Despite strong public support and success elsewhere, Ontario is one of only two regions in Canada without a deposit-return recycling system for non-alcoholic drink containers.

A recent poll from Abacus Data, commissioned by advocacy group Environmental Defence, shows 81 per cent of Ontarians support an expanded deposit-return program for non-alcoholic beverages and more than half want to return their empties to grocery and other retail stores.

Currently, an estimated 1.7 billion plastic beverage containers end up in landfills, incinerators, or as litter each year in Ontario. Manitoba is the only other province or territory without a deposit-return system for non-alcoholic drink containers.

Meanwhile, deposit-return recycling programs are diverting tonnes of waste from the garbage and environment across the country. For example, British Columbia’s program last year had an 80 per cent return rate of beverage containers collected and recycled, which equals about 90,000 metric tonnes of diverted waste. As well, Quebec recently announced changes to its deposit-refund system in an effort to double the number of redeemable beverage containers and achieve a 90 per cent recovery rate by 2032.

Ontario advocates continue to push for a comprehensive, accessible system to reduce waste and improve recycling rates in their province.

“A deposit would dramatically reduce the amount of single-use beverage container litter on the ground and in litter bins,” said Emily Alfred, waste campaigner at Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA), one such environmental advocacy group that is pushing the province to introduce a deposit system. “This can help the informal economy and people who collect those containers, but we also know that deposit systems create more jobs in general than disposal.”

Alfred told Canada's National Observer that municipalities in Ontario don't have deposit-return regulations, as it falls outside their jurisdiction. Requiring a deposit on containers needs to be a provincial policy, she added.

“It really doesn't make sense. Not only do we see higher return rates and cleaner recycling in other provinces, but we have the perfect example here in Ontario, where alcohol containers have recycling rates double that of containers collected in blue boxes,” said Alfred. “A good system needs to be accessible and easy to use, ideally at bigger retail locations.”

According to Environmental Defence, Ontario's current recycling system captures only 43 per cent of beverage containers. However, a deposit system could increase this rate to 90 per cent, significantly reducing environmental waste.

Currently, an estimated 1.7 billion plastic beverage containers end up in landfills, incinerators, or as litter each year in Ontario. Manitoba is the only other province or territory without a deposit-return system for non-alcoholic drink containers.

“It’s absurd how ineffective our current recycling program is, and how long it’s taken to do something about it,” said Ashley Wallis, associate director at Environmental Defence in a statement shared with Canada’s National Observer. “Ontario is one of only two provinces in Canada without a comprehensive deposit-return system, and as a result, it has the worst beverage container recycling rate in the country. Bringing deposit-return to Canada’s most populous province could keep upwards of a billion plastic bottles out of landfills, incinerators and the environment every year.”

Ontario has the Blue Box Program, which doesn't specifically track beverage containers, but includes various materials. The program's overall performance in 2021 was 53 per cent, said Priya Ramsingh, interim communications manager at the Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority (RPRA). The RPRA oversees the province’s circular economy laws mandated by the Ontario government.

The Blue Box program is transitioning to a new framework under the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act, 2016, said Ramsingh. The new program will be fully funded and operated by producers specifically tracking beverage containers. Approximately one third of communities have already adopted this new program.

Alfred told Canada's National Observer that municipalities in Ontario don't have deposit-return regulations, as it falls outside their jurisdiction. Requiring a deposit on containers needs to be a provincial policy. Photo submitted.

According to Environmental Defence, the province invited beverage companies, retailers and stakeholders to explore a deposit-return system last summer. However, nearly a year later, there's still no plan to address plastic waste and litter.

“Deposit-return is a proven, common sense policy solution,” said Wallis. “It’s a solution Ontarians are familiar with, given the highly successful deposit system for alcoholic drink containers, and one that the public supports regardless of geography or political affiliation. We need Ontario to regulate a fair and convenient deposit-return system that ensures strong environmental outcomes and prioritizes ease of use and convenient access. There is no time to waste.”

B.C.'s successful deposit-return system leads recycling efforts

British Columbia currently operates a deposit-return system for all ready-to-drink beverage containers, including both non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages, governed by B.C. Regulation 449/2004. Moreover, B.C. was the first province in Canada to embrace an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) approach to recycling, which mandates that producers bear responsibility for their product's entire life cycle, from production and sale to end-of-life collection and recycling, said Cindy Coutts, president and CEO of Return-It, the organization running the program for beverage producers selling in B.C.

Coutts explained that consumers pay a refundable deposit of $0.10 per container at the time of purchase, which is reimbursed upon returning empty containers to designated redemption centres such as retail locations, depots, or through bag-drop options. The program's funding is supported by three sources: unredeemed deposits, the commodity value of recovered materials and a container recovery fee (CRF) collected from consumers during purchase.

B.C.'s program accepts a wide range of beverage containers, including aluminum cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles, drink boxes, gable top cartons, bi-metal cans, pouches and bag-in-a-box containers, regardless of the beverage type. According to Coutts, in 2023, the program achieved a 79.6 per cent return rate, resulting in over 1.3 billion beverage containers collected and recycled — that equates to about 90,257 metric tonnes of materials diverted from landfill and the environment.

“In 2023, we were able to contribute to the reduction of 125.2 thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from being released into the atmosphere,” said Coutts. “In 2023, almost 80 per cent of all beverage containers sold into B.C. were recovered, leaving 20 per cent either lost to the garbage, to the environment, or exported outside the province.”

Last year, 99.2 per cent of B.C.’s population had access to a beverage container return facility, she added.

Last year, Quebec also announced changes to its deposit-refund system in an effort to modernize and expand it. These upgrades include increasing the refund for most containers from five to 10 cents, with glass bottles over 500 milliliters earning 25 cents each. The goal is to encourage consumers to recycle their drink containers and make the service more accessible. The aim is to double the number of redeemable beverage containers to five billion per year and achieve a 90 per cent recovery rate by 2032.

Toronto does not currently have a deposit-return system for non-alcoholic drink containers. Instead, these containers are accepted in the city's recycling program, said Charlotte Ueta, project director of business transformation for Infrastructure and Development Services at the City of Toronto. While the city manages approximately 490,000 tonnes of garbage annually, detailed information on beverage containers is unavailable, Ueta said.

As of July 1, 2023, blue box materials collected from single-family residences and City of Toronto serviced facilities have become the responsibility of producers of paper, packaging and packaging-like products, according to Ueta.

Canada’s National Observer reached out to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks for comments, but did not receive a reply in time for publication.

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