Ontario Recycling in Blue Boxes

THE Canadian province of Ontario has developed one of the most advanced waste-recycling programs in the industrialized world. Individual citizens do the work, separating recyclable material from the regular trash. It is called the Blue Box program, after the blue plastic bin in which the recycled material is placed. It was an idea generated by private businesses that knew they had to react to the garbage crisis before the government forced them to do so.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment estimates that Ontario produces 10 million tons of garbage a year, or more than one ton a person.

More than 60 percent of the people in Ontario, or 2 million households, can now use the program. About 80 percent of the people who have been given boxes for recycling use them regularly.

The garbage is separated at home, with the recycled material going to the blue plastic bin, including old newspapers, glass bottles and jars, metal food and drink cans, and plastic soft drink bottles. Other garbage, including food and other household trash, is put out in cans or green garbage bags. Once a week, special trucks come by to pick up the separated garbage in the blue box. It is then transferred to a recycling center.

The goal in Ontario is to cut the amount of garbage going into dumps and landfill sites by 50 percent by the year 2000. That would be at least 5 million tons a year, which is equal in weight to 60 percent of the pulp and paper produced in Canada every year.

Toronto is running out of places to put garbage. Using present methods, Metropolitan Toronto's two dump sites will be full by 1993. Outlying districts are not willing to be the site of the municipal dump.

There are plans to distribute backyard composters to households throughout the province. Since food and other biodegradable kitchen scraps make up 22 percent of municipal waste, widespread use of backyard composters would cut down on garbage bulk. Leaves, grass cuttings, and other yard waste make up another 15 percent of garbage.

The Blue Box program started in Ontario in 1986. It was sponsored by the soft-drink industry, steel and aluminum companies, and glassmaking companies. The manufacturers were all worried that if they didn't do something, government would force them to take action. Legislation in the United States was requiring companies to do things the government way and not their way. In the 1987-88 legislative period alone, more than 2,000 solid-waste bills were introduced into US state legislatures. In addition, 300 measures were aimed at packaging and containers.

``The province can either take the regulatory approach, as has been done in many US states, threatening to ban products that are not recyclable, or it can take the alternative approach and get everybody working together to find solutions,'' said Colin Issacs, an environmental activist and executive director of Pollution Probe in Toronto.

Although soft-drink containers make up less than 1 percent of the total garbage pile, they are highly visible. There was the worry that governments might simply ban certain types of packaging, such as plastic bottles or aluminum cans. Taxes on garbage might end up in general revenue and never be spent on the actual problem.

So the industry decided to tax itself to fund the recycling program. The large soft-drink firms contribute 7 cents a case, or about a cent a liter on all nonrefillable containers sold in Ontario. Those include steel and aluminum cans, some glass bottles, and plastic bottles.

The soft-drink industry will provide all the funding for the Blue Box program, about $20 million (Canadian; US$16.8 million) over a four-year period. But the Ontario government wants other industries to contribute, especially the pulp and paper industry and even newspapers, which are responsible for 14.4 percent of the waste products in Ontario.

One problem is what to do with the recycled material. Waste paper is going for between C$16 to C$45 a ton, compared with the C$70 to C$100 it was worth just a year ago. Much of the waste paper is being shipped to foreign markets such as Taiwan and Japan, where there are few trees to be harvested for virgin pulp. Prices are expected to continue to drop as supply rises.

``What we have with recycled newsprint is the equivalent of an urban forest,'' says Harold Corrigan, chairman of Ontario Multi-Material Recycling Inc., the company that oversees the Blue Box program.

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