Ontario’s glass beer-bottle return program is a success story. Through Beer Store locations, 98 per cent of the glass containers that are sold are brought back for reuse or recycling.
But plastic bottles are another story. Every year in Canada’s most populous province, a billion plastic bottles aren’t recycled, according to Keith Brooks, campaigns director for Environmental Defence. The rest end up in landfills or in the Great Lakes, where 80 per cent of the litter is plastic, Brooks says.
“Plastic bottles are one of the most common things found in the shoreline cleanup every year,” he says.
But the environmental advocacy group hopes to change that. Its new campaign, Cash It! Don’t Trash It, aims to raise awareness and public support for the introduction of a bottle-return deposit program in Ontario.
“We do it with other beverage containers, with beer bottles and cans, with liquor bottles and wine bottles. We should be doing it with plastic bottles too,” Brooks says.
Most of the country’s provinces and territories have some form of deposit program for plastic bottles, and they succeed in diverting more of those bottles from landfills than Ontario does. In provinces that provide deposit refunds for the return of plastic bottles, rates of redemption or recycling are often more than 80 per cent, according to the Container Recycling Institute. For example, Alberta redemption rates range from about 75 per cent for smaller plastic bottles to about 90 per cent for larger ones, says Jeff Linton, president of the province’s beverage container management board.
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Ontario has instead focused on its curbside recycling efforts, which take in not just plastic bottles but a wide variety of other materials. The province’s blue box system is accessible to more than 97 per cent of Ontario households, says Gary Wheeler, spokesman for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.
But the blue box program hasn’t been nearly as effective at diverting material from landfill as the deposit-and-return programs for glass bottles have been. Less than half of the plastic bottles sold in the province are recycled, Brooks says.
Eight provinces have deposit programs to encourage the return of plastic bottles, and the concept is nothing new. Alberta’s program was introduced 44 years ago. And once implemented, the programs are not necessarily expensive to run. Alberta’s program is self-funded, Linton says.
“We’re really refund-focused, not really deposit focused,” he says. “Placing a bounty on the containers is the focus of getting it to the right place at its end of life.”
Alberta has a set deposit on all plastic bottles, which the consumer pays at the time of purchase, Linton says. Containers up to one litre require a 10-cent deposit while larger containers require a 25-cent deposit. When a bottle is returned to one of more than 200 depots set up across the province, the consumer receives the deposit back ̶ minus a small fee.
The province’s overall recovery rate is 86 per cent, Linton says.
“In a sense, the deposit values create an economy that wouldn’t otherwise exist around those containers,” he says. “That economy is what drives the consumers to do the right thing.”
A new Ontario law could make a plastic bottle deposit program more likely. The Waste-Free Ontario Act passed in June. The law holds producers responsible for hitting certain numbers in reducing waste associated with their packaging and recovering the materials after use. It also attaches financial penalties to missing those targets.
“The new legislation promotes ‘end-of-life’ materials as resources rather than waste, will bring more opportunities to business, and provides an incentive for future investment,” Wheeler says. “A key objective of the new policy framework is to move towards a circular economy with a goal of zero waste in Ontario.”
The province’s draft strategy towards that goal is in the works, Wheeler says, and the Waste-Free Ontario Act is open for public comment.
The draft strategy promotes multiple ways to increase diversion because an approach that makes producers responsible for their recyclable and reusable resources might not work for every material, Wheeler says. Ontario’s environment ministry will look at the situation on a material-by-material basis, he says, to determine which approach is best in each case.
“We will examine every tool available, including deposit-return, to maximize the amount of waste we keep out of our lands and waterways,” Wheeler says.
Linton advocates for an approach to plastic bottle deposits that is self-funding, as Alberta’s is designed to be.
“The way the system works in having the manufacturers report sales and fund the program upfront, so the liability of the container is immediately recovered, is a good thing,” Linton says. “There’s no cost to taxpayers, there’s no top cost to government.”
But Environmental Defence is promoting a different approach.
Instead of having all of the money paid in deposits go back to the consumer or into a general government fund, the group hopes to see some of it diverted to support provincial programs, Brooks says. Specifically, that money could be used for the Great Lakes – the same waterways currently taking the brunt of Ontario’s low return rate on plastic bottles.
“We’re putting a price on a thing that we don’t want [to] generate some money for a thing that we do want,” Brooks says.
Terri Coles is a freelance reporter in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador. She covers national and local news, politics, health, food and drink, and travel.