The Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario) as seen in this satelitte image from the U.S. Army.

A source of drinking water for millions of Canadians and Americans, and the cornerstone of a $6 trillion economy, the Great Lakes are truly great. But the threats to the lakes are even greater.

Ever increasing and more toxic algae blooms, thousands of tonnes of plastic waste, climate change, and invasive species such as Asian carp, are just some of the threats the lakes are facing. At the same time, in the U.S., the Trump administration has announced it intends to cut funding to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and gut the Environmental Protection Agency. This, even though the program has been hailed as a highly successful initiative that not only protects and restores the health of the lakes, but also enhances scientific understanding and provides jobs.

Here in Canada we are not doing much better when it comes to protecting the Great Lakes—which hold 20 per cent of the world’s available surface freshwater. The recent federal budget included just $70.5 million (or 0.0047 per cent of the overall budget) over five years to help address threats to all of Canada’s freshwaters—not just the Great Lakes. And currently, the Ontario government only spends about $15 million (about 0.01 per cent of the province’s entire budget) per year on Great Lakes-specific programs.

Governments are making promises to protect the Great Lakes, however, three out of four of Canada’s Great Lakes are currently in decline. We are not doing enough to protect the source of drinking water for 80 per cent of Ontarians. And creative solutions are needed more than ever on both sides of the border in order to do so.

We are proposing one such solution: put a deposit on plastic bottles in Ontario, similar to the program that’s already in place for wine and beer bottles.

All but two Canadian provinces have a deposit return program for plastic bottles. Those provinces achieve an average recycling rate of 77 per cent, with some provinces as high as 82 per cent. In comparison, Ontario’s recycling rate is less than 50 per cent.

That’s right. Only half of the plastic bottles purchased in Ontario end up in Blue Boxes. The rest, approximately, 1.5 billion plastic bottles, are not recycled each year. Instead they end up in landfills or the environment. Many find their way to the Great Lakes, where 80 per cent of the litter is plastic. A deposit on plastic bottles would help turn this plastic tide by increasing bottle collection rates, and reducing the amount of litter in our communities.

Even more, such a program would also generate sustainable funding that could go towards protecting the Great Lakes for current and future generations. In Michigan, unredeemed deposits from its deposit return program support environmental programs and initiatives. Ontario should do the same.

Considering that a deposit return program could achieve at least an 80 per cent recycling rate (more than 30 per cent higher than Ontario’s current recycling programs), putting a 10 cent deposit on plastic bottles would generate over $100 million a year in unredeemed deposits. That money could go towards increased research including data collection and monitoring, funding innovative practices that reduce pollution entering the lake, supporting stronger community engagement, and other initiatives to  help clean-up and protect the lakes.

More needs to be done to protect our freshwater. And a deposit return program for plastic bottles is a simple win-win solution (increased recycling and generating revenues to protect freshwater) for Ontario and the Great Lakes. It’s time for us to be bold enough to do it.

If you would like to see a deposit return program for the plastic bottles in Ontario, you can add your voice at


Prepared by: Ashley Wallis, Water Program Manager, Environmental Defence

Editorial partnership between Alternatives Journal and Environmental Defence Canada.

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