Thursday, July 22, 2010

Passing the savings on to the consumer... or not...

Are you as confused as I am about this whole eco-fee drama? Have you, like me, heard snippets of your colleagues' conversations, read the occasional newspaper headline over your fellow transit riders' shoulders, and found yourself a bit muddled? Well sit back and relax while I do some research and figure this out.

Okay, here's the low-down: on July 1, new eco-fees came into effect in my (current) home province of Ontario, essentially taxing household products that contain toxic ingredients in order to offset the cost of safely discarding said products and their packaging. This happened very quietly because media coverage was much more partial to the implementation of the new Harmonized Sales Tax in Ontario and British Columbia, which took effect on the same day. Then on Monday, we heard that Canadian Tire will no longer be charging the fees because they've had a tough time determining how much to charge (due to inconsistencies between products) and feel the program isn't being well-handled.

One day after the news broke, the Environment Minister scrapped the fee, announcing the program would be reviewed over the next 90 days, and in the meantime, taxes will cover the bill. A lot of fingers are being pointed at Stewardship Ontario, who came up with the plan. The issue is that it's not necessarily a good idea to let a group of big corporation reps find a solution to a problem they're creating by putting toxic products out there in the first place. It's not like they're keen on absorbing the disposal costs, right?

Let's consider some options. On the one hand, when consumers pay a fee, one could argue that they are being encouraged to think about the environmental impact of common household products and make responsible decisions around such purchases. Besides, only those who buy these items are penalized, while others who choose safer alternatives don't lose out. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like anyone was taking charge of the "educating the public" part of the equation, hence the confusion and uproar when people took a closer look at their receipts.

On the other hand, if manufacturers were held accountable for the safe disposal of the toxic products they create, they might feel more inclined to do the research necessary for developing healthier alternatives. And what goes around comes around: consumers looking to avoid toxins would be happy to buy these new, safer products, so the companies would profit from their efforts. The challenge is convincing the government to step in and force producers to carry the cost instead of passing them on to consumers, because an organization like Stewardship Ontario has no authority to do so.

I guess we'll have to see what happens in October. In the meantime, vote with your wallet! Stop in at your local natural food store - these days, in addition to organic produce, you'll also find environmentally safe products on their shelves. From shampoo to toilet cleaner to laundry detergent, we owe it to ourselves to choose healthier alternatives while we wait for the government to figure out what to do!

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