TORONTO - The Liberal government should have done more to make sure Ontario consumers were prepared for eco fees that some retailers started charging on thousand of household products July 1, Premier Dalton McGuinty admitted Tuesday.
Last week, the government was forced to scrap the eco fees for 90 days to retool the program, which aims to recycle or dispose of hazardous materials in everything from light bulbs and batteries to laundry detergent and household cleaners.
"It’s a sound principle, it’s one that we adopted as a government, but the truth is we came up short in terms of execution," McGuinty said after an unrelated event in Trenton, Ont.
"We failed to bring adequate oversight to Stewardship Ontario to make sure that they got it right and provided the best possible communications plan to Ontarians."
Ontario's environmental commissioner issued a special report Tuesday expressing fears the controversy over eco fees slapped on about 9,000 products could jeopardize "an important program."
However, unlike a lot of angry consumers, Gord Miller didn't blame the government for the backlash and confusion over eco fees, but the stores themselves.
"It was too confusing to bring a fee up to the retail level," said Miller.
"The whole thing with these eco fees was inappropriate, unnecessary and too confusing for the public, not a reasonable model at all."
Manufacturers or importers, so-called stewards of products containing hazardous materials, are the ones who are charged eco fees by Stewardship Ontario. They passed the fees along to retailers in the form of higher prices that some retailers then passed along to consumers as a separate item on cash register receipts.
The government needs to change the model so there are financial incentives for manufacturers and importers to find more environmentally friendly materials for their products, said Miller.
"If you’re a steward and you can just put the fee into your wholesale costs, and the retailer knows that amount and just puts it on the sales slip, there is no incentive to reduce your hazardous waste," he said.
"It threw the whole program into disrepute in some sense. People began questioning the whole program."
Miller's report, called "Getting it Right, Paying for the Management of Household Hazardous Wastes," was actually planned as part of his annual report but he decided to release it now because of the government's move to revamp the recycling plan in three months.
"These (retail) eco fees created widespread confusion based on the misconception that a recycling tax was being applied," he wrote.
Consumers were more accepting of fees implemented previously to pay for recycling new tires or electronics such as televisions because they can clearly see the need to keep these materials out of landfills, said Miller. However, the commissioner said he's worried some retailers are now calling those existing charges eco fees, which could lead to more confusion and discourage people from recycling.
"If they’ve started using that for term for the electronic program, or heaven forbid the tire program, then that’s a bad thing and should be discouraged," he said.
It's also hard for people to understand why they need to pay eco fees on such a vast array of routine items such as topsoil, which is listed because it has fertilizer in it, said Miller.
"The confusing nature of that wide breadth of materials is why this particular program should not have visible fees charged on it," he said.
"I don’t think topsoil causes much of a problem or ends up in landfills. If somebody has leftover topsoil they can dump it at my place."
The New Democrats said the hazardous waste program was poorly executed and should be directly administered by the Ministry of the Environment, not the industry-run, arm's-length agency Stewardship Ontario.
"It was very clear from the environmental commissioner’s comments that industry can’t be trusted to regulate itself," said NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns.
"People have to see that it’s not something that’s going to be dumped on them, and if they don’t see that they are going to be completely distrustful of this process."
Tabuns said the eco fees were an attempt to shift costs for dealing with hazardous wastes from the producers to the public.