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Tony Owens, a recycler with Waste Management, contracted out to the City of Mississauga collects recycling and organics on his route off Erin Mills Parkway in Mississauga, Ont. in 2009.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Ontario’s plan to hand responsibility for residential recycling to the private sector would allow more plastics and other material to be thrown into blue boxes across Ontario while expanding the service to include more small communities, schools and parks, according to new proposed regulations released on Monday.

The new framework is much broader than a draft proposal The Globe and Mail obtained earlier this year, which alarmed municipalities and environmentalists by potentially excluding schools and communities with fewer than 5,000 people.

The overall concept behind the changes, known as “extended producer responsibility,” is meant to force the manufacturers and retailers that produce packaging waste to manage and pay the full cost of collecting and recycling it. At the same time, Environment Minister Jeff Yurek says, a new regulator would enforce diversion targets in Ontario that he calls the highest in North America.

“The blue box is a made-in-Ontario solution that once made our province a world leader in curbside recycling," Mr. Yurek told a teleconference. "While it has been a good program, the time has come to adapt our approach.”

He also said the government would begin talks on further expanding the largely residential blue-box recycling system to include large businesses and other institutions, most of which now rely on private contracts for waste and recycling.

The proposed regulations released Monday, now subject to a 45-day consultation period, would do away with the current system, which is run by a patchwork quilt of municipalities. Private industry already pays half of the $270-million cost, with municipalities covering the balance.

The changes would also standardize what can go in a blue box across the province, adding items that are not currently eligible in many municipalities, including paper and plastic cups, plastic bags, straws, stir sticks and plastic cutlery, and recyclable coffee pods. Asked about the need for these changes given the federal government’s recent announcement of a ban on certain single-use plastics, Mr. Yurek said these plans are being reviewed.

The changes would also “expand blue-box service to communities outside the Far North, regardless of their population,” the draft regulations say, suggesting the new system will have to serve many small, rural communities where collection costs are much higher than in dense urban areas. After 2026, the industry-run system would also have to pick up recycling from apartment buildings, schools, parks, long-term care homes and retirement homes.

Mr. Yurek would not say how much more the government believes the broadened system would cost. Both the government and industry say they believe the new system will be more efficient, producing savings of 20 per cent while encouraging producers to switch to easier-to-recycle products or reduced packaging.

But York University researcher Calvin Lakhan of the group Pollution Probe says his analysis shows the new system could cost its new private-sector operators an extra $115-million a year, on top of their assumption of municipalities' share of the system’s current annual price tag. Those costs, he warns, would be passed down to consumers in the form of higher grocery bills.

Municipalities, which will see their costs decline, welcomed the draft regulations. Sebastian Prins, the director of government relations for Ontario for the Retail Council of Canada, said while the council is supportive of producer responsibility and the government’s recycling targets, it hopes to convince the government to allow for more flexibility.

Ashley Wallis, plastics program manager with the advocacy group Environmental Defence, said the new targets do not go far enough. For example, they allow the new system a transition period with no recovery targets at all until 2026. The government would only enforce its highest targets after 2030. She also argues that these targets – which range from 40 per cent of flexible plastics to 90 per cent of paper – must be stronger to force companies to change their ways.

“We saw this as a huge opportunity for the province to address packaging waste,” Ms. Wallis said. “And I don’t think this regulation is going to do that.”

Ontario’s new system, similar to one already implemented in British Columbia, has been in the works for years, dating back to the previous Liberal government. Consultations have been under way with municipalities and industry groups for months, all of which have been broadly supportive of the concept. Last year, Mr. Yurek announced an accelerated timeline to see the transition begin by 2023.

With a report from Kathryn Blaze Baum

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