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E-BLAST: Two Updates: Blue Bin Program & Winter Shelter Plan

This week's column is a double feature. I saved one item from last week's Council Highlights because it's a bit complex: the transition of Toronto's blue bin recycling program to extended producer responsibility. After I give the rundown on the forthcoming changes to our recycling program, I'll talk about recent items from the Economic & Community Development Committee that outline the City's plan for shelters and getting folks out of the cold this winter. Let's dive in.


 

TRANSITIONING OUR BLUE BIN PROGRAM TO 100% PRODUCER PAYS


Recycling in Ontario began over 40 years ago in Kitchener. The various cities that made up Metropolitan Toronto followed suit about a decade after that. As soon as cities began developing blue bin programs, the Province began setting provincial waste diversion goals and looking for cooperative ways to make sure the collected recyclables could fetch top dollar in the plastics market.


A photo of Toronto's original blue bins from 1998.


By the new millennium, it was clear that recycling alone wasn't going to solve our environmental problems. The market for selling recyclables is very volatile, and the price fetched doesn’t always cover the cost of collection. Moreover, having consumers sort materials at the end of their use wasn't doing anything to change the behaviours of the packaging producers. Governments started talking about legislation that would make producers pay for the cost of waste diversion.


The Province has always been involved in municipal waste collection, and for very good reason. They are one of the lawmakers charged with environmental regulation, and garbage is one of the biggest threats to the environment. Whether we send our garbage to landfill or incinerate it, we damage the planet in some way. Reduce, reuse, and recycle helps the Province as it reduces the need for landfill and other types of garbage disposal. The Province has achieved as much as they can by focusing on municipalities, so they've set their sights on the producers of waste.


For quite a while now in Ontario, producers have been required to pay half the cost of municipal recycling programs. It doesn't solve everything, but it helps. Now, the Province is implementing regulations that will require producers of packaging to pay 100% of the cost of collecting recyclables. On paper, that sounds great. If producers of goods and packaging have to carry the cost of their disposal, perhaps the real reducing will happen upstream in the way they design their products. As always, the devil is in the details.



For the next couple of years, you won't notice any changes. This is because when the implementation of Producer Pay recycling begins, producers will simply pay for the service the City is delivering now. As of January 1, 2026, however, producers will pay for a contractor to collect recyclables in each municipality according to a Provincially-designed set of instructions. I can't predict how that's going to impact the service you receive.


I've written before about the costs of private waste collection and have always been a strong supporter of our in-house program. There was an option for municipalities to bid on the contract for their own recycling collection, but City staff recommended against it. The Province has set very strict rules for collection, particularly around contamination. The City currently allows up to 30% contamination, and our staff have always maintained that this is part of why we have such a high rate of diversion from landfill—52%, in fact. Going forward, contamination can't exceed 4%, and higher levels may result in penalties. This, combined with serious labour concerns and privacy concerns about the required use of Artificial Intelligence and video surveillance to track and charge for household contamination in recycling pickups, raised enough alarm bells for Council to not pursue this route for now.



You may think that the silver lining here would be the end of the City paying the cost of running the recycling program. For the time being, any savings will go to service improvements in garbage and organics collection, and to the reserve. The solid waste reserve will be tremendously important for two reasons. For one, we may need to adapt to the new recycling system at our own cost to make sure you're receiving the consistent level of service you expect. More importantly, the solid waste reserve is key to our future as we keep inching closer to the time when Toronto's main landfill, Green Lane, is filled to capacity. That is expected to happen by 2030, and a city-wide discussion on next steps will be coming soon.


I hope the transition to the new blue bin system is seamless. Rest assured that Council will be keeping a close eye on the implementation and adapting where needed.


 

SHELTER SYSTEM AND WINTER WARMING UPDATE


Toronto continues to grapple with our growing homelessness crisis. The number of local residents falling into homelessness and the number of newcomers seeking asylum in our shelter system both keep rising.



The General Manager of the City's Shelter, Support, and Housing Administration presented an update to the Economic & Community Development Committee on this front earlier this week. Rather than retell these reports, I'm going to provide links to the presentations he gave on these matters:



The most important thing to note is that the 2024 Shelter Infrastructure Plan looks to reduce the strain on our system by developing new shelters, either by renovating existing acquisitions or through new modular construction. The reality is we need more shelter beds. Far too many of our shelter clients are still in temporary spaces like hotels. Currently, only 41% of the 10,700 people being sheltered every night are in purpose-built, permanent shelters that offer the supports they need to get into stable housing. Over the next few years, staff are seeking the funding necessary to ensure 60% of shelter users are in permanent shelter beds, with surge capacity for the others who need to use the system on an occasional basis. Let's not forget: the only permanent, long-term solution to our homelessness crisis is building more affordable housing.


Modular Housing is one impactful tool to rapidly create more affordable housing for those experiencing homelessness.


In terms of special measures for this winter, there will be four 24/7 warming centres open across the city starting in November, as promised last year. Council changed the guidelines for cold weather response last winter and asked that staff be prepared to operate four 24/7 centres in time for this winter, and staff delivered. We hope these centres will help ensure that no one is left out in the cold this season.


Finally, we continue to call on both the Provincial and Federal governments to help us serve refugees and asylum seekers in our shelter system. In my mind, they should be helping us with all aspects of the homelessness crisis, and we have called on the Province in particular to provide more funding and support to our shelter system on an ongoing basis. Not only are those other orders of government best equipped to fund these programs, as they have access to things like income and sales tax, we are talking about a basic human right. All governments need to work together to make sure everyone has access to safe shelter.

 

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