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Ontario takes a second stab at funding household hazardous waste collection. For decades, Canadian regulators have been trying to find ways to keep household hazardous waste out of landfills and toilets. The problem is that these wastes are expensive to collect and even more expensive to properly dispose of. Neither the province nor municipalities want to pay the mounting costs out of general taxpayer revenue. Instead, there is a strong consensus that hazardous goods should be dealt with through extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs. Such programs are already in place in many countries for many types of products. Ontario has an EPR for tires, for electronic waste, for paint, etc.

In principle, an EPR should send the right signals to the right people. The people who make and buy hazardous products should pay for their ultimate disposal, rather than dumping that cost on to the general public. If paying the full cost of legal disposal makes these products less attractive to consumers, so much the better, and less-hazardous products should gain market share.

This is the theory behind Waste Diversion Ontario, a special-purpose organization set up to design and run EPR programs for a wide variety of hazardous wastes. WDO  collects fees from end-users and uses the money to subsidize hazardous waste collection and recycling. Generally, the programs have run smoothly, if not perfectly– less electronic waste, for example, is being collected than had been hoped.

On July 1, 2010, WDO began collecting an Eco fee on thousands of hazardous consumer products under the Municipal Hazardous or Special Waste Program.  This went anything but smoothly.  No one seemed to understand what the fee was for or how it worked. Consumers balked at yet another charge that looked like a tax.  Retailers revolted.  It was particularly bad planning to have introduced the fee on same day the HST kicked in.

Ontario environment Minister, John Garretson, wrote a scathing letter to Gemma Zecchini,  head of Stewardship Ontario, on July 13. Her response is summarized at http://www.stewardshipontario.ca/sites/default/files/Stewardship-Ontario-News-Release-July-16-2010.pdf. WDO  raced to make the eco-fees more accurate, consistent, and understandable, but it was too late.

On July 19, Canadian Tire announced that it would not charge eco fees to its customers until a better system was in place.

There had been far too many mistakes made in charging the fees (e.g., fee discrepancies, over-charging customers),  and customers were blaming the retailer.

The eco fee structure imposed by Waste Diversion Ontario, a government agency, was complex, with interpretation left largely up to retailers – and leading to inconsistencies.  Also on July 19, Stewardship Ontario, seemingly surprised that consumers wanted to know more about how eco fees work, announced that it would work towards making eco fees accurate,  consistent and understandable.

On July 20,  Garretsen announced that  he had suspended the fees on  most hazardous consumer products for 90 days.

The Ministry of the Environment will use the time to work with Stewardship Ontario  retailers and consumers to redesign the system.  In the interim, taxpayers will pay for the expanded waste diversion program –$4-$5 million for the 90 day consultation period alone. I hope the money isn’t coming from the ministry’s operations budget.

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