History of Blue Box Recycling

History of Blue Box Recycling

A meaningful examination of solid waste management in Ontario is best informed by the context of its historical evolution. It is as part of this history that the structure, scale and operation of municipal solid waste management (MSWM) systems today may be better understood.

The switch from refillables to recyclables beverage containers during the 1980s resulted in significant increases in household waste generation in Ontario. The infrastructure to collect and manage recyclable containers was still very much in its infancy, and by the late 1980s, Ontario was faced with a looming crisis in landfill capacity (Pollution Probe, 1997). Despite repeated efforts by the Minister of the Environment (MOE) to abolish the use of non refillable containers, the beverage industry ultimately prevailed in striking down any proposed legislation. Beverage brand owners threatened job cuts and facility closures if the mandatory use of refillable containers were imposed (Pollution Probe, 1997). These threats were taken quite seriously, as the economic recession of the early 1980s forced policy planners to prioritize job preservation.

As a compromise solution, the provincial government drafted Regulations 340 and 357 under the Environmental Protection Act. These regulations were designed to promote recycling, while also trying to ensure that refillable beverage containers would continue to be sold (McRobert, 1992). The regulations initially asked beverage brand owners to voluntarily bottle 40 % of products in refillable container. The remainder could be bottled in any recyclable container, but with a requirement these materials achieve a 50% recycling rate by December 1988 (McRobert, 1992).

To help achieve this diversion target, the Ontario Soft Drinks Association established Ontario Multi Material Recycling Incorporated (OMMRI), an industry funded organization tasked with funding and developing a curbside recycling program (McRobert, 1992). In 1987, OMMRI pledged 20 million dollars in funding over four years, which was matched by municipalities and the Ontario government to fund the Blue Box recycling program (McRobert, 1992).

The development of curbside recycling ultimately proved to be the death knell for Ontario’s deposit return system for non alcoholic beverages. Despite the aforementioned regulatory requirements, the use of refillable containers declined to 3% by the end of the decade. At the same time, Ontario’s curbside recycling program flourished, implemented in over 100 provincial municipalities by 1990 (McRobert, 1992).

The 3R policy platform in Ontario

By the beginning of the 1990s, the Ontario government and the MOE recognized that a deposit return system was unlikely to succeed in the province. Further to that point, household waste generation was at a historical high, while available landfill space was becoming increasingly scarce (McRobert, 1992). As such, the policy focus of the MOE shifted to prioritizing waste diversion and promoting the 3R platform of “Reduce, Re-use and Recycle”. The Minister of the Environment launched the Waste Reduction Action Plan (WRAP) in February of 1991 (McRobert, 1992). The WRAP included a number of initiatives designed to promote waste diversion and the 3Rs. These included: regulatory measures; financial and technical support; public education; and the development of markets for recyclable materials (McRobert, 1992).

Table 1 below summarizes the 3R regulations that were implemented to further enhance the efficacy of WRAP.

Table 1: 3R Regulations under the Waste Reduction Action Plan

Regulation Objective
Recycling and Composting of Municipal Waste (O. Reg. 101/94) Every municipality with a population of 5,000 or more residents are obligated to operate a Blue Box program accepting at least five mandatory materials (MOE, 2011).
Waste Audits and Waste Reduction Work Plans (O. Reg. 102/94) Designated organizations from the IC&I sectors are required to conduct annual waste audits. A waste audit highlights the types of wastes that are produced, the manner in which wastes are produced, and in what quantities they are produced, within an organization (MOE, 2011).
Industrial, Commercial and Institutional Source Separation Programs (O. Reg. 103/94)


Organizations must implement the use of a source separation program. As part of the source separation program, collection, handling and storage facilities must be provided for recyclable materials. A business must make reasonable efforts to ensure that the system is used and that source separated materials are reused or recycled (MOE, 2011).
Packaging Audit and Packaging Reduction Work Plans (O. Reg 104/94)


The regulation requires manufacturers, packagers and importers of packaged food, beverage, paper or chemical products to conduct a packaging audit and implement

a packaging reduction work plan (MOE, 2011).


  1. Reg 101/94 should be seen as a critical development in the evolution of Ontario’s MSWM system. Household and municipal participation in recycling was no longer a voluntary initiative, but a legislative requirement. In many ways, Reg 101/94 symbolized Ontario’s commitment to recycling as a core element of the province’s sustainability strategy. The effects of the regulation were immediate, with the province’s diversion rate increasing by 5% in the following year (Pollution Probe, 1997).


