"Take It Back!"

Last modified: March 22, 2019

A Product Responsibility Program
That Weans Customers Off The
Government Trough!


Trish Johnson
Solid Waste Division
City of Ottawa, Ontario

Product stewardship is easy and getting easier as it gets more convenient in the City of Ottawa, thanks to an innovative new program called "Take it Back!" (TIB). This unique regional product stewardship, or return-to-vendor program, is a recent additional component of an integrated strategy to deal with the Household Special Waste (HSW) for certain problematic items that do not belong in the Region's landfill or extensive recycling program.

In the "Take It Back!" Program the Region encourages partnerships with local businesses to 'take back" many HSW materials they sell. They pledge to accept them back directly from their customers and take full responsibility for their proper disposal. This partnership between the local retailer and public starts with an invitation from the Region to the potential retail partner to join the program and become a TIB location. In exchange the retailer is offered a listing in the directory and free communications materials put out by the Region's Solid Waste Division for the TIB Program.

The series of public communication materials consists of radio and print materials made available to each retailer that are designed to reach members of the general public. In particular, the information targets the customers who frequent their particular retail outlets. This broad promotion then evolves into a direct partnership between the retailers and their customers to jointly take responsibility for many items that can be reused, recycled, or sent directly off for proper special disposal. Most of the items in the program would have historically gone down the drain, been illegally sent to the landfill , or been collected and sent for hazardous waste or special waste disposal only via the Region's permanent or mobile HSW depots totally at regional expense.

Now about to enter its third year, success of this popular "Take it Back!" partnership program is apparent. It now includes over 35 products and 260 local retail locations that offer the 750,000 Regional residents of Ottawa an opportunity to conveniently 'take back' and properly dispose of many previously problematic household items such as motor oil, antifreeze, automotive parts, pharmaceuticals, propane tanks, garden supplies and many more products at locations they already regularly shop at.

The City of Ottawa occupies 2,757 square kilometers and includes approximately 210,000 curbside households and 81,000 apartment units. The standard residential level of service for 10 local municipalities includes recycling for 17 items via an alternate week, two-stream system. Since June, 1999, containers are collected in a blue box one week and all fibers are collected the following week in a newly issued black box. In addition, curbside leaf and yard material collection is offered weekly during the spring and fall peaks and bi-weekly in the summer months. The City also runs a residential landfill with a permanent HSW depot and a centralized composting facility on the site. Given the permanent HSW depot is at the landfill, which is in a fairly remote part of the City, the location is a factor that has always negatively impacted participation simply due to the fact that access is inconvenient for many residents who live on the other side of the city.

Household Special Waste in Ottawa
A trial permanent depot for Household Special Waste (HSW) was opened in 1992 at the City's landfill site and a full study of the HSW program was undertaken in 1994. As a result, in 1995 it was determined that the City should continue the HSW services at the existing site, develop a plan for a trial mobile depot program to better serve a broader geographical audience, and also promote product stewardship and public education as a means to reduce the generation of HSW within Ottawa.

The permanent depot is open for approximately 40 weeks of the year, from mid April to early December. It is closed for the heart of the Ottawa winter when participation was identified to be historically low. Over 11,000 vehicles visit the depot annually, with an the average cost per car of approximately $40 (all figures in Canadian dollars) and an annual operational cost of approximately $420,000. Approximately one-third of the budget is for staff and the remaining budget is for the state-of-the-art building, special handling and disposal fees.

The mobile depots are contracted out via an official tender process every year. They are strategically located in order to service a different portion of the population and reach residents that do not live near the permanent depot. The one day mobile depots are held approximately four to five times per year in different geographic locations each time. Generally the same cost per vehicle range is realized for the mobile depots. The mobile depots are funded from an annual capital budget of approximately $250, 000.

Since 1995, the permanent and mobile depots continue to have a relatively high per vehicle costs. In addition, many users are often repeat users and represent those who live fairly close to the landfill or the mobile locations. The overall participation rate is estimated to be only about 8% of all Ottawa households. Given costs and the low participation number, additional ways to more cost-effectively reach a broader audience remained a challenge for the City. Strategic ways to increase resident participation and further increase proper HSW disposal were still needed, even beyond the incorporation and success of the mobile depot program. Therefore, a need for significant progress in the area of public education and product stewardship was still a significant environmental challenge and was placed on the workplan for City's Waste Diversion Branch in 1996.

After much research, interdisciplinary staff brainstorming and careful planning, the concept of partnership return-to-vendor program was outlined. The plan was for the City to lay out the broad goals, outline basic retailer and consumer "rules" and set up a workable, yet simple to maintain, infrastructure and facilitate a return-to-vendor program. Then mainly via a communications and promotional support program, once the program was up and running, to let the program function as a direct partnership between retailers and their customers.

