LCBO leading from behind on returns

The new system will also give the LCBO a new — and wholly undeserved — green reputation. Some of the flaws in the new scheme arise because the monopoly has for years resisted anything that required it to take responsibility for the products it sells.

The Globe and Mail
February 6, 2007

LCBO leading from behind on returns
Murray Campbell

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The air was thick with self-satisfaction as the Ontario government got together with its various alcohol monopolies and oligopolies yesterday to unveil a long-overdue bottle deposit-return system.

Some of the backslapping is deserved, because the new requirement for customers to put a 10- or 20-cent deposit on every wine, beer or spirit bottle is a major step forward for the province. If customers of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario embrace it, some 80 million bottles will be diverted from landfill sites.

But the scheme, which Premier Dalton McGuinty announced with great haste last September, has the appearance of being put together on the back of an envelope. It has rough edges and contradictions that could hobble it. It does not approach the comprehensiveness of the schemes in six other Canadian provinces where all beverage containers (except milk and milk-related products) are subject to deposits and refunds.

The new system will also give the LCBO a new — and wholly undeserved — green reputation. Some of the flaws in the new scheme arise because the monopoly has for years resisted anything that required it to take responsibility for the products it sells. It has woken up and smelled the merlot, but its love affair with difficult-to-recycle Tetra Paks calls into question its devotion to the environmentalists' mantra of reduce, recycle and reuse.

Public Infrastructure Minister David Caplan yesterday praised the LCBO for its leadership on environmental issues. The truth is, however, that it's been leadership from behind. At every turn in the past 15 years, the board has successfully resisted proposals that it either be required to refill containers or organize its own recycling system.

There is every indication that an impatient Mr. McGuinty imposed the current system on them. "There was high resistance within the LCBO until immediately before the [Premier's] announcement," Ontario Environment Commissioner Gord Miller said recently.

Mr. Caplan singled out for praise the $5-million annual contribution the LCBO makes to the municipal Blue Box programs, but this is little more than what a Toronto city councillor once called "hush money." The cities argue that their taxpayers pay nearly five times that amount — $23-million — to process LCBO bottles picked up at the curb.

For 80 years, Brewers Retail has been responsible for the products it sells with the result that 97 per cent of its beer bottles (along with untold caps, plastic holders and boxes) are reused or recycled. "Unlike most retailers, we take back everything we sell," Ted Clarke, president of the Beer Store, said. He might well have been referring to the LCBO.

The Beer Store, with its exceptional record, will do a good job of handling the flow of bottles coming its way (and the increased traffic will likely give it increased sales). But it's an odd system that will require wine drinkers to go to beer stores to get back their deposits. Mr. Caplan said 70 per cent of Beer Stores are within a kilometre of an LCBO outlet.

That's no challenge for a driver, but how many pedestrians — particularly if they don't drink beer — are going to make the hike? And will women feel comfortable in the laddish atmosphere of most Beer Stores?

Finally, what will the Beer Stores do with Tetra Paks? They are handy, as every parent who has packed a school lunch knows. But their paper-aluminum-foil-plastic construction makes them exceedingly difficult to recycle. The paper gets reused for such things as toilet paper but the aluminum-plastic laminate ends up as sludge. There is no recycling facility in Ontario anyway and the Tetra Paks gathered through curbside Blue Boxes are shipped to Michigan. Mr. Miller estimated that 75 per cent of the material in a Tetra Pak goes straight to a landfill.

Despite this, the LCBO is promoting this "alternative-format" packaging as "environmentally friendly" because it is lighter than glass and, as a result, less gasoline is used in shipping and less space is taken in landfills. About 1.5 per cent of the board's wine sales in the past 10 months — $17-million — have been in Tetra Paks and the LCBO is encouraging Ontario vineyards to use two new packaging companies that it has mentored into operation.

Now, that's leadership.

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