There is a strong political smell about the Ontario government’s recent exemption of newspaper publishers from certain Blue Box stewardship obligations. Difficult questions about the future of the province’s Blue Box program were bound to arise and to be aired by newspapers and other media during the current election campaign.

So, it’s a little more than convenient that the province acted just before the writs were dropped to blunt any possible criticism emanating from the publishers, publishers who have long complained that they are “different” and should not be subject to any of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rules facing other Blue Box stewards.

What makes the situation even smellier is the fact that the body that was supposedly set up to monitor the Blue Box program had no say in the matter. The board of the Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority (RPRA) never got to vote on the issue. This backroom deal was cobbled together by environment ministry staff, whisked up to cabinet, and swiftly approved as new regulations without any public consultation.

Doug Ford, Ontario's Premiere

Ontario premier Doug Ford hopes to be re-elected June 2. Will the opposition candidates criticize this deal, or will they be too scared they might get some “bad press” before the vote?

RPRA is not a policy board, registrar Mary Cummins explained in a webinar this week. “We had no involvement in this. The ministry sets policy and makes decisions. We implement and enforce.” Which tells us exactly how RPRA is perceived by this government, as a mere distraction. Just do what you are told to do.

The newspaper publishers are now crowing about their success in Ontario, and urging governments in British Columbia and Alberta to follow suit and to exempt newspapers from EPR levies.

Why should they be? The newspaper publishers’ argument seems to rest on the following claims:

  1. They are not packaging. Well, that’s interesting. Neither are magazines, but they haven’t been exempted. And who says EPR fees should be limited to packaging? There are all sorts of EPR programs for used vehicles, electronics, batteries, pharmaceuticals, paint, tires. What’s so different about used newspapers? Are the publishers denying they have any responsibility for placing a product in the marketplace?

Many of them are also now involved in digital media. Do they feel any responsibility for the energy required to run computers and send emails, for the mining of rare earth and scarce metals, or for the e-waste that ends up in landfills? I don’t see any newspaper publishers rushing to be members of stewardship bodies covering off the environmental impact of digital media.

  1. Newspapers are a product. Well, yes, they are, but that doesn’t absolve them of some responsibility, as noted above. In fact, it could be argued that it is the printed word that is the product, and that the newspaper is simply the means (the package) that delivers it.
  1. The democracy argument. “Newspapers have always been a public good” argues the publishers’ industry association, News Media Canada. “The dissemination of news to the public is a necessary element of a vibrant and healthy democracy and a well-functioning society,” it says. “Newspapers allow the reader to pause, engage, and reflect – providing an important service that is not met through other media.” (Not even magazines). Water and food are good for us too. And does this love for democracy extend to doing a deal with the premier behind closed doors and without any public discussion of the implications and consequences for other players?
  1. Newspapers are performing well in the Blue Box so don’t hit us with more fees. While it is true that newspapers “have had the highest collection of all (Blue Box) recyclable materials” in Ontario in the past, this has not been the case since 2014. The “sent for recycling” rate of old corrugated boxes has been 98% the last five years in a row.

A lot of other things have changed as well. Newspapers used to be the “king” of the Blue Box (most tonnage, highest recovery rate). Not any more. Paper packaging has taken over. And to many material recovery facilities (MRFs) today, old newspapers are regarded as a contaminant to the major paper fibre stream. This is unlikely to change going forward.

In short, the newspaper publishers have no credible grounds for being exempted from their Blue Box stewardship obligations. Talk about free-riders! Who will pay for the cost of collecting and processing old newspapers now? This is a political deal crafted in the backrooms and rammed through without any public consultation. It stinks.

Little Green Lies Front Cover

John Mullinder is the author of  Little Green Lies and Other BS: From “Ancient” Forests to “Zero” Waste. The book covers waste and recycling issues and a broad range of false and misleading claims made by environmental groups, industry, and governments. It is also sharply critical of the lack of basic fact-checking that allows so many “little green lies’’ to prosper and spread.