Plastic water bottle deposit return programs needed

Bill Saundercook

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 the debate.

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 Saundercook.

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 population.

“I could take that to all my neighboring municipalities,” he says.

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 products.

“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.”