April 6, 2009
Legislation would require businesses to reduce reliance on harmful substances

By Martin Mittelstaedt, ENVIRONMENT REPORTER, Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is planning to unveil legislation designed to coax companies into reducing their use of toxic chemicals, becoming the first province to do so, sources say.

The legislation, expected as early as tomorrow, would require businesses to tabulate the amount of dangerous compounds they use, report the results to the province and the public, and then develop plans to cut reliance on the harmful substances.

Although spearheaded by the Ministry of the Environment, it is being put forward as a public health measure - to reduce the number of cancers, birth defects and other medical problems caused by the widespread use of dangerous substances by industry and in consumer products.

It is modelled after the Toxics Use Reduction Act pioneered by Massachusetts in 1989 that led to a 50-per-cent cut in hazardous material usage by companies there over 10 years.

Ontario "will be the first" jurisdiction in the country to have this kind of a strategy to cut hazardous substances and "should really be applauded for that," says Sarah Miller, a spokesperson for the Canadian Environmental Law Association, which has been lobbying the province for the measure along with health organizations such as the Canadian Cancer Society.

The minister's office did not respond to a request for comment.

The environmental and health groups say there is overwhelming public support for the government's action, which may be why the province is going ahead with it despite the economic crisis and the fact that the new measure would add to the costs of doing business.

Polling by the cancer society released in December found that 96 per cent of respondents wanted the province to require businesses to have plans for reducing their use of toxic substances, and two-thirds said the economic downturn wouldn't cause them to rethink their support for the measure.

Under the expected legislation, businesses will have wide latitude in deciding how much, if anything, they spend to cut their toxic usage. That is because the legislation will require businesses to develop plans, but it won't force them to implement any of the measures they identify.

Although this flexibility might be seen as a major loophole for business at first glance, that hasn't been the experience in Massachusetts. The law there had a similar, voluntary provision, and businesses reacted to the increased scrutiny into their consumption of hazardous substances by implementing cutbacks on what they used.

Ms. Miller said this occurred because companies, when forced to evaluate their hazardous material usage, often find they can save money by switching to less dangerous chemicals - a step that cuts costs for the waste disposal of leftover toxic substances, among other benefits.

Companies also end up with safer workplaces, reducing insurance and medical costs.

She said Ontario businesses exporting to Europe are also under pressure to cut the amount of hazardous material in products they make to comply with new legislation there requiring reductions in dangerous compounds.

The Ontario legislation will move well beyond federal requirements. Ottawa currently forces big companies to publicly reveal releases of pollutants from their plants, but it doesn't require information on how much harmful material is used, nor has it asked for reduction plans.

A ministry discussion paper issued last year on toxic-use reduction indicated the measure would apply to the manufacturing and mining industries, the two sectors responsible for the bulk of harmful chemical usage in the province.

The legislation will also mark a major shift in how the province tries to deal with pollution.

Most current environmental regulations set allowable levels of pollution. But Ms. Miller said companies in Ontario will now be encouraged to prevent pollution, through the use of less dangerous chemicals.