The uncertain future of Niagara’s unique recycling program

Niagara Recycling processes troublesome materials that other facilities won’t and even sells a trademarked recycled product — but new provincial rules threaten its survival
By Justin Chandler - Published on Aug 20, 2020
Under Ontario’s new recycling regime, producers will take over recycling responsibilities from local governments. (iStock/elvis901)

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Since the 1970s, the non-profit organization Niagara Recycling has operated in Niagara, collecting and processing the region’s recyclable waste — but that may soon change.

Under Ontario’s new recycling regime, which communities will transition to between 2023 and 2026, producers will take over recycling responsibilities from local governments. With draft regulations due for public release and consultation by summer’s end, Niagara Region must decide what to do with the program.

"Niagara Recycling is certainly very unique; it's a model that's very different from any other recycling facility in Ontario,” says CEO Norman Kraft, who adds that he’s worried about the organization’s future. A volunteer board runs the non-profit and donates its earnings to community groups and charities, he notes. The facility also recycles packages made from Styrofoam and black plastic — which many others don’t. And, he says, it’s the only facility in Ontario that produces and sells a trademarked recycled product: Niagara Ecoglass, which is used in sandblasting. However, Niagara Region’s plans to solicit bids for the facility in the fall make its future unclear.

It employs about 90 people, including some with developmental disabilities who sort material. The region hopes a buyer would keep workers on at least throughout the transition, although Kraft says the non-profit — which owns the Ecoglass trademark but not the facility or equipment — would likely be disbanded in that scenario. “We think it's going to be a significant loss to the community when this transition does occur,” he says. Kraft adds that it would be a shame to lose the facility given the long relationship it’s had with the region. “Once it's sold to the private sector, it's gone. The region is not going to get it back, and they really need to think long and hard — if that's really what they want.”

Catherine Habermebl, the region’s waste-management director, says change is inevitable under the new government regulations: “I think we all recognize that change is needed to improve the program.”

The province says that the transition will save municipalities and First Nations money and lead to provincewide recycling standards. Currently, municipalities and producers equally share the cost of recycling, local governments are responsible for administering or contracting collection and processing, and recycling guidelines vary from place to place.

Under the new system, waste producers will report the total weight of material — including paper packaging, glass, and beverage containers — they circulate within Ontario. A yet-to-be-established provincial authority would then dictate the percentage of material that producers would pay to recycle.

“The intent of the regulation is to make those who design, distribute, and market products and packaging responsible for collecting these materials and diverting them from landfill,” said Charles O’Hara, director of resource-recovery policy at Ontario’s environment ministry, during a conference on Monday hosted by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (in partnership with TVO). “Those producers are who we feel have the greatest control over the design of that packaging, so it makes sense that they be responsible for the collection and management of that material.”

O’Hara anticipates that most producers will hire third-party organizations to take on recycling. Local governments — many of which are currently in the collection business — could bid to provide recycling services for producers and will still be responsible for garbage and organics.

In June, Niagara Regional Council announced its preference to transition the new system in 2023. While the resolution is non-binding and the date is not totally up to the region, Jennifer Mazurek, Niagara Region's waste-management program manager, told council that transitioning in 2023 would save the region $1.2 million that year and $8 million over the two following years.

Mazurek said Niagara Region’s staff recommend bidding on continuing to provide collection in order to ensure consistent service. But Kraft says that, being a non-profit, Niagara Recycling lacks the the resources to bid on collection and processing contracts. And while Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said on Monday that the new provincial recycling regime will include “the highest waste-diversion targets in North America,” Kraft worries that producers will not want to pay the higher costs of processing materials such as black plastic.

Habermebl says the province consulted the region as the transition was planned and will consult the region again once draft regulations come out. Overall, she expects the changes to be good for local government finances — and the environment.

“It's a very complex system, the Blue Box program Ontario. There are many stakeholders involved with municipalities. There are haulers, there are processors, there are the producers. I think, over the years, there has been an agreement that change has to occur,” Habermebl says. “I think there's an opportunity to harmonize the program going forward.”

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