Initially, staff focussed on getting only automotive partners and "Take it Back!" (TIB) was born at a well attended press conference during Waste Reduction Week of 1997. The initial core of 16 automotive locations and three products that could be returned to these environmentally friendly sites was an immediate success story. Originally planned as a three year pilot program, TIB quickly grew into a popular and innovative product stewardship partnership program run with minimal Regional staff largely using summer students to annually recruit new partners in exchange for providing the retailer's "dream". That is, inclusion in an extensive promotional campaign that made their business look environmentally friendly and brought customers back, again and again into their store, and cost them nothing, other than disposal fees. The program worked and took off even faster than planned with many retailers calling to seek out information on how to join, and not wanting to wait for the planned annual recruitment campaign.

The longer term goal is to increase public convenience and heighten awareness about special wastes. Also, in particular to offer more reuse, or recycle options for products, other than have householders assume they must go for disposal at either the permanent and mobile depots or landfill site. The broad environmental goal is to increase regular capture of the HSW material stream. Using social marketing techniques, the program also teaches new behavior about buying and disposing of certain problem materials and seeks to change attitudes of consumers and retailers alike to shift personal responsibility directly onto them for taking care of the materials they sell and use.

Originally, the program focussed public attention on items that were taken in large volumes at the permanent and mobile depots which were common to most households, such as motor oil, in an attempt to go after the most common and also "biggest bang for the buck" items. These items also had more immediate potential to reduce handling time and disposal costs at the permanent and mobile depots.

"Take it Back!" also targeted items that in some way already had an existing recovery infrastructure in place that was being duplicated by another service of the City. An example of a "dual infrastructure" item was tires, which were being allowed as part of residential garbage and collected at the curb at taxpayers expense. However the tires , once hauled to the Regional landfill site, were separated out, stockpiled and sent for recycling from there. As a result of the immediate popularity of "Take It Back!" in the automotive industry, by the end of the first year over 60 sites agreed to take back tires. As a result, in the most recent collection contract tires were banned from curbside garbage pick-up. Tires are now taken directly by householders to automotive retailers who send them directly for recycling. At some locations, a small environmental disposal fee is charged for this service.

Motor oil, another common household item received at the depots in large volumes, while not yet banned from the HSW disposal, is no longer advertised as an item accepted at the depots, but now is focussed on only as a material accepted via TIB in many convenient locations.

The Growth of the TIB Program
In November 1997 when TIB had only 16 automotive partners it simply offered an increase in customer service via these few specific additional locations. However, given the popularity, the strategy soon became more sophisticated and the program made a concerted effort to locate and invite retail partners in all quadrants of the city. In 1998, a plan to target TIB sites in each Regional Council ward to ensure even political support and provide consistent access for citizens all across the geographically large City was put in place.

In addition, staff identified a plan to expand options for adding other existing materials with the a goal of realizing higher HSW capture rates. The plan was to target more materials that could be easily removed from the HSW service and hence eventually reduce that depot budgets and ultimately use a portion of those savings for funding TIB communications and promotions aimed at increasing consumer participation in TIB. The initial year, the communications budget for development of all materials and radio advertising was approximately $100,000. By year two, with repeat use of graphics, sponsorships and use of in-house staff to expand the materials list, the cost had dropped to only $20,000. In addition, a small pilot budget from the waste diversion initiatives funding was allotted for staff and the program included an approximately one-third time staff supervisor and two summer students for recruitment of partners and data upkeep.

By the end of year two, the program so popular it included nearly 20 products and 150 partner sites. As "Take it Back!" became known, it was popular with retailers and consumers alike. It was deemed such a successful and innovative program, that it received the Recycling Council of Ontario's Outstanding Product Responsibility Award, the highest award offered in the province. Now about to enter its third year, the program includes over 35 products and 260 partner locations where customers can conveniently take back items. "Take it Back!" is getting quite well-known and more visible each year. Our residents can now conveniently take back numerous items in six categories including: automotive, electronic and computer supplies, health and household items and the list continues to grow!

Present Staffing and Costs
Entering year three, the program is overseen by the Waste Diversion Branch Manger, and staffed with approximately one quarter of a fulltime permanent Waste Diversion Branch senior employee. In addition, this year through a special Federally funded National Environmental Youth Corps grant program, the City received funding for a one year supervisor position to manage the summer students, oversee the data base, assist with communications and update the regional website location. There is also support from permanent communications staff assigned to the Solid Waste Division, who more directly supervises the production of the annual partner directory, co-ordinates the radio advertising, and also oversees the work of an outside graphics firm for annual update of the directory. However, the bulk of other new communication material, e.g. new generic posters, bookmarks, radio scripts are done using in-house staff.