Funding the Blue Box Program: Building the relationship between industry and local government

Despite the successes of the Blue Box program, funding the recycling system remained a significant challenge. Revenue from recyclable material failed to meet expected levels, while the amount of material being managed by the residential recycling system increased by 50% over an eight year period (1990-1998) (Stewardship Ontario, 2012c). While industry continued to contribute financially towards the operation of the Blue Box program, municipalities struggled to cope with rising material management costs and became increasingly dependent on the government for financial assistance (Menzies, 1997).

By 1999, the Blue Box program teetered on the brink of insolvency, necessitating that industry and municipal actors collaborate to develop a more equitable and sustainable recycling solution. In 2000, a number of packaging organizations and municipal representatives signed a memorandum of understanding with the MOE to work towards achieving a sustainable municipal recycling system (CCME, 2009). The organization produced a report entitled “Achieving Sustainable Municipal Waste Diversion Programs in Ontario”, which ultimately served as the precursor to the 2002 Waste Diversion Act (CCME, 2009).The Ontario Waste Diversion Act (WDA) came into effect on June 27, 2002, and was designed to “promote the reduction, reuse and recycling of waste and to provide for the development, implementation and operation of waste diversion programs” (Waste Diversion Act, 2002, c. 6, s. 1)

The Act also lead to the creation of Waste Diversion Ontario, a non-crown corporation tasked with promoting and maintaining sustainable waste diversion programs for Blue Box materials, hazardous and special waste, waste electronics, and used tires.  On September 23, 2002, Blue Box Waste became the first waste to be designated under the WDA. Stewardship Ontario was named as the Industry Funding Organization (IFO) for the Blue Box Program (CCME, 2009).

The Blue Box Program Plan (BBPP) was approved by the MOE on December 22, 2003 and went into operation on February 1, 2004. Under provincial regulation 274/04, all producers of printed paper and packaging would pay a fee to finance the end of life management of material generated in the province (CCME, 2009). Producers were financially obligated to contribute 50% of reported municipal costs for the operation and maintenance of the Blue Box program. With this regulation, Ontario became the first province in Canada to implement an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme (CCME, 2009).

The implementation of extended producer responsibility and its importance to the circular economy

Ontario’s transition to an EPR scheme marked a shift in the cost of managing end of life products from the local tax base to packaging producers (Deutz, 2009). While its implementation was initially met with opposition from the packaging industry, the MOE remained steadfast in their desire to move towards a full “Polluter Pays” system (Crittenden, 2006). To date, Ontario’s partial EPR scheme remains the foundation for managing and financing the provincial Blue Box program.

Table 2 below summarizes the underpinning policy rational for implementing EPR in Ontario (Adapted from Deutz, 2009 & Waste Diversion Ontario, 2012)

 Table2 : Rational for EPR


To transfer the costs of managing packaging waste from the local tax base to the producer and user of the product.
To provide a direct economic incentive for the producer of the package to reduce packaging materials and design packaging for improved recyclability.
To bring the expertise and resources of industry to bear for the design and ongoing management of comprehensive materials management systems (as opposed to local waste management systems).
As an initial step towards the development of a circular materials economy – where waste materials serve as feedstock for new processes (as opposed to the current norm: a linear extraction/production/consumption/disposal economic system).
To make the producer and consumer of the packaging fully responsible for the environmental impacts of it production, use and end-of-life management.


Point #4 is of particular importance, in that both the MOE and federal government have expressed their desire to design circular industrial systems as a means to minimize waste generation and environmental impacts (Mabee et al., 2011). Rooted in the principles of industrial ecology, the circular economy represents the final evolution of modern MSWM systems (Gertsakis, 2002). Waste generated by either households or the IC&I sector are used as inputs for production for other industrial processes.

While Ontario’s Blue Box system does an effective job in recycling and repurposing waste, numerous challenges exist to achieving a closed loop system. Coincidentally, these challenges are a direct result of how packaging producers have responded to the evolution of Ontario’s MSWM systems.  The fees charged to packaging producers as part of the province’s EPR system are calculated on a per tonne basis. As such, many packaging producers have opted to switch to light weight packaging (namely LDPE, PET thermoforms and polystyrene crystal) to minimize the impact of the fee. The issue with this is twofold, 1) consumers don’t readily recognize these materials as being recyclable and 2) these items are voluminous but not very heavy. This not only results in less material being placed in the Blue Box, but lower tonnages (and thus, lower recycling rates) for the material that is collected. The impact of these changes have been significant, as Ontario’s recycling rate stagnated at 68% in 2010, and subsequently declined to 63% in 2012 (Stewardship Ontario, 2013).