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Eco fees on eco products?

TORONTO - It seems even environmentally conscious shoppers are getting slapped with Ontario's controversial new eco fee.

TORONTO - It seems even environmentally conscious shoppers are getting slapped with Ontario's controversial new eco fee.

At least one retailer is charging a 13-cent fee on what's supposed to be an environmentally friendly product, far more than what the store is charged to recycle it.

A Canadian Tire in Toronto levied the charge on a 475-millilitre bottle of Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day shower cleaner, a biodegradable "Earth-friendly" product that uses natural ingredients.

Some so-called green products may still be considered to be corrosive or an irritant and therefore subject to the provincial fee that funds a recycling program for household materials that need special care, said Kate Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Environment.

But the 13-cent charge on the bottle of green shower cleaner appears to far more than what it would cost to recycle.

Stewardship Ontario, the industry-lead organization that oversees the program, charges businesses 13 cents per litre for corrosive materials and 20 cents for 100 litres of an irritant.

A spokeswoman for Canadian Tire said an error was made in programming their point-of-sale systems and will be corrected by Wednesday.

"We're reaching out to customers to apologize for the inconvenience this has caused," Amy Cole wrote in an email.

"Customers that do return to store with a receipt will be reimbursed the difference between the incorrect fee and the adjusted, correct fee."

Any money not reimbursed directly to customers will be remitted to Stewardship Ontario for its recycling and disposal programs, she said.

Environment Minister John Gerretsen warned the organization Tuesday that he has "serious concerns" with the overcharging of fees and the availability of accurate information related to the program.

"Some retailers have been charging fees greater than the set fee Stewardship Ontario charges businesses," Gerretsen wrote in a letter to Stewardship Ontario. "This is unacceptable and must be addressed immediately."

If the organization doesn't put in place the "necessary audit and compliance systems" to make sure consumers aren't overcharged, Gerretsen said he may "eliminate altogether the ability to charge additional set fees to consumers."

Charging eco fees isn't about protecting the environment, it's just another tax grab, said Opposition Leader Tim Hudak.

"The fact that environmentally friendly products — even grass seed — are being hit by this eco tax show it's all about more money for (Premier) Dalton McGuinty, and not about the environment," he said.

Being spared the eco fee would help green manufacturers and encourage shoppers to make more environmentally friendly choices, said Tory environment critic Toby Barrett.

Hudak promised Tuesday to scrap the fee if the Progressive Conservatives win the next election in October 2011, while the New Democrats have asked Ontario's ombudsman to investigate.

Retailers started charging the levy on a wide range of consumer goods July 1 with no public warning from Stewardship Ontario — the same day shoppers were also hit with the new 13-per-cent harmonized sales tax.

The widely publicized HST, which merged the federal GST and the Ontario sales tax, increased the cost of many goods that were previously exempt from the provincial levy.

Stewardship Ontario, which wasn't available for comment Tuesday, has said the eco fees are determined by the manufacturer or retailer and don't go to the government.

But the fee can be embedded in the sticker price, which means consumers won't know when or how much they're being charged.

The Ontario Liberals must still take responsibility for the "fiasco" they've created with the eco fee, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

"They've allowed Stewardship Ontario — the organization that's literally operated by and made up of the industry representatives — to have a field day in terms of passing on any cost to consumers," she said.

Items such as fire extinguishers, paint and even prescription medications are subject to the fee. But so are kids' bath toys, fish bowls, Christmas trees and mousetraps, said Hudak.

"Unfortunately, every dollar collected in this eco tax is being levied and collected by a secretive, unaccountable government agency to spend with no meaningful public oversight nor transparency," he said.

Stewardship Ontario says it is overseen by Waste Diversion Ontario, a regulatory body, and audited each year by an independent third body. Its financial statements are published in an annual report that is available on its website.

Retailers and manufacturers also charge a fee on electronics for a provincial recycling program that's overseen by Stewardship Ontario. The eco fee is different, however, because the public wasn't warned that it was coming, critics say.

Some experts have questioned the constitutionality of the eco fee, but the Conservatives say they're not planning to take the matter to court.

Kevin Gaudet of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said he has heard from people and organizations who are upset with both the electronics and eco fees, but they don't want to speak up.

"Organizations would love to challenge it, but they're afraid of being punished by the government, because so much of what every business does now deals with the government, one way or the other," he said.

"They're afraid to challenge it, so they just suffer."

Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, championed the fee even when applied to so-called "green" products.

"Of course we're extremely interested in people making sure that their consumerism is good for the planet, as opposed to bad for the planet," he said.

"But even greener products should have to contribute to recycling and product stewardship."

The fee is getting a bad rap because it wasn't introduced properly to consumers, he said. But Conservative attacks on the fees are "insane."

"Frankly, it's a pro-toxic waste position," Smith charged. "It's a pro-garbage position. It's an anti-recycling position."

Liberal operatives have also accused Hudak of trash-talking fees for which he laid the legislative groundwork under the previous Conservative government.

The Tories created Waste Diversion Ontario to make sure that businesses paid their fair share of recycling costs, Hudak fired back.

"At no time did the previous PC government talk about putting an eco-tax on the backs of families, on 9,000 consumer goods that families use every day," he said.

 
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