How about a different approach to recycled content and the circular economy?

Recycled content is the key component in the creation of a circular economy. It keeps raw materials flowing within the economy longer, reduces the pressure to extract more virgin materials from the earth, and delays their eventual disposal as waste. Recovering more materials for further use also creates jobs. A circular economy is something that companies and governments say they want to encourage.

Voluntary and Mandatory Approaches

The strategies to encourage recycled content range from voluntary approaches through to government mandated minimums and the threat of banning product sales if those minimums are not met.

With a voluntary strategy, the government adopts a hands-off approach, allowing the marketplace to determine what happens. In the Canadian province of Ontario, the paper packaging industry has gone from below 50% recycled content to all but one mill today producing 100% recycled content boxes and cartons. This is presumably the type of ‘’circular economy” that Ontario wants. The ‘problem’ is that the approach is slow. It took some 25 years to get there.

The mandatory approach, on the other hand, is where the government regulates or legislates a framework of minimum recycled content targets, with fines or penalties or sales bans for non-achievement.

One of the problems with government mandates, however, is that they apply only to that government’s jurisdiction. For example, an Ontario mandate would not apply to other provinces. There may also be international trade implications for material being shipped into Ontario. Another complication is that most design decisions on recycled content are not made in Ontario but rather at company head office (in the US or Europe) with packaging design undertaken at global not local (Ontario) scale.

Also, the last thing industry wants is provinces or states leapfrogging over themselves to set successively higher (and perhaps public relations inspired) targets for industry to achieve in different jurisdictions. A federal mandate would be preferable, but that would mean getting all provinces/states to agree (which may prove difficult and time-consuming).

Mixed Approaches

Some governments have chosen to mix voluntary and mandatory approaches to increasing recycled content. They have done this by including incentives within regulated programs. The choice is voluntary and at a company’s own pace.

An example of this is the current suggestion by the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) where companies are offered discounts on Blue Box diversion targets when they can prove use of Ontario Blue Box recycled content.

This approach does have several benefits. It gets the government out of the role of playing policeman and sorting out the technical issues of how to actually set specific recycled content targets for different materials that are sensible and fair. It also means the province does not need to enforce the achievement of these targets because they are voluntary. The onus is on the brand owner/retailer/publisher to prove the claim, with the added expense of mandatory auditing of company reports.

Administratively challenging

The current Ontario proposal, however, is administratively challenging at best, and impossible at worst.

Let’s follow the path of some recovered Ontario Blue Box paper. First it goes from a municipality or a service provider to either a broker or a MRF (processor). That first step is relatively easy to track. Then it gets complicated. Because the broker and the processor have other clients, other suppliers of recovered paper fibre. It could be Blue Box fibre from Quebec or Manitoba; it could be used boxes and office paper recovered from industrial, commercial and institutional (IC & I) sources within Ontario or maybe shipped in from Manitoba or Quebec or the United States. It could be pre-consumer clippings and cuttings from those same disparate sources (Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, the US).

The same diversity of sources applies at the mill level when the recovered fibre gets there from the processor. The mill is interested in the quality of the different fibres it uses to make its product, not in placing a special watch-out for the fibres coming in specifically from Ontario’s Blue Box program.

From all those different fibres, the mill (which may or may not be located in Ontario) makes board or paper that is shipped to converters who then turn it into the end-product (a newspaper, printing and writing paper, corrugated boxes, boxboard cartons and so on). These converters could be in Ontario or the US and they have other mills supplying them with other recovered fibre feedstock as well, making it very difficult to single out only those fibres coming from Ontario’s Blue Box.

It gets more complicated. A corrugated box comprises two parts (linerboard and corrugating medium). Each of these can be made from recycled content but each could come from different mills and be blended at the same or different converting plants. So, the medium of the box could have a portion of Ontario Blue Box fibres in it but the linerboard none. However, it’s all blended into one box for the customer. How do you keep track of that? And the customer (the brand owner/retailer) could be located in Canada, the US, Asia, Africa or Europe. And can ship the box anywhere in the world.

