Cutting the Waste: How to save money while improving our solid waste systems


Incentives can make our solid waste systems more efficient.

Canadian communities can improve how they manage solid waste. Canadians are generating more solid waste than ever before. And the more waste we generate, the more costly it is to manage—for taxpayers, businesses, industry, consumers, and the environment.

This report finds that policy changes can make our waste systems—from product manufacturing to waste disposal—more efficient and less costly. The key to an efficient waste management system is getting incentives right and relying more on market-based policies.

Municipalities should charge residents and businesses according to the waste they create. Those who make more waste should pay more, and those who make less should pay less. The report recommends doing so with “pay-as-you-throw” programs for residents and “tipping fees” that reflect the full cost of the service for businesses.

At the same time, provinces should implement “extended producer responsibility” programs that make manufacturers accountable for managing the waste that comes from their products. These systems can improve the efficiency of recycling programs while also creating incentives to produce goods that generate less waste or goods that can more easily be recycled.

To explore the challenges and opportunities with improving the efficiency of waste management systems in practice, this report includes a detailed case study on the City of Calgary, Alberta, which assesses existing waste management policies in Canada and proposes options for Calgary to consider moving forward.

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Summary of Recommendations

Recommendation #1: Municipalities should charge tipping fees that reflect the full costs of disposal, including environmental costs

Creating more efficient waste-management systems starts with smarter disposal pricing. Tipping fees are the most common way to price waste disposal both in Canada and internationally. They are the fees that landfills charge on waste brought to landfills — typically from non-residential waste generators. They can vary, based on the type, volume, or weight of the material.

Tipping fees send powerful incentives to landfill less waste, especially when they reflect the full financial and environmental cost of waste disposal. They also offer more flexibility for waste generators compared to more heavy-handed approaches like landfill bans, which helps lower overall costs. Lastly, tipping fees are a fairer approach to paying for our waste management systems: those that generate more waste, pay more.

Provinces play a key role in ensuring that landfills charge tipping fees that reflect the full environmental cost of waste disposal. Regulations and standards can require landfills and incineration operations to manage their environmental impacts, both during operation and after the site has been closed. Waste-disposal sites can then pass on the costs of complying with these policies in the form of tipping fees consistent with the full cost of disposal.

Recommendation #2: Municipalities should implement pay-as-you-throw programs and charge households directly for waste disposal

Municipal pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) programs charge households directly for garbage collection services. They might charge for collection based on volume, weight, or the number of bags put for collection. Each approach shares a common principle: households that generate less waste pay less. As a result, households have a continuous incentive to dispose of less waste.

PAYT programs can generate several benefits. For example, they encourage people to throw out less garbage, which delays having to build costly new landfills. Savings for taxpayers and ratepayers can be significant in communities that have limited landfill capacity or that ship waste to neighbouring communities.

Recommendation #3: Provincial governments should expand, reform, and harmonize extended producer-responsibility programs

Disposal pricing—covered in the two recommendations above—is a necessary but not sufficient step toward efficient waste-management systems. Given the set of interrelated challenges described in this report, multiple policies are necessary.

Of the complementary policies considered, we identified extended producer-responsibility (EPR) policies as a key part of efficient waste-management systems. EPR programs make producers financially and physically liable for the ultimate management of the materials in the products they produce. These programs, in other words, can ensure that producers have a clear price incentive to improve the way their goods are managed after their useful life. If designed well, EPR programs can also encourage manufacturers to make their goods with fewer materials or materials that are easier to recycle and compost.

Harmonizing EPR programs across provinces should be a long-term objective. EPR programs are administratively complex, especially considering the patchwork of programs across Canada that have developed over time. Streamlining these regulations across Canada can reduce costs, provide a more unified pricing signal for manufacturers, and make these programs more transparent and easier to evaluate.

Recommendation 4: Provincial and municipal governments should implement policies that improve how organic waste is separated and managed, designed according to their own context.

While EPR programs can ensure that manufacturers have incentives to improve how recyclables are managed, extending these programs to organic waste is difficult. As a result, municipalities and provinces may also need policies that specifically target and improve how organics are collected and managed. Generalizing about the best approach to do so, however, is challenging. Specific policies should be chosen according to local context and on a comprehensive analysis of costs and benefits.

For many municipalities, implementing municipal collection programs for organic waste might be a good starting point. Far fewer Canadians have access to curbside organics collection compared to recycling programs, indicating that more progress could be made. The accompanying processing facilities could be built based on community or regional needs, using technologies that range from sophisticated and capital intensive to basic and lower cost. Still, for smaller communities, limited economies of scale could mean that organic collection programs are too expensive. Other initiatives, such as incentives for backyard composting, may be more appropriate and cost-effective.

Recommendation 5: To improve the evaluation, assessment, and transparency of waste-management policies, federal and provincial governments should expand and standardize data-collection methods and make these data more available to the public.

The lack of data on waste management in Canada is a big roadblock to improving waste-management systems. Limited and inconsistent data make it impossible to answer important questions about waste management practices and policies.

Improving data access and availability is critical for two reasons. First it allows governments and researchers to assess the extent to which our current systems are efficiently managing waste (or not). Improving data, in other words, can help make our performance on waste management more transparent. Second, it helps evaluate the performance of new policies and approaches over time. It can help policy-makers determine how policy changes have affected waste flows and system efficiency, and subsequently to adjust and adapt policies to further improve performance. Better data can also assist with harmonizing policies across Canada.

Download the Report (PDF)

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