What is the Blue Box Regulation?
In June 2021, Ontario passed a new Blue Box regulation making producers responsible for collecting and processing our recyclables. While it may seem like an odd change, this shift is an essential step forward to a circular economy.
After some digging, I realized how little I knew about our Blue Box system. The limit of my self-education was using my local waste wizard to figure out if various household items were actually recyclable. (No, you cannot put your old metal baking sheet in the Blue Box!).
Unfortunately, many share this lack of understanding. We are similarly disconnected from our food and energy systems. As a result, we end up taking these everyday conveniences for granted. Sadly, this can make us blind to the burdens society now faces.
The Problem with Waste
Professionals, researchers and concerned citizens have warned about the utter inefficiencies of our waste system for years. For us to effectively address this, we must change our perspective on waste from trash to commodity.
Right now, most of our waste ends up in landfills. This lazy ritual is costly and ignores the value of post-consumer material. If we continue to exploit resources to manufacture our products, this leaves us vulnerable to an unsustainable economy. In fact, with the pandemic hindering the supply of raw materials, this has been an ongoing reality.
In response, Ontario has taken legislative action to diverge from a linear economy to a circular one. In 2016, Ontario created the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act. A year later they released their Strategy for a Waste-Free Ontario: Building the Circular Economy. And now, we have the Blue Box regulation to help propel us into this new economic structure.
A Broken Blue Box
Among other factors, recycling is a key part of circular economies. In Canada, recycling programs have been established since the 80s. With such a long-standing program, we would hope to see high-levels of efficiency.
Alas, a system will continue to function at a suboptimal level if there is no motivation to improve. The Ontario Blue Box program has had a mandated recycling target of 60% since 2003. Since then, the highest recovery rate reported was 67.6% in 2010. However, in recent years we have seen an overall decline in proficiency, slipping below target in 2020.
This means only 60% of blue bin recyclables (residential paper and packaging) becomes marketable material. This does not include recyclables from commercial, industrial, or public areas. The recovery rate for recyclables on a whole is likely much lower, especially concerning plastics. In fact, Canada only recycles about 9% of their plastics resulting in an annual loss of $7.8 billion.
In addition to lacking incentive, changes in packaging and paper materials make it difficult for municipalities to keep up. Over the past 15 years, easy recyclables like printed paper have nearly halved while difficult plastics have almost tripled (Stewardship Ontario , 2021). On top of this, stricter contamination standards, variations in plastics, and a growing population are straining the system.
Blue Box Regulation and EPR
Previously municipalities and producers have split the costs of our Blue Box program 50/50. Now, Ontario is shifting 100% responsibility to the producer. This follows a widely accepted and successful approach known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).
The Blue Box regulation gives producers until 2023 to design and implement a recycling program with ambitious 2030 targets. Instead of having an overall target, materials are separated into six categories and targets are set according to industry’s recycling capabilities.
The idea is, if producers take responsibility for the end-life of their packaging they will make more conscious decisions about the materials used. This will hopefully lead to less problematic recyclables in our Blue Box stream.
A single privatized program will help to implement standardized recycling across Ontario. Currently, each municipality has unique collection procedures and processing abilities. In one city you might put all your recycling in one bin, while in another you have to keep paper separate to avoid contamination issues. Similarly, local facilities in smaller towns can not process things like styrofoam or smaller plastics. With EPR, consistent guidelines will make it easier for residents across Ontario.
Under the regulation, producers are also responsible for educating the public on new protocols. This has always been a difficult task for separate municipalities to undertake, but with a unified program, this will make public outreach more manageable.
Most importantly though, now that producers benefit from an efficient recovery system, we can address recycling problems right at the design step of a product.
The Middle Ground
While most agree the regulation was a necessary step in the right direction, it may not be as ambitious as some hoped.
A main issue is the collection of recyclables outside of households. The Blue Box program has no obligation to service commercial, industrial, or institutional buildings. This updated regulation had the opportunity to include these sectors, but instead we continue to hold businesses at lower standards than the public.
The program did however expand to include multi-residential buildings, long-term care homes and public spaces. Furthermore, smaller communities previously exempt from the program will now have a Blue Box service with the exception of those in the Far North.
As mentioned, materials will now be separated into six main categories. While this is key for setting focused targets, many argue the categories are too broad for things like plastics. Things like styrofoam, silicone, multilayered plastics, and plastic cutlery are all grouped into either rigid or flexible plastic. This will enable producers to continue ignoring the “problem plastics”, especially since the targets for these groups are considerably lower.
One category that is already making positive change though is beverage containers. One of the biggest recovery issues we have in Canada is for plastic beverage bottles and single-use coffee cups. Toronto’s waste services estimated 1000 tonnes of paper cups end up in the landfill each year from households alone.
I think one of the main shortcomings of this regulation are the targets for plastics. By 2026, rigid plastics have a target recovery rate of 50% and flexible plastics only 25%. The end target for 2030 is 60% and 40% respectively. While this is quite an increase from our current 9%, we need to have a plan set in to ultimately achieve higher recovery. Seeing as these plastics are causing the most harm to our environment, these should be our top priority.
We also do not see any target set past 2030. Perhaps the province will set new targets after it reviews the success of the program. But as of now, there is no indication that increasing targets will be set to reach full recovery.
Lastly, the regulation did not include compostable packaging. More and more we are seeing new “compostable” materials enter the market. This has created contamination issues as facilities for processing these materials are not widely available. The new Blue Box regulation claims producers are only obligated to report the amount of compostable packaging used, but does not have to ensure proper disposal. This provides a loophole for companies to avoid costs and responsibility for these products.
The Beginning of a Long Road
Overall the new Blue Box regulation is a great start for reforming our recycling and waste management system. It takes the burden away from taxpayers and places it on those responsible for it entering the market in the first place.
As we have seen time and time again, regulations that intend to create a more sustainable future often fall short. With such a large policy shift there will be inevitable problems and loopholes that arise. But if we allow for proactive solutions we can adjust our policies until they achieve the best outcome for society.
Personally, I believe this is just the beginning. Coming from a place of knowing very little, I was pleasantly surprised by Ontario’s plan for sustainable recycling. On top of this, the federal government is continuing to crack down on problematic plastics. If we continue this momentum, I know we can see 100% recovery and a true circular economy one day.