Tracing specific fibres such as from Ontario’s Blue Box once they enter the regional and international fibre recovery streams is thus extremely problematic. And what about corrugated boxes shipped into Ontario from China? They might have recycled content in them (which is a good thing) but not Ontario-processed recycled content.  What about old corrugated boxes that are collected through the Blue Box in Ontario but shipped across the border to the US for recycling there? There is no credit for the use of that Ontario-derived recycled content.

There are possible ways around some of these complications. If a mill can create a paper trail linking say 25% of its annual feedstock to Ontario’s Blue Box, then could 25% of its annual output be considered to be Ontario Blue-Box sourced? Could that 25% be pro-rated across all its customers? Or 25% allocated to those customers who are placing paper into the residential Ontario marketplace and therefore obligated under the Blue Box regulations?

Complete accuracy is not possible under the current proposal. And, as one insider has noted, it leaves lots of opportunity for fraud and gaming the system. Is there another way of looking at the problem?

How about a tax rebate or credit?

The current Ontario approach to recycled content seems unnecessarily complicated in a Blue Box program that is already highly complex. Recent research also indicates that EPR fees or adjustments for things like recycled content provide little incentive to brand owners to change packaging design or to influence consumer behaviour in purchasing.[i]

So why not look at an alternative approach (a tax rebate or credit) that focusses on supporting Ontario recycling businesses, on creating Ontario jobs, on companies that use Ontario Blue Box material as feedstock? Encourage them to enhance Ontario’s circular economy. Think globally but act locally.

The advantages are these:

  • The credit/rebate focusses on one thing only: increasing the use of recycled content in Ontario. It does not get cluttered or distracted by other waste management objectives (see the quotation from the Eunomia report to the EU commission in the footnote).
  • It can apply beyond the Blue Box (bringing in the IC & I sector) so it is broader in scope and in line with the province’s overall goal of a comprehensive waste management (and circular economy) policy.
  • It retains a voluntary approach with incentives for companies to act.
  • It applies to Ontario specifically but is transferable to other provinces (so could become national).
  • It doesn’t have to be in the current Blue Box regulation (greatly simplifying it).
  • Depending on how the credit/rebate is structured, the people who are actually building the recycling infrastructure in Ontario could benefit (the paper, plastic, glass and metal plants) rather than a brand owner head office in the US or Europe. It would make local (Ontario) businesses more competitive in what are global markets for recycled materials.
  • The credits could go to companies located in Ontario only (unless expanded across Canada). The system could therefore help keep existing industries in Ontario (meaning green jobs). For example, one paper packaging mill in Ontario (using 100% recycled content) recently closed.
  • It will create jobs (by encouraging recyclers to stay in Ontario and to invest in recycling infrastructure here).
  • It could have declining levels of tax credit (higher for sourcing from Ontario’s Blue Box, lower for feedstock imported from other jurisdictions).
  • It could be a joint governmental effort (Environment, Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, Finance). Make Ontario the recycling hub of Canada or go for a national approach. A federal climate change project? We need to look beyond a narrow environmental approach, beyond our own provincial borders on this one. The idea needs work and it needs champions.

[i] From the Eunomia report for the Director General Environment for the European Commission: “It is better to focus a policy instrument on doing one thing well, than on seeking to achieve multiple objectives. A tension can be created within an EPR scheme if it is seeking to do too many things. A focus on seeking to meet recycling targets in a way that is cost-effective and fair to different packaging formats gives a clear steer to the way in which an EPR scheme should use fee modulation. However, to also introduce an incentive for recycled content can disrupt the efficient operation of the price signals.” (Study to Support Preparation of the Commission’s Guidance for EPR Schemes).

  This was originally published on the Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environment Council (PPEC)’s website

Good news and bad news on Ontario’s Blue Box

he good news is that Ontario householders are generating less paper, plastic, glass and metal waste these days, 14% less than they were back in 2003. That is the year the province regulated industry to share the net cost of the province’s popular Blue Box program and waste statistics became more widely available.

