Plastic water bottle deposit return
Prior to publication, Toronto, Ontario’s city council was in the midst
of debating a notice-of-motion brought forward by Councilor Bill Saundercook
to have the city staff prepare a study that would investigate what do about
plastic water bottles, which could include a five cent tax per bottle or
a deposit return system.
Saundercook, who played a key role is establishing the
blue box program for recycling in his city 20 years ago, raised the issue
of plastic water bottles last August.
“My original plan was just to get the discussion going,” he says. “I
wanted to follow the City of Chicago lead, a program that is already up and
running with a user fee or surcharge on a bottle of water. I proposed for
argument’s sake, $.05 for a bottle manufactured inside Ontario and
$.10 from outside the province.
“I just want the staff to get the report on the table and then council
can cherry pick what we want to do,” he adds. “Our general manager’s
report on the volume of PET bottles that are ending up in landfills is estimated
at 65 million.”
Toronto will soon be unable to ship its trash to Michigan
landfills and with Ontario landfills not having the long-term capacity to
handle the city’s
trash, recycling is key to reducing landfill deposits. Moreover, Ontario
has legislated high provincial-wide recycling rates that are expected to
be increased to promote further recycling.
Save for wine, beer and spirits, Ontario does not have
a deposit return system for other beverage containers. Chicago’s program charges $.05 for local
bottles and $.10 for those manufactured elsewhere. Saundercook cites the
example of water that is imported and bottled in Fiji.
Saundercook attempted to have his motion debated on October
22, but was ruled out of order due to Mayor David Miller bringing forward
two new taxes.
In addition to the raising new revenue, the councilor is
also concerned about the environmental impact of plastic water bottles.
The next attempt to raise the issue was at an Executive
Committee meeting last November, but despite having support from many members
who looked favorably upon a fee and a deposit return system, the city’s budget chief closed
Council discussed Saundercook’s motion on December 12.
“The argument coming from the private sector right now is that ‘we
are already contributing to a provincial stewardship fund’ and that
they are paying their fair share in blue box costs,” he said. “I’ve
challenged that. I said ‘you may think that you are, but as far as
water bottles are concerned, you definitely are not.’”
Should the motion be defeated, Saundercook stresses that
it can be raised by other councilors and procedural means. The councilor
says that he has support of the mayor, who has proclaimed that he wants Toronto
to become the “greenest” city in Canada.
Other arguments against charging a fee involve retailers
who would purchase water products from outside the city boundaries.
“That situation will happen until the province recognizes the importance
of this issue and that you have to address it at a provincial level,” says
If a province-wide policy is not possible at the moment,
Saundercook would definitely endorse a similar policy on water bottles be
enacted by cities and towns. This would create a large continuous territory
that would cover the Greater Toronto area, which is home to a large segment
of the province’s
“I could take that to all my neighboring municipalities,” he
The councilor understands that Torontonians are “shell shocked” by
new taxes, but notes that once the environmental impact of water bottles
is properly explained, people are supportive.
“They are quick to come over to the environmental/ecological way of
thinking,” he says. “Our blue box program is pretty successful.”
Like other American cities with successful recycling programs,
a major problem has been to deal with collecting and recycling beverage containers
that are consumed on the go.
In the United States, only California, Hawaii and Maine
have deposit return systems for plastic water bottles. Oregon enacted legislation
in 2007. It will take effect in 2009.
Betty McLaughlin, the executive director of the Container
Recycling Institute (CRI) says that the recycling rate for plastic water
bottles is very low.
“It’s hard to get really great numbers because all of this is
done at the municipal level and not everybody keeps track and not every state
has reporting requirements on how much is done,” she says. “We
estimate it to be less than 20 percent on a nationwide basis. It’s
not very good.”
In 2005, the CRI estimated that 29.8 million plastic water
bottles were sold.
“It’s a lot of plastic not being recycled,” says McLaughlin. “The
bottled water industry has really exploded over the last few years. It’s
been rising in popularity every year. Between 2005 and 2007, which are the
years that we have data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation, it has been
an astronomical, astonishing growth.
“It’s a nice success story for the industry,” she adds, “but
it’s a shame too because it is a very easily recyclable material and
it is in high demand by industry. When you talk to people at the National
Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), you’ll hear that
there is a high demand, that it’s a high quality product and that they
use it to make new bottles and other consumer products.
“It’s not that we don’t have the processing capacity,” she
adds, “we just are not collecting it appropriately. The question is,
why would we put something so valuable as a petroleum-based bottle in a landfill
in the first place. It’s not a good use of a resource that we’ve
taken a lot of trouble to extract and transport.”
It is estimated that plastic bottles could take between
400 and 1,000 years to decompose. McLaughlin stresses that conditions in
landfills are such that materials such as plastic and paper do not decompose
due to a lack of air, heat and light.
She stresses that a deposit system ensures that the collection
system is privately funded.
“It doesn’t rely on tax dollars and you don’t have the
volatility of a municipality or county budget to see whether they can afford
a collection to recycle plastic bottles,” she says, “which means
that processors and end-users who want to buy this plastic know that there
is going to be a steady supply of bottles coming to them through a recycling
infrastructure. That provides them with assurance that they could build plants
and invest in processing and manufacturing sites.”
Because many of the 11 states with bottle bills passed
their legislation in the 1970s and mid-1980s, says McLaughlin, they did not
include the introduction of plastic beverage containers for all types of
“The older legislation just hasn’t kept pace with the changing
beverage market,” she says, “which is a bad thing because a lot
of the stuff that would have been captured, had it been included in the original
law, has been wasted over all these years.”
But McLaughlin is pleased that a lot of people who endorse
bans on plastic shopping bags are making a link to plastic bottles. As well,
connections are being made with plastic bottles and the reduction of oil
consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
“Americans want to do their part and it is not that difficult. So why
are we not recycling more?” she asks. “The answer is that it
comes down to the difficulty of funding collection systems.”