and recycling collector. “It is essential that RPRA survive and have the authority that it was delegated.”
Small business owner Brent Bolger of Brendar Environmental employs a dozen people at his hazardous waste transfer stations and 20 at peak times. Bolger said his company’s future relies on an independent authority that is not controlled by the producers. Under the old program, for example, there was a limited amount of material collected. Under the new system, it was expected those volumes would increase, which means they could expand and innovate operations.
“Finally, I can see on the horizon that maybe we have a chance,” Bolger said. “If this gets scuttled, and the window closes before we get there … I don’t see a brightness in the future.”
The lobbyists for producers have a different perspective.
Shannon Coombs, president of the Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association, (which includes household hazardous waste), said her association focuses on “three pillars: sound science is the basis for all decisions; due process and consultation; and effective communications to consumers.
“… our goal for RPRA is to ensure that the three pillars are adhered to through a governance model that reflects transparency, predictability and cost containment,” Coombs said in a statement.
Kerr, of the Electronics Product Stewardship Canada, said her members “remain committed to working collaboratively with government and other stakeholders to ensure Ontario consumers are well served.” Kerr said her association “supports efforts to reduce regulatory red tape and ensure recycling programs are effective and efficient for the benefit of consumers.” During the last decade, she said, “our industry has responsibly diverted over 67 million electronic devices from landfills in Ontario.”
Gary Leroux, president and CEO of the Canadian Paint and Coatings Association, did not respond to interview requests.
So far, only the tire producers have made the full transition to RPRA’s oversight. The Ontario Tire Dealers Association, which represents retailers, dealers, distributors and wholesalers, said it “would not support weakening RPRA.”
Association spokesperson Adam Moffat said the authority “provides critical oversight of tire producers to ensure their tires are collected from thousands of locations in Ontario and recycled properly, not dumped, stockpiled or burned.” Other jurisdictions, Moffat said, suffer from poor recycling performance due to the “lack of effective regulatory oversight.”
At least one of the new recycling companies that competes for tires said there is no burden from “red tape.” Gordon Day, vice-president of Ryse Solutions, part of the Emterra Group, a large Canadian recycling and waste management company, said reporting is expected in all Canadian recycling programs.
The legislation that created RPRA included the promotion of a “circular economy” that minimizes waste and reintegrates it back into a new product.
Some lobbyists for the producers found this advocacy a bit lofty.
An “industry advisory group” paper circulated in an email described the circular economy as a “boundless utopian goal” that needs a “cost-benefit approach for actual success.” Kerr, who represents the electronics association, said she did not agree with this position.
St. Godard, of the Recycling Council of Ontario, called these comments “almost laughable.
“What is the fear here? What is the worry in trying to have a more transparent, more accountable system?”