From the beginning, a comprehensive communications strategy for the program was planned and considered the cornerstone to success. We relied on in-house communications expertise and also put out a small request for proposals to outside graphics firms. Once the logo and some simple pictorials, or icons, representing categories of items accepted in the program were created, much work was also accomplished in-house. In accordance with Regional policy in the National Capital City of Ottawa, Canada, all materials are produced in bi-lingual fashion in French \ English. Each partner site is provided with large and small posters, descriptive pamphlets, and again in keeping with the lessons effective of social marketing, clear acrylic standup counter cardholders are also provided to act as "prompts" and are placed at each cash register in the partner locations. These show the logo and provide space for a list of which items may be taken back at any particular location.

Recently, bookmarks were produced for give away to advertise the TIB web-site address which is www.rmoc.on.ca (click on Services). The TIB web-site is updated weekly as part of the City's main site and is a simple to navigate, colorful, user friendly, and up-to date complete data base that can be sorted by geographic area or by product. In year three, over 250,000 directories will again be distributed to householders via insertion in a special Regional publication, as well as the stand alone partner directory will be distributed in larger quantities for give away to customers at all retail partner locations, libraries and community centers. Special stickers have also been added to increase visibility and for use in store windows and placement on gas pumps to increase program recognition with the public and to more easily identify which sites are active TIB locations.

The simple product icons and a consistent colour scheme have been used since the beginning and through this we also hope to increase recognition with the program over time. In addition, special posters thanking customers for their participation and also a special "blue ribbon" version of the poster was done to announce the program had won the top Provincial award. As the list of items taken back grows, some posters are now made with extra space to allow retailers to write in additional items they may have added to TIB at their location. The program also includes a recognizable "mascot", we fondly refer to as "Pat", which is an image of a unisex teen-type who can be seen carrying many different items depending on the type of location (see graphic at end of article).

The trick to garnering broad retail support was to keep the process as easy and straightforward as possible for the store partners. Therefore a relatively simple process was designed to allow retailers to become official partners in the program. By using summer students and part-time staff to supervise them, a data base of retailers for each product category was compiled, mostly from the yellow-pages of the phone book. Each potential partner was then faxed a package of information that included a letter of invitation to join the City's official TIB product stewardship program, a brief description of the intent and process of the program, and a simple commitment form. Again following the principles of successful social marketing, each retailer was required to read the simple rules of participation and personally sign a pledge to be environmentally responsible and dispose properly of the products they would receive back. Once the signed commitment form was received back, their name was added to the data base and they received a packet of promotional material, as well as numerous materials for in-store display and a listing in the directory and also on the Regional web-site. The goal was to provide visible signage in order to allow customers an easy way to identify participating TIB stores, know which materials each store was able to take back, know where they were located and provide the full address and telephone number of each business as well.

A key to keeping costs down for the City is that all retailers commit to proper disposal of ALL items they take back and agree to cover their own handling and any special disposal fees. In one general merchandise store that takes back many diverse items from the list, their disposal fee tripled in the first three months of the program! While the retailer called us to let us know about this change, it was not to complain about costs, but to praise how well the program was working in his area! As a store manager he felt that the rewards from the number off customers coming through his door because of the program, and shopping to replace their items, was responsible for an otherwise unexplained increase in his business. He felt this more than made up for the increase in the disposal fees, and he felt further reward to know this program with the goal of helping the environment was working so well. This particular store has since built a special storage area and has a regular plan for compilation and efficient disposal of different materials and focuses now on making their disposal costs efficient as possible.

While in general the program is uniform and offered at no cost to the public, there are some conditions the public must follow in order to participate in the program and help ensure its success. The conditions are listed in the annual directory and on the posters, as well it is suggested in the directory, and on radio and posters that residents call the particular retailer to inquire about specific conditions before taking back their products. All communication materials prepared for the public reminds them of a few simple rules: quantities may be limited, in some locations and for certain items a small handling fee may apply, all products must be dropped off during business hours, and the program is intended for residential use only (commercial generators are not accepted). Given that these simple guidelines are followed, the retailers are generally quite able and happy to continue their participation in the program.

