EPR Part I: We Used to be Good at This

Last week marked an anniversary I’m going to lay odds none of you celebrated: it’s been one year since the Nova Scotia solid waste-resource management regional chairs committee presented a proposal for Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging and Printed Paper (EPR for PPP) to Environment Minister Gordon Wilson.

If you actually did celebrate this, I would love to hear how.

If you are not entirely sure what any of this means, l will try to break it down for you, starting with PPP which the Product Stewardship Institute (or PSI, an organization, I’m not going to lie, I only discovered existed yesterday) defines as:

 …all the materials brand owners use to package everything from cereal and cleaning supplies to bottled water and shampoo, as well as junk mail and grocery bags.

The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) began encouraging Canadian provinces to adopt EPR for PPP in 2008, and some Canadian provinces (most notably British Columbia — you’re going to hear a lot about British Columbia) did. And Nova Scotia has EPR and EPR-adjacent programs for other materials, so adopting EPR for PPP would not be mind-blowingly out of character for a province that prides itself on its recycling record (whether justifiably or not, you will judge for yourself, but the EPR for PPP proposal is titled “Preserving the Culture of Recycling,” suggesting our culture of recycling is in need of preservation).

To put the regional chairs’ proposal in context, I thought I’d use Part I of this article to consider the history of recycling in this province. It all began, more or less, in 1996…


Product stewardship

That’s the year Nova Scotia adopted its first Solid-Waste Resource Management Strategy with the goal of diverting 50% of its solid waste away from landfills by the year 2000.

In 1997, the province adopted solid-waste management regulations that included establishing a Resource Recovery Fund, establishing Divert Nova Scotia to administer this fund, establishing the province’s first disposal bans — on organics, some paper and plastics, beverage containers and tires — and enabling “Industry Product Stewardship.”

“Product stewardship,” in the context of waste management, means overseeing the final disposition of a product — sending it to a recycling facility, composter, landfill, etc. Municipalities, for example, are the stewards for regular garbage — the CBRM offers curbside garbage collection and owns and operators a municipal landfill site. Once the province had banned organics, paper and plastics, beverage containers and tires from landfills, some entity — or combination of entities — had to be responsible for disposing of them.

In the case of organics and paper and plastics, the responsibility fell to Nova Scotia’s municipalities, which is why the CBRM offers a green cart program (which I have always called and will no doubt continue to call the green bin program) and owns and operates a composting facility. According to Divert NS, curbside collection of organics covers 90% of NS households and collected volumes have risen from 3,000 tonnes in 1994 to over 105,000 tonnes in 2017. (I do not know why — or how — they began keeping stats on organics collection in 1994 when they weren’t banned from landfills until 1997. My best guess would be that some municipalities introduced it before it was mandated province-wide.)

It is also why the CBRM offers curbside recycling pickup, contracting a third-party to sort and market the collected materials. Divert NS says recycling programs now cover 100% of Nova Scotian households and the volume of materials recycled and marketed has increased from 11,000 tonnes in 1992 to over 44,000 tonnes in 2017. (Ditto on the 1992 stats — presumably, some municipalities were recycling plastics and paper before they were officially banned from provincial landfills?)

With beverage containers and tires, the province tried something different: the Beverage Container Deposit-Refund Program and the stewardship program for used tires, both of which are run by Divert NS.

When you buy a “regulated beverage” in this province, you pay a deposit, and if you return the container to an Enviro-Depot, you get half of your deposit back. The other half goes into the fund managed by Divert NS:

Beverage container deposits and refunds, Divert Nova Scotia

Since the program was instituted, Divert NS says it has recycled over 5.2 billion beverage containers. (According to its 2018-19 annual report, Divert NS’s revenues from bottle deposits last year totaled $45 million.)

When you purchase “on-road passenger tires,” in this province, you pay a one-time environmental fee to “support the cost of collecting and processing used tires.” You can return up to four tires a year to any of the 953 registered tire retailers/drop off locations in the province. Divert NS then works to ensure the tires do not end up in landfill — these days, by ensuring they end up burned in a kiln at the Lafarge cement plant. (I know, right? It makes you realize “diversion” is actually a value-neutral proposition.) Divert NS says it reuses or recycles 1.1 million tires each year.

Nova Scotia Used Tire Recycling Program

In 2018-19, Divert NS’s revenues from the tire program totaled $6.5 million.

Divert NS uses the bulk of the monies collected from the stewardship programs (plus those from the sales of recyclable materials) to run the programs, but it divvies what is left up between the regions, largely in the form of “diversion credits.” In 2018-19, according its annual report, Divert NS provided the following funding to municipalities:

Excerpt Divert NS 2018-19 Annual Report

In 2018, at the behest of the Department of the Environment, Divert NS commissioned AECOM to do an efficiency study of the province’s solid waste management system (I’m getting a lot of my information from this report, which was submitted in 2019). The consultants found that the system tended to make regions compete with one another for these “diversion credits” rather than working together for the greater good of the province.



“Industry Product Stewardship,” enabled in those 1997 regulations and which we now call Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), is a form of product stewardship that puts the onus on producers to oversee the final disposition of their products.

Here in Nova Scotia, the province has a used oil return program, under which sellers must either provide a return facility or contract with a local facility operator and some voluntary EPR agreements with producers like the Atlantic Dairy Council, which funds the costs of recycling milk packaging, as well as with producers of newspapers, expired medications, sharps and the Yellow Pages.

But we also have straight-up EPR programs like the Consumer Paint Products Stewardship Program, established in 2002, and the Electronic Products Stewardship Program, established in 2007. The paint recycling program is administered by industry through the not-for-profit ReGeneration agency and apparently diverts over 450,000 liters each year. The electronics program is run by the industry-led, not-for-profit Electronic Products Recycling Association which says it diverts over 3,500 tonnes of “e-waste” each year.

