Q&A: Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario

Photo taken by the Toronto Star,

Jo-Anne St. Godard plays a key role in furthering waste reduction in Ontario and beyond. As executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario since 2004, St. Godard works with businesses and industry to help them understand and leverage opportunity from their environmental obligations and business models, and demonstrates how economic and environmental interests align. A major part of her role is to facilitate learning and collaboration, which RCO does through its innovative campaigns and programs — many of which (such as the partnership with Canadian Geographic on 10,000 Changes) bring public and private sectors together to educate Canadians and reduce plastic waste.

On the most troubling aspects of plastic pollution

The environmental implications are well-established. Microplastics have invaded our food chain. Pieces of plastic travel from land to pollute waterways and remote areas of the world. What we’ve long understated are the economic costs of our wasteful lifestyles, where billions of dollars’ worth of useful material is simply thrown away. Nearly 90 per cent of plastic in Canada is lost to disposal, which represents $8 billion of lost opportunity. By 2030 that figure is expected to increase to more than $11 billion if we don’t make a change. What’s most troubling about our current system is that recycling businesses continue to compete with cheaper disposal options, which limits our ability to manage plastic waste as the resource it could be, as feedstocks into new products. Once we price disposal at its full and true costs and level the playing field to encourage investment and increase the demand for recycled plastic, I think we will see the scales balanced and better recycling.

On looking at plastic waste issues differently

Canada and other western nations are dealing with new prohibitions and restrictions on recycled materials introduced by China, which was the world’s largest recycling end-market for plastic. China’s historical demand for recycled material collected by Canada’s public and private sectors contributed to domestic shortage of ongoing investments in local plastic recycling markets. The combination of cheap disposal, lack of infrastructure and over-reliance on foreign markets has made Canada vulnerable to losing recyclable plastic to disposal. What took me by surprise was the extent of just how unprepared we are at managing our own waste. I do see it as an opportunity, however, to grow our domestic recycling industry, and I think we’re already starting to see progress. It has also made us look at how we produce and consume plastics, which is really at the heart of the solution.

On what Canada can do better in dealing with plastic waste

We need to go beyond our own singular actions, like refuse a straw or carry a reusable bag, and think institutionally. Institutional decisions are still made by a series of individuals. Public procurement (what governments buy) in Canada is valued at $200 billion annually with 80 per cent taking place at local (provincial and municipal) government levels. Open that up to the private sector and annual spending on goods and services approaches the trillions.

Encouraging and driving plastic waste reduction at the institutional level offers immediate opportunity to accelerate greater support of markets for less plastic, as well as more sustainable plastics products, such as those that can be reused or repaired, remanufactured or refurbished, are made with recycled content, or are readily recycled or composted at the end of their life.

We can drive market shifts through service agreements that favour new innovative business models that offer real solutions to our excessive consumption habits such as changing vendor relationships to require product take-back and integrate specification that minimize plastic or require products designed to be easily recycled. By creating demand the market will respond with supply. And that drives innovation and change.

We can also introduce national standards that could be the catalyst to create harmonized frameworks, facilitate consistent data collection and set national targets for plastics waste recycling.

On improvements to the current blue box program relating to plastic

I think we’d all like to see full producer responsibility implemented for curbside recycling and the blue box. Transferring responsibility of plastics at end of life — collection and processing — should be placed squarely on those who produce and sell the material. In doing so, it will require them to take greater care and consideration for the materials they use to make and package their products. We also need to take the burden of cost away from local governments and taxpayers in favour of individual companies and their customers. When we pay for recycling through taxes, it’s effectively subsidizing what should be a cost of doing business. Having business pay for end-of-life management of their packaging, in the same way they do other costs, will at the very least help with costs, but also hopefully promote better design with the environment in mind.

On consumer concerns about plastic pollution

The biggest concern from the public is that they sometimes feel powerless and that they’re not making a difference. They dutifully separate organics for the green bin, packaging for the blue box, textiles for reuse, hazardous waste for depots, yet, study after study demonstrate that the amount of waste we are producing and losing to disposal continues to increase. What I encourage them to do is keep doing what they’re doing, and if time permits, engage others where you can, particularly as consumers. Support the companies and organizations that are making a conscious effort to reduce waste and make recycling easy. Companies are most motivated by their customers.