Of course, the number of people living in the province has increased since 2003, which normally means more waste is generated, but on an individual basis Ontarians have done well here too, reducing their generation of Blue Box waste by an impressive 27% over the period.

Generating less waste in the first place (the first of the three Rs, reduction) normally means sending less waste to garbage. Which, in this case, is also true. Ontario households dumped 22% less printed paper and packaging in 2019 than they did some 16 years ago. As individuals, Ontarians were even better, dumping 34% less than before.

This is all good news. The ‘bad’ news is that waste performance is usually measured by weight (as above): by kilograms per person, tonnes per household. Unfortunately, measurement by weight distorts the overall picture somewhat because it is not the weight of materials that fills up recycling trucks and landfills, it is how much space they take up (their volume). Landfills get fat, not heavy, as they say.

This caveat on measurement, weight instead of volume, helps explain the other piece of bad news: that Ontario’s Blue Box today is sending less material on for recycling than ever before. In 2003 the system was estimated to be recovering 53% of all Blue Box materials. In 2010 it peaked at 68%, but ever since then it has been on a progressive downward slide to its current 57% (the first time it has been lower than the province’s required 60% target since 2005).

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Why? In addition to some straight out elimination of printed paper and packaging there has been a significant light-weighting of materials over the years (reducing the size and shape of newspapers, using lighter and thinner variations of paper, plastic, glass and metal, cutting out a layer here, a flap there).

But there has also been a major change in the type of material ending up in the home. Gone are many newspapers (replaced by digital alternatives). And when did you last see a telephone directory delivered to your doorstep? The generation of printed paper has plummeted 36% over the last 10 years alone. And these, of course, are heavier materials.

At the same time, there has been a major increase in the amount of lighter weight plastics in the home (up 20% per person since 2010). The biggest increase has been in the catch-all category of “other plastics” (things like yoghurt containers, hand cream tubes, margarine tubs and lids, blister packaging for toys and batteries, egg cartons, and laundry detergent  pails). Most of these (65%) currently end up in the garbage.

So, there you have it. We are generating less waste but the waste we are generating today tends to be lighter and less recyclable. Which is why the overall Blue Box recycling rate is trending downwards. This has major implications for meeting the province’s proposed new waste diversion targets. Are they realistic? Or are they just a political green wish? Stay tuned.

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Source: Stewardship Ontario

This was originally published on the Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environment Council (PPEC)’s website

Almost 80,000 more tonnes of plastic in Ontario homes than 10 years ago

An analysis of the last 10 years of data on Blue Box-type materials generated by Ontario households shows a 34% increase in the amount of plastic packaging ending up in the home. And most of it (70%) did not get sent on for recycling.

The major increase is in the catch-all category of “other” plastics, things like yoghurt containers, hand cream tubes, margarine tubs and lids, blister packaging for toys and batteries, egg cartons, and laundry detergent pails. The amount of “other” plastics in the home increased by 67% between 2010 and 2019. There have also been big increases in the tonnages of PET drink bottles (up 54%) and mostly non-recycled plastic laminants (up 30%). Other materials to register significant increases over the period are aseptic cartons (up 46%), boxboard cartons (up 29%) and coloured glass (up 25%).

Blue Box materials in Ontario Households including plastic packaging

What is missing from Ontario homes compared to 10 years ago is a lot of paper, almost 200,000 tonnes of it. Most of this is newspapers no longer being published (generation is down 35%), but telephone directories, magazines and catalogues, and printing and writing paper have also taken a big hit (down 87%, 51%, and 23% respectively).

These changes in what Blue Box materials end up in the home impact how much is recovered for recycling (Ontario’s Blue Box recovery rate has dipped below the provincial target of 60% for the first time since 2005); and how much the recycling system costs. For example, most paper packaging is recyclable and relatively cheap to recover. Plastics packaging, on the other hand, is currently not widely recycled at all (only 31% in 2019 compared to paper’s 68%) and is two and a half times more expensive to recycle. But that subject deserves a blog all by itself!

