TORONTO - Scavengers who troll neighbourhood blue boxes for empties and old-fashioned bottle drives will pick up the slack for connoisseurs and restaurants who don't bother to return their wine bottles to the Beer Store for a refund, says Environment Commissioner Gord Miller.

Starting Monday, drinkers will have to pay up to 20 cents more per bottle of their favourite wine or spirits -- a deposit they can get back if they return the empty bottle to the Beer Store.

The much-touted bottle return program is intended to get as many as 80 million wine bottles out of landfills, where many eventually end up through the blue box program, and see them properly recycled.

That will happen whether wine-drinkers co-operate or not, Miller said. Some may not consider the deposit worth recouping, but Miller said there will always be people who are motivated enough to pick through blue boxes and claim the refund themselves.

"Do you think (scavengers) are going to pass up your wine bottles?'' Miller said.

"It's just going to fuel the economics. You remember there used to be bottle drives? This creates another potential. People who don't go to the Beer Store or feel it's an inconvenience, I think a fair number of their bottles are going to find their way back into the proper stream anyway.''

When people tossed their bottles into the blue box, Miller said many were broken and mingled together, rendering them virtually useless for anything except making ashphalt used in road construction.

Under the new return program, bottles and tetra packs are sorted on the spot at the Beer Store, making it possible to melt them down and recycle them as glass, insulation and even fleece sweaters.

Both the Conservatives and the New Democrats say it will be hard to get people to return their empties to the Beer Store rather than the LCBO, but Environment Minister Laurel Broten is more confident.

Around 80 per cent of people return their bottles under similar programs elsewhere and Ontario will likely be no different, she said.

"Ontarians are great recyclers,'' Broten said. "I know they will embrace the program. Whether it is your neighbour embracing the program for you, it will be good for the environment.''

But Ontario restaurants are far from embracing the program.

Stephanie Jones, Ontario vice-president of the Canadian Foodservices and Restaurant Association, said her members stand to lose $35 million under the scheme. Many are locked into inflexible recycling contracts and others don't have the means to store or haul their bottles to the Beer Store for refunds, she said.

"It's going to be very difficult for restaurants to participate in this program,'' Jones said. "The big concern is that costs associated with this program are simply being downloaded to licencees.''

In Alberta and British Columbia, where they have a similar bottle-return program, schools raise money through bottle drives and most people return their empties at designated depots, said LCBO spokesperson Daniele Gauvin.

"If you're a banquet hall and you have 1,000 empty bottles, at the end of the night you can decide whether to put those in the blue box,'' Gauvin said.

"But if you've paid a 20-cent deposit on each of those bottles, you have an incentive all of a sudden.''

Katrina Miller, co-executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, said 20 cents will be enough to spawn a scavenger market for empties but the province should look at boosting the price of wine by at least 50 cents to give people an ongoing reason to comply.

While Miller said the LCBO is a good start, she wants Ontario to do much more to shrink its environmental footprint. That would mean following the example of eight other provinces and expanding the bottle return system to include all beverage containers, including pop cans and plastic water bottles, she said.

"That's where we'll see the real significant impact on our waste system,'' she said.

"Ontario is really playing catch-up right now. We don't want to see the province stop at the LCBO.''