Pull out your rose-coloured glasses for a moment and imagine a world without trash cans and landfills. One where every object you've amassed in a lifetime of consuming can be taken back to the shop where you bought it whenever you're through with it. The clerk smiles, thanks you, then hands it over to the company that made the object of your desire in the first place, which in turn washes it, melts it down or smashes it to bits, and, one assembly line later - presto - it's a shiny new item ready for the shelves.
Any beer drinker knows the concept intimately. And if environmentalist had their way the country would be one giant beer store (minus the mass intoxication). But the vision has shifted well beyond an eco pipe dream now that more and more governments around the world are eyeing the idea of extended producer responsibility (EPR), as the take-back concept is called, as a way to get everything from old paint cans to the recent buildup of electronic waste out of crowded landfills and into corporate laps. It's all very idyllic and promising. The only problem is that somewhere along the line producers have managed to slip out of the arrangement without anyone noticing. ***
While Ontario was asking municipalities and their taxpayers to cough up the coin for blue box recycling, Germany, in 1991, decided on the radical notion that the companies themselves should deal with the vast amounts of packaging waste they were creating. The motivating idea was simple: once producers started paying for the mess they'd made, they would "design for the environment" and cut back on those extra layers. It worked. In the program's first four years, packaging consumption dropped by about 13 per cent in Germany, while across the ocean in North America packaging rose by about 15 per cent during the same time frame. Now, 15 years after that first EPR program was born, there's no question that the progressive take on waste management has quietly trickled into Canadian lives. Just take a look around. Companies offer to take back unwanted cellphones, empty cartridges - hell, even your dry cleaner welcomes old hangers. Heartwarming indeed, but environmentalists say massive take-back initiatives and serious waste diversion won't happen until the provinces step up to legislate it.
Of course, many provincial Web sites proudly list all the fine EPR programs they've put in place, like BC's paint recycling program or Alberta's three-week-old e-waste recycling initiative or the tire take-back scheme available in most provinces. All very commendable. Trouble is, say environmentalists, consumers have been stuck with the bill - perhaps just a quarter on paint here, $25 on a new TV there - but they're paying. And producers have wiggled off the hook.
"If you allow producers to just pass the cost on to the consumer, there's no incentive for them to make necessary changes," says NDP enviro critic Marilyn Churley - changes like cutting back on toxins, designing products for easy disassembly and bumping up recyclable content.
Says environmental consultant Clarissa Morawski, "We've achieved goal number one: shift responsibility upstream away from taxpayers. But we've shifted it to consumers. Would I as TV producer have any incentive to take the lead out of my products if I have no financial ties to the (end of its life)? Does Goodyear care about the tire recycling programs? No, but if they had a responsibility and a relationship to the tire problem, they'd probably start investing in reusing some of the tire crumbs so they could reduce their costs."
Several provinces are developing EPR programs for e-waste as we speak, and Morawski says we're now at a critical juncture in the history of Canadian trash reduction: "It's kind of like if you build a car, and you build it a little bit wrong, it might look right, but the whole thing kind of fails."
With the industry-run Waste Diversion Organization in charge of drafting Ontario's e-waste regs, and only a few voices calling for a true industry-pays system, enviros aren't hopeful.
"Frankly it's the business of every manufacturer to make everyone else pay as much of the costs as possible," says Toronto Environmental Alliance's Gord Perks.
Jay Illingworth, VP of the industry group Electronic Product Stewardship Canada, insists that even if industry doesn't directly pay into the program, companies are funnelling cash into the concept. "To say industry is not paying is a misstatement. We've spent a lot of time, money and effort already to get to this stage in terms of getting the Canadian market up to speed. We've done a lot of outreach on issues like design for the environment."
Adds Illingworth, his organization has also put money into coming up with a qualification program to address the growing problem of so-called recyclers who really just ship toxic e-waste to developing nations with flimsy enviro laws.
But ultimately, Illingworth brings the onus back to the shopper, "At the end of the day, we could go a lot further (with EPR) if the green consumer came and said, 'We demand that our products have x, y or z. '"
Perhaps. But nothing encourages the corporate world to embrace green dreams quite like a good government reg.