Initially we experienced one problem with items being dropped off after hours and left at the door of a particular large retailer. For this retail partner we provided large all-weather posters re-stating the conditions for posting outside his establishment. We also initiated a maintenance radio campaign to thank participating residents for using the program and reminding them of the few simple rules to be followed to ensure success and continuous involvement of the retailers they frequent. We continually offer direct contact with retailers and offer to "troubleshoot " with individual retailers as necessary to ensure each participating retailer is having a positive experience and goals of the program are being reached.

The three pronged HSW strategy at present still seems to serve somewhat different residential audiences. The permanent depot with weekend only hours and the more remote location is well established and planned to continue to serve its faithful audience. It is also still the most suitable location for some of the most hazardous products including some solvents, pesticides, oil based paints and stains, and products that require more care when handling or bulking. For the present the mobile depots are still popular, though they remain costly. Perhaps with the increased convenience and growing number of products in the TIB program, the mobile depots may be able to be decreased in frequency or over time be held in only certain most remote locations, where fewer TIB locations are available. It is clear that "Take it Back!" is so successful as a pilot, it is here to stay. The fourth "R", "return", is quickly becoming an important and cost-effective component of our City's HSW strategy. It is hoped, that over time more of the most common or "benign" materials will decrease in volume at the depots and be absorbed by the over 260 TIB partner locations where residents can dispose of household waste at their convenience year round. Eventually we may be in a position to ban certain other items, such as motor oil from the depots and place the total responsibility for that products or others on the users and the retailers.

Future Product Targeted - Latex Paint
As latex paint is received in very significant volumes at our permanent and mobile depots, it is a special product targeted for inclusion in the program for 1999 as a pilot. While many partners were interested in participating in taking this new product, nine locations met pre-set criteria and have agreed to take paints for a month long trial late this year. Additional aisle (paint can shaped) signage approved by the retailers, will be present in the paint areas of each store and "Pat " the mascot will be visible splattered with paint and toting latex paint cans. For now, the latex paint pilot involves only a few partners to allow staff a chance to assess cost and staffing requirements and to get a marker on how much paint is out in the households that may be captured via such an offer. It is hoped that latex paint will become a regular product as part of our TIB Program by April of 2000.

Another unique feature of this latex paint pilot part of the program is that an additional, non-profit partner has been added to ensure highest community reuse of paint whenever possible. Habitat for Humanity, an international non-profit group, will be the first stop as a receiver of our bulk latex paint during the trail period. Depending on their ability to use or successfully market this bulked paint, their role may expand in the spring of 2000. Yet another example of attempting to find ways to reuse, rather than go straight to costly disposal of a valuable material for the residents of Ottawa. This pilot did require a special certificate of approval and carefully documented manifesting and processing procedures which were developed with the assistance of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. If latex paint capture and sale are successfully piloted, it is planned to take back the product at many more of our other partner locations, and also have similar programs begin in other Ontario municipalities to handle this common household product more cost-effectively than at HSW depots.

The goal for the next five years is to reduce reliance on regional staff, handling and disposal costs. We also hope to educate the majority of the general public that certain items are best and most cost efficiently handled directly by those who use them and the retailers who sell them. Ultimately we strive to more effectively monitor and quantify the success of the TIB program, realize an increase in the number of households regularly participating, and increase also the percentage of the HSW waste stream being captured and sent for proper disposal by individual retailers. This, in turn, will also eventually lower Regional, and therefore, taxpayer costs.

Ultimately the goal is still to continue to pressure and expect better and increased direct extended producer responsibility from manufacturers themselves. For all of us who care about the environment, the goal of having fewer hazardous materials produced, availability of more affordable substitute products, smaller or less packaging and generation of less waste due to more environmentally aware by consumers, remains a Regional government environmental priority.

However in the meantime, the integrated three-part strategy for HSW management in Ottawa is hoped to bring customers more convenience and realize lower costs through the residents and retailers doing their part to be responsible product stewards for the materials they generate, use and consume. This program of Ottawa's seeks to become an example of a cost-effective model program for other Ontario municipalities and one that can be put in place cost efficiently and quickly thanks to such a successful pilot. In Ottawa, we are proud that we are doing something effective, rather than just sitting back and wait for major, often multinational, corporations to step into line, or for regulations to be drafted and enacted in order to take care of our own Regional environment. Our citizens are doing their part to "Take it Back!" and be responsible with more and more opportunities for practicing what we have deemed the new fourth "R" of return of products in more convenient places, reaching a broader audience every year.

We are so confident of the success story found in "Take it Back!" that for the year 2000 budget we have not increased our HSW budgets. With the goal of more partners and products, we expect to see costs for HSW dropping overall in the City of Ottawa as we venture further ahead into the new millennium.

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