Ontario taxpayers are still on the hook for a controversial eco fee program that the governing Liberals are scrambling to retool amid widespread public confusion and retail angst.

Consumers won't be charged eco fees at the cash register, but the government will fork over up to $5 million to keep the program going for the next three months, Environment Minister John Gerretsen said Tuesday.

In other words, the program's cost has shifted from consumers to taxpayers, he acknowledged.

"For the next 90 days, the government will absorb -- through our general taxes -- the cost of running the program, because the program is a good program," he said.

"It's better to keep this material out of our landfills and our water supplies than anything else."

Consumers will still pay more

The public made it clear it wanted the fee program to change, so the government will take three months to come up with a better plan to offset the cost of recycling potentially hazardous items, he said.

After that, "it remains to be seen" who will bear the burden of funding the program, Gerretsen said. But consumers will end up paying more to use everyday products like laundry detergent, household cleaners and compact fluorescent bulbs from now on.

"There is a cost to doing something in an environmentally friendly fashion," he said.

"Yes, if we want to make sure these items remain out of our landfills, remain out of a water stream, there is a cost. But if we don't do anything, the ultimate cost to future generations ... is going to be a lot more."

The program

Gerretsen admitted the government and Stewardship Ontario -- which oversees the program -- stumbled when they rolled out the changes July 1, which saw fees of a few cents to a couple of dollars levied on thousands of household products.

The governing Liberals gave the industry-led organization the power to collect the fees, which were first introduced in 2008 on a small number of items. But there was no public warning that the levy would be slapped on a wider array of products, such as fire extinguishers and household cleaners, starting this month.

"We, the Ministry of the Environment, the government and I as minister could have done a better job of helping them communicate those changes," Gerretsen said. "And I take full responsibility for that."

Confusion over fees

The government signalled its reversal Monday, shortly after Canadian Tire announced it would stop charging the fee because the program was too confusing.

The retailing giant, which apologized to customers for overcharging some fees, blamed the widespread confusion on a botched rollout and a complex fee structure that had both consumers and businesses baffled.

Even Gerretsen, who flew in from the southern United States where he was vacationing with his wife, seemed confused Tuesday when asked to clarify specifics about the program, such as items that would no longer be accepted by the regular blue box recycling program.

Manufacturers were also paying into the eco fee program and it's unclear whether they can stop, said the Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association.

"Until (the government) actually repeals its regulation and the program plan, the fees are still there and they're still mandatory," said president Shannon Coombs.

"So stating that it has dropped at retail, doesn't make it go away."

It also makes little sense to include products like laundry soap in a hazardous waste program when consumers are already paying to recycle the containers under the existing blue box program, she added.

"Consumers are being charged twice," Coombs said.

Opposition comes out swinging

Opposition parties had a field day with Gerretsen's hastily called news conference, calling it a "rambling" attempt at damage control.

"It's one of the most chaotic approaches to managing a public issue that I've seen in a long time," said NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns.

"It was clear to me that the minister was not really certain where he was going, the province doesn't know where it's going. They have a huge problem on their hands."

Businesses who make the products should bear the cost of the recycling program, not Ontario families who are already struggling to make ends meet, he said.

The government's flip-flop on eco fees is the latest retreat for the Liberals, who've been forced to pull back on poorly articulated policies that have backfired with the public.

Premier Dalton McGuinty pulled the plug on a sex ed curriculum that irked parents and religious groups, issued a mea culpa for a secret fence law for the G20 summit that drew howls of outrage from civil libertarians, and killed plans to sell off a stake in Ontario's largest Crown corporations to slay the province's huge deficit -- all in the last four months.

Gerretsen never apologized for the approving the new fees nor admitted trying to sneak it in on the same day consumers were hit with the new 13 per cent harmonized sales tax, he said.

"We believe the shell game will continue," said the Progressive Conservative leader.

"Most importantly, the McGuinty government is pointedly refusing to bury this tax grab once and for all."