Will plastics problem spur the eventual return of deposits to Ontario?

Pile of plastic trashI love fish. Plastic not so much. This puts me in good company, it seems, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who recently told the World Economic Forum that the “plastics issue” will be the main theme at the G7 leaders’ summit in Charlevoix, Quebec in June.

Trudeau’s announcement follows in the footsteps of Coca-Cola saying it intends to make bottles with 50% average recycled content by 2030 (12 years away). And Unilever calling for the consumer goods industry to step up its efforts to tackle the mounting challenge of ocean plastic waste and create a circular economy for plastics.

All good and stirring words. But how are they going to get there? Not using plastics in the first place is one option, of course. British frozen food retailer, Iceland, has just done that, committing to become the first major retailer globally to eliminate plastic packaging from all its own brand products by the end of 2023. But elimination aside, you need the most effective and efficient, not to mention the most “environmentally friendly” way to get plastics back. And what would that be?

Only 29% of plastics packaging is currently being recovered in Ontario’s multi-material Blue Box system. The Stewardship Ontario “recovery” rate for PET and HDPE bottles does the best of the plastics at 53%, followed by the mixed resins of “Other Plastics” at 32%, with plastic film lagging way behind at only 12 per cent. Nothing much has changed on the bottle front over the last 13 years of Blue Box EPR or “industry-pay” stewardship; the recovery rate for plastic bottles improving a paltry 3% over that time.

Is the answer throwing millions of dollars in promotion and education money at the good people of Ontario, to try and persuade them to increase the Blue Box plastics recovery rate from its current 29% to 50% or higher? It won’t work. Especially when there are no penalties for non-performance in the amended Blue Box program that Stewardship Ontario has passed on to the new Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority for approval. The plan indicates there will be a lot of talk about “problem materials” and maybe some research and development and “collaborative forums,” but no actual penalties for not performing.

So, what about the deposit option? Ontario is one of the few Canadian provinces not to have a full deposit/return system alongside its Blue Box. Traditionally, the Coke and Pepsi folks have been opposed to deposit schemes because they single out beverages, and the retailers have been opposed because they don’t want to become return-to-retail depots.

But maybe things are changing. Coca-Cola recently said it would consider “well-run” deposit systems. What exactly does that mean? Does it mean globally? Does it mean anything in the Ontario context? While those big questions remain unanswered, Coke is saying that it wants to get to a 50% recycled content average within 12 years. To do that you need recycled plastic feedstock, and a lot of it. Deposit schemes certainly provide that.

The recovery of plastic bottles and aluminum cans in Canada’s many provincial deposit/return programs is quite respectable. BC’s Encorp Pacific, for example, reports a 74% recovery rate for plastics and 82% for aluminum cans. In Ontario’s multi-material Blue Box, by comparison, the recovery rate for PET and HDPE bottles is 53% and aluminum food and beverage cans, a mere 42 per cent. (In fact, if you take out the non-PET (HDPE) from the bales, the real Ontario recycling rate is even lower. A direct aluminum comparison is a little tricky too. Deposit programs take only used beverage cans (UBCs). Non-deposit programs are more comprehensive, including cat food and other aluminum containers).

The plastic, steel, aluminum and glass industries may not say it publicly for fear of offending some of their major customers, but privately they are not at all opposed to deposit/return systems. And the reason is simple. They get far more material (economies of scale matter), and it’s in far better (less contaminated) condition. Quantity and quality count. On the other hand, deposit programs are known to be very expensive, with the transportation of light-weight, high-volume containers being a major cost.

A key question, of course, is what impact a deposit scheme would have on the major material remaining in the Blue Box. Paper today supplies 63% of the generated material, 75% of the recovered material, and 52% of Ontario Blue Box revenues. Basically, the Blue Box is a paper box. Would paper quality (and revenues) increase enough to make a difference?  Maybe if the stewardship body (or bodies) kept pounding on the collectors to reduce contamination, it might have some impact.

Any supportive decision by Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the retailers would clearly boil down to economics and avoided costs. We estimate that to get plastic bottles alone to a 50% recovery rate under the current Blue Box system in Ontario would cost stewards around $185 million, based on reported costs and revenues.

If you threw those plastic bottles instead into a deposit/return scheme and added other containers and factored in the avoided costs of contamination for all materials at both collection and processing stages, plus increased revenues for better quality product, including perhaps paper, then a deposit/return system with the Blue Box for paper might make sense, maybe. But you would still need the Blue Box for non-deposit containers. In British Columbia, for example, it’s understood that about 25% of the Blue Box is plastic, glass, aseptic/polycoated containers and metal material that’s not on deposit.

There are so many variables in this discussion and competing objectives. Lots of fish hooks too.

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John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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  1. Recycling systems as we know them in their current form have been around since the 1970s, although the blue box did not really kick in until the mid 1980s. The early days were riddled with guarded game playing between stakeholders, high contamination rates, challenges over who pays, and for what. I stepped away from the game about 13 years ago. It’s disheartening to see that nothing has really changed. Plastics recycling is still a bad news story. Recycling it is one issue, but the litter challenge is another and the strategies needed for litter should not be confused with designing a successful recycling system. At this time, I cannot point to one. There are recycling programmes, not systems. Throwing money at one stakeholder group is not ever going to solve the problem; that’s a sorry excuse for a band-aid. In 2005, CERB wrote a report that stated that the programme being proposed then was only going to see costs sky-rocket. I note two years another report independent of CERB demonstrated that outcome. Until a real systems approach is developed and adopted, costs will continue to rise, plastics will continue to float, GHGs will continue to add to the atmosphere. Repeating the same mistakes over and over is NOT a form of recycling, nor is it useful. What if we actually collaborated to innovate solutions from a systems perspective? That would be worth the carbon footprint of an article.

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