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EPR in Canada: A Growing Reality or Still Only Aspirational?

The Transition from Product Stewardship to true EPR

Graph courtesy of EPR Canada.
Graph courtesy of EPR Canada.

In Canada, municipal solid waste is a provincial responsibility and all provincial and territorial jurisdictions have a range of legislation setting out how waste and secondary resources must be managed at their end-of-life. This includes packaging, printed paper, household hazardous waste, electrical and electronic equipment and a number of other products. 

Typically, it's up to local governments and municipalities to decide how they will operate collection programs for recycling and garbage, as long as they adhere to the legislation and associated regulations. However, for secondary resources, this landscape is changing as many jurisdictions transition from long standing "product stewardship" programs to "extended producer responsibility" (EPR) policies. The difference lies in who is responsible for designing, operating and financing end-of-life management of designated recyclable/recoverable products and packaging. 

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) allocates full design, as well as operational and financial responsibility to producers (e.g., brand owners, first importers or manufacturers). This removes the financial burden of these programs from local and provincial governments. 

The march down the field from product stewardship toward full EPR, while slow for some, has been generally steady. This is largely because many jurisdictions made commitments to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), through the Canada-wide Action Plan for Extended Producer Responsibility, to transform "product stewardship" initiatives into full EPR programs. Toward that end, the large majority of Canadian jurisdictions support EPR as an environmental and waste diversion instrument. Some have committed to EPR as part of a more broadly-based waste management framework and some view EPR and waste diversion as strategies to combat climate change.

The Biggest Gains So Far
The biggest gains in EPR implementation are coming from the leading jurisdictions which are largely focused on covering most or all the CCME Action Plan's Phase 1 list of seven products. These include packaging, printed materials, mercury-containing lamps, other mercury-containing products such as thermostats, electronic and electrical equipment, household hazardous and special waste and automotive products.

Other jurisdictions are gradually working their way through the list. For example, most jurisdictions have in place EPR programs for electronics and paints and coatings, but in the area of household hazardous wastes, packaging and mercury containing products, there is a patchwork of programs and a mix of EPR and stewardship initiatives across Canada. 

British Columbia was the first "away from the scrimmage line," with full EPR programs on packaging and printed paper. Boasting the largest number of programs overall, B.C. has consistently taken top score in EPR Canada's report cards, which assess the progress federal, provincial and territorial governments are making in adopting EPR policies and programs.
The application of EPR to packaging and printed paper (PPP) in British Columbia received a lot of attention in 2013 and 2014, not only in the province but also nationally. B.C.'s program is the first full EPR program for PPP in the country, with producers given full program financial and operational responsibility. Now that we can look back at B.C.'s progress as a pioneer, it is clear that the change from well-established local government-funded and operated curbside, multi-family and depot recycling programs presented some unique challenges. 

Local governments were faced with three choices: 1) becoming contracted service providers to Multi-Material BC (now renamed RecycleBC), the producer responsibility organization; 2) ceasing to provide recycling collection services and allowing RecycleBC to provide the service directly; or 3), continuing to provide recycling services outside of (and without payment from) the RecycleBC program. 

Most municipalities decided to continue to provide collection services as service providers to RecycleBC, while about 10 opted to have RecycleBC provide collection services directly. Some municipalities decided to continue to operate their own collection programs outside of RecycleBC's program, but all have subsequently entered into contracts with RecycleBC. The City of Vancouver is particularly notable, as it initially continued to provide curbside and multi-family collection services under a contract with RecycleBC, but subsequently chose to turn over collection services entirely. 

The Road Ahead
Ontario likely will be next to move to full EPR for PPP under its recently promulgated Waste-Free Ontario Act.  The Act overhauled Waste Diversion Ontario into the Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority, which has responsibility to operate a registry and undertake compliance and enforcement. Programs for electronics, tires and hazardous and special waste that were already at full EPR under the former Waste Diversion Act, as well as the stewardship program for PPP, will be wound down under the new Waste Diversion Transition Act. Simultaneously, responsibility is shifting from the existing industry funding organizations, including Stewardship Ontario, Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment (WEEE) and Ontario Tire Stewardship, to individual brand holders under the new Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act. Once the IFOs are wound down, obligated brand holders can determine whether to act individually or form one or more collectives to meet their obligations. Many anticipate a competitive environment for organizations representing producer responsibilities to evolve in Ontario. 

Strategies and programs targeting the CCME Action Plan's Phase 2 list of products (construction, renovation and demolition [CRD] materials, furniture, textiles and carpet, and appliances) are still in their infancy, and it is clear the Action Plan target of having operational programs in place by 2017 will not be achieved. However, based on work that has been done by Environment Canada and CCME on CRD waste, industry research and a few pilot programs, there is a growing understanding of the challenges and opportunities for these product areas.

Program performance and accountability for EPR programs are areas still needing improvement. Not all jurisdictions set performance targets for programs. In others, independent reporting on program performance is not required. In most cases, there are no penalties for failing to meet targets, suggesting that targets may be simply aspirational. There is also concern that third party agency and departmental oversight functions are not sufficiently resourced to keep up with the performance measurement and enforcement demands imposed by the growing number and scope of programs.

Cooperative work and communication between jurisdictions on EPR continues to be facilitated through the CCME, and in a couple of instances, through inter-jurisdictional initiatives. For example, the Territories are working collectively on EPR in the North, and B.C. and Manitoba are jointly working on best management practices related to compliance and enforcement. In general, however, the harmonization of provincial programs continues to be a largely unfulfilled dream and an area of frustration for producers and producer responsibility organizations which have to abide by provincial regulations and standards that have not aligned product lists or definitions, targets, key performance indicators and reporting requirements. The national tracking of waste diversion through EPR programs and comparing programs between jurisdictions also continues to be problematic.

EPR Canada reports on the progress made by Canadian jurisdictions year-over-year in developing and implementing extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies and programs in compliance with the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment's (CCME) Canada-wide Action Plan on EPR. This year, EPR Canada will produce its final overview summary reflecting on 2016 EPR activities. The summary report will be released at this year's Canadian Stewardship Conference.

This article was originally published in Recycling Product News, Volume 25, Number 4, May/June, 2017.