In adopting these programs when it did — 2002 and 2007 — Nova Scotia was relatively ahead of the curve: the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) didn’t introduce its Action Plan for Producer Responsibility, under which all provinces and territories committed to work toward implementing EPR programs for a range of materials, until 2009. (That said, the CCME had published its Guiding Principles for Packaging Stewardship, in 1996 and Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba had soon after adopted legislation requiring producers to co-fund the costs of recycling.)

And that goal of diverting 50% of its solid waste from landfills by 2000? Nova Scotia met it. We were recognized as a Canadian leader in solid waste minimization with the lowest per capita disposal rate in Canada. Nova Scotians were sending 477kg of waste to landfills each year, half the Canadian average.

But since then, we seem to have been resting on our laurels. As Chris Benjamin, writing in The Coast in 2017 put it, our recycling efforts “plateaued” 15 years ago:

Nova Scotians trundle on at practically the same recycling rates they’ve had for decades. Government programs are based almost entirely on public education, which is still needed to maintain current rates, but is no longer moving us forward.

Our solid-waste strategy is 20 years old and while we’ve been talking about revising it since 2008, we haven’t actually done it, as you can see from this timeline I’ve clipped from that 2019 AECOM report, “Efficiency and Effectiveness of the Solid Waste Resource Management System”:

Waste management timeline Nova Scotia

And after meeting our 50% diversion goal in 2000, we set a target of reducing solid waste in the province to 300kg per person by 2015.

We didn’t hit it.

We also failed to introduce EPR for PPP legislation by 2015, as encouraged by the CCME’s 2009 Action Plan for Producer Responsibility (although in this, we were not alone).

And we’re still sending terrific amounts of recyclable materials to landfill. Benjamin references the results of a December 2016 waste audit at the Otter Lake Landfill outside Halifax which found that 52% of residential waste and 71% of business waste was “reusable, recyclable or compostable material.” He also notes that 13% of residential waste and 15% of business waste is “textiles that could go in charity bins widely available around the city.”

(This is why municipalities like the CBRM introduced clear bag programs, to better monitor what’s being sent to landfill, and why the current, COVID-induced return to black “privacy bags” is a problem.)

But how to encourage Nova Scotians to be better recyclers? Benjamin suggests two possibilities: pay-as-you-throw (PAYT), a system adopted by many municipalities in Massachusetts, where citizens “pay for the cost of waste disposal depending on the amount they discard, excluding recycling and composting.” The waste consultant he interviewed, Doug Hickman, said PAYT has reduced their quantity of waste by a third.

Another possibility, in place in the Flemish region of Belgium, is to impose an environmental tax for disposal based on weight and type of waste, “the most expensive being landfill waste—while the collection of textiles, paper and bottles is free.” Hickman says Flanders has the highest diversion rate in Europe with “nearly three-quarters of residential waste reused, recycled or composted.”

This is a digression from the discussion of EPR but an important one, I think, because although producers may take responsibility for collecting and sorting and marketing  these materials, it will still be up to Nova Scotians to ensure those materials end up in blue bags or at Enviro-depots. PAYT or eco-taxes can be thought of as EPR “add-ons.”

Okay, now it’s time to meet the regional chairs committee.


Nova Scotia Solid-Waste Resource Management Regional Chairs Committee

Nova Scotia has seven waste management regions BUT Region 2 petitioned to be divided officially into 2a and 2b and Region 1 (Cape Breton) has an unofficial subdivision  as does Region 3.

Got that?

The regional chairs committee is made up of eight elected municipal officials, one each from Regions 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 and two from Region 2 (who share a vote). CBRM District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall currently represents Region 1.

The Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities (NSFM) sits on the committee in a non-voting, advisory capacity.

The committee is intended to “facilitate communication on cross-regional matters between elected officials” and to “communicate regional issues” to provincial bodies, including the provincial government (NS Environment, Department of Municipal Affairs), the NSFM and Divert NS.Nova Scotia Solid Waste-Resource Regions

What it can’t do is make a decision and impose it on anyone — solid-waste management decisions are made either by the province or the municipalities. (Somebody really needs to research the phenomenon of Nova Scotia governments empowering and funding committees and consultants to study issues and advise on policy and then completely ignoring their advice; it’s a rich vein just begging to be mined by some enterprising sociologist, or political scientist or specialist in abnormal psychology.)

That 2019 efficiency report, commissioned by Divert NS from AECOM, flagged this as a problem:

There was also almost universal dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of decision-making processes in Nova Scotia related to solid-waste resource management. As an example, most interviewees pointed to the fact that Nova Scotia Environment has extensively studied and consulted on proposed opportunities to update and improve Nova Scotia’s waste-resource system over the past decade, but has not implemented new actions despite widespread support for the proposed changes.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to explain the solid-waste management decision-making process in this province so instead, I will show you the decision-making hierarchy chart from that AECOM report and we can all be bewildered together:

Decision-making, NS solid-waste management

For our purposes, it’s enough to note that those involved in the process think it’s ineffective and:

Key among the frustrations is the lack of a decision on implementing 100 per cent EPR for packaging and paper products. Most interviewees expressed the belief that the 100 per cent EPR proposal had received nearly unanimous support from Nova Scotia’s 50 municipalities, and that minor (but expected) lobbying from a few stakeholder groups had stalled the decision resulting in a loss of millions of dollars in new revenue to fund municipal recycling.

I should also note that it was, in fact, a sub-committee of the regional chairs — the Municipal-Provincial Solid Waste Resource Priorities Group — that drafted the EPR for PPP proposal.

It’s taken so long to get to this point that I think I will consider the proposal itself in Part II of this article.

Last one there is a massive pile of film plastic…