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The beverage aisle at a grocery store in Toronto on Nov. 22, 2022.Carlos Osorio/Reuters

Ontario’s Environment Minister says he will block a move by the beverage industry to impose fees on consumers to cover the costs of the province’s new private sector-led recycling system.

David Piccini said Thursday that the plan to impose levies of between 1 and 3 cents on every non-alcoholic beverage container sold in the province was now off the table and that he would tell the industry to cancel it – or bring in new regulations to force them to do so.

“Am I open to working with producers, understanding the realities of how they can invest in technology and what those costs are? Yes,” the minister said, responding to reporters’ questions at an unrelated event in downtown Toronto on Thursday. “But if they think it’s as easy as rounding it to the nearest cent or to the dollar and slapping it onto consumers, I think they have another thing coming.”

The fees were originally set to be imposed at the retail level, possibly as an added fee visible on receipts, as of April 1. But the Canadian Beverage Container Recycling Association – which represents large companies such as Coca-Cola and Tim Hortons – announced last month that it was putting off its start date to June 1. It said the delay followed discussions with the Retail Council of Canada, which represents the country’s leading supermarket chains and other retailers.

The new fees could have prompted a backlash against retailers and grocers, who have faced criticism over increasing prices, and profits, in a period of high inflation. Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government under Premier Doug Ford has made the cost of living a talking point, while railing against the federal government’s carbon-pricing scheme.

The executive director of the recycling association, Ken Friesen, could not be reached. Sheri Moerkerk, a spokeswoman, said late Thursday in an e-mail that Mr. Friesen was on a call with Mr. Piccini, discussing the issue.

It was unclear whether beverage companies would still pass on the costs of the fees, but hidden in higher prices.

The fees, similar to ones in place in Manitoba, were supposed to be part of the complex “extended producer responsibility” system Ontario is imposing in an effort to boost recycling rates.

It’s the latest hiccup in a massive transformation, under way since 2019, in which private sector producers of recyclables will take over the administration and all of the costs of the province’s “blue box” program – but with phased-in, more ambitious recycling targets. The cost of the old system was covered half by municipalities and half by industry funding.

The idea behind the new system, in place in Europe and British Columbia, is to force waste producers to innovate, such as by finding ways to reduce packaging, since they must pay the full costs of recycling.

The scotched fees would have ranged from a penny on aluminum cans to 3 cents on large plastic bottles, glass bottles and drink-box type containers. According to a Canadian Beverage Container Recycling Association presentation, the fees would have raised $84-million a year, covering the cost of new public bins across the province and an awareness campaign. But it would also have generated multimillion-dollar surpluses each year, including a $12-million cushion in 2023.

Karen Wirsig, plastics program manager with the advocacy group Environmental Defence, said the plan would have only introduced fees on consumers without doing anything to fundamentally change the system.

She said the only way to hit Ontario’s goals to collect and recycle 75 per cent of beverage containers by 2026 and 80 per cent by the end of the decade – up from what she said was 46 per cent as of 2020 – is to bring in a deposit-return system, as Ontario has for alcoholic drinks.

“The beverage industry in Ontario appears to be stubbornly trying to resist that and pretend that they can reach these targets,” Ms. Wirsig said in an interview. “We have got a long way to go. It doesn’t seem clear to us that we are going to get there using the same broken system.”

Opposition NDP environment critic Sandy Shaw praised the move to block a “tax” on pop cans and other beverages, but called for tougher recycling targets. She said the fees would have undermined the goal of the new system, to make producers pay for the full costs of recycling.

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