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Putting “waste-free” aspirations to the test

Putting “waste-free” aspirations to the test

Change is in the air in Ontario. Improved management of food and commercial waste are main targets of the latest initiatives there to achieve a "waste-free" future. In 2016, the Waste-Free Ontario Act (Bill 151) set an ambitious goal for a circular economy that would eventually result in "zero waste" to landfill. In October, a special report was released by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Dianne Saxe, which examines the new law and strategy, and proposes what the province needs to do next.

The report, Beyond the Blue Box: Ontario's Fresh Start on Waste Diversion and the Circular Economy, calls Ontario's new law a significant achievement, but also calls on government to get serious about making it work. "The new plan looks great on paper, but we've been here before; let's learn from the past and get it right," comments Saxe. 
For real impact, she says the province needs to start by taking action on two significant waste streams that have long been ignored: food waste and commercial waste (IC&I, or industrial, commercial and institutional materials). 

According to the report, businesses and institutions in Ontario recycle only about 15 percent of their waste, sending 2.2 million tonnes more to landfill, compared to residential sources, each year. Overall, Canada's largest province produces nearly one tonne of waste per person, yearly, with about 75 percent of it still ending up in landfills.

These kinds of numbers certainly remind us how far there is to go. Diverting food waste, and all organic waste, from landfill, and reeling in commercial waste generators, is an obvious way to improve our diversion numbers in Ontario and around North America. But can a true circular economy really be achieved? 

Saxe acknowledges in the report that the new law, by itself, won't be enough. "To achieve a circular economy, government must also change the social and economic causes of Ontario's wasteful habits, and enforce tough standards for waste reduction, reuse and recycling."

She adds that "As long as it remains cheaper to buy new stuff and throw it away than to repair, reuse or recycle it, a waste-free Ontario will remain a pipe dream." 

In the long run, Saxe states "what matters most is moving Ontario to a circular economy, which means government must play a leading role driving policy that will foster the self-sustaining markets required to make this a reality." 

Without doubt, significant societal and economic policy changes are needed if there is any chance of ever achieving anything close to "zero waste" or a true circular economy, in any jurisdiction. People's attitudes and habits need to adjust and manufacturers and distributors need to alter the way they produce goods and take responsibility for their end-of-life management. Government regulation and support also needs to drive changes, and some economic sacrifice is needed to start the ball rolling. 

The Beyond the Blue Box report can be downloaded at

This article was originally published in the November/December 2017 edition of Recycling Product News, Volume 25, Number 8.