Let’s get the facts straight on Ontario’s Blue Box

The current debate over what to do about Ontario’s Blue Box frequently confuses at least four distinct but interrelated issues: waste management in general; the recycling option; the relative roles of industry and householders; and the nature of the Blue Box program itself.

First, the broader context. The Blue Box program is just one waste collection system, among many. Others include the deposit/return systems for beverage containers run by the Beer Store and the province itself through the Liquor Control Board of Ontario; some industry stewardship programs; private sector recycling efforts; and numerous return-to-retail options.

The Blue Box program does not, and was never intended to, address the almost 13 million tonnes of waste that Ontario generates every year.[1] To suggest, as some critics have, that the Blue Box is somehow failing because it focuses on only about 10% of Ontario’s generated waste, totally ignores its objective and scope.

What are these critics suggesting? That we should load up our Blue Boxes with meat scraps and leaves, rusty fridges and stoves, and old planks of plywood? These are best handled in other ways (used tires, laptops and cellphones, for example, already have separate, industry-led stewardship programs).

But the province does need to act more urgently on this front because it will run out of landfill space within 12 years. Typically, it takes between five to 10 years of consultations and reviews just to get all the approvals in place to site a new one.[2] Remember NIMBY and NIMTOO (not in my backyard and not in my term of office)? The clock is ticking on this one.

Disposal bans and landfill surcharges have been adopted in other provinces and regions, with varying degrees of success. For its part, the paper packaging industry has for seven years now lobbied successive Ontario ministers of the environment to introduce disposal bans, specifically on organics and paper (which give off greenhouse gases when left to rot in landfill). The province has talked a lot but done little.

Blue Box is a residential system

Second, the Blue Box program is a residential waste collection system. It focuses on what is in Ontario homes. It was never intended to collect materials from factories or supermarkets, offices or hospitals. And for good reason. The wastes from these operations are quite different in both nature and percentage composition. A Blue Box for wire strapping, chemicals, steel drums, and wooden pallets, as well as for paper, plastic, glass and metal? It doesn’t make sense. And who would do the collection? Municipalities?

These wastes are best left to ‘industry’ to manage. Sure, existing regulations need to be tightened and broadened, and here again, disposal bans and higher landfill fees, would be useful. At the moment it’s far cheaper to dump stuff than to recycle it. Industry needs an economic incentive to do the right thing. Again, the province holds most of the cards here but has done little.

False claims

Third, it would be remiss of me not to address some of the false claims being made about the relative contributions of residential and industrial waste. It is not true, for example, that “two-thirds of Ontario’s waste is generated in the industrial, commercial and institutional (IC and I) sector.” In fact, the consumption blame is pretty evenly spread. According to Statistics Canada (2016 data), almost half (46%) of Ontario’s waste was generated by the residential sector, with 54% coming from industrial (or IC and I) sources.[3]  Industry may be doing a far poorer job of diverting this material from landfill (extensive data is lacking), but overall, it is not consuming a huge amount more than householders. And it is our collective excessive consumption habits that are causing the waste problem in the first place.

Nor is it true that packaging is likely a major component of this industrial waste, as some critics have charged. Packaging represented only 13% of total solid waste according to Statistics Canada’s last national packaging survey way back in 1996. Over 70% of all packaging consumed in Canada was re-used or recycled, it found. And industry, not householders, was responsible for almost 75% of the packaging that was recycled.[4]  While there has certainly been an increase in residential recycling of packaging over the years, we seriously doubt that industry has stopped doing what it was doing before. Bring on some credible data!

Blue Box is a recycling program

Fourth, Ontario’s Blue Box is a recycling program. It is not a reduction program, although materials have been light-weighted over the years, more likely to save on costs than to avoid Blue Box fees. Nor is it a re-use program, although some of the materials do get re-used in one shape or another. And while the recyclability of a material is clearly a good thing, it is not the only factor to be considered when analysing a material’s overall environmental impact.

The Blue Box cannot achieve all of these very desirable outcomes by itself, and it should not be expected to. It is a recycling program, focussed on gathering dry recyclables (paper, plastic, glass and metal) from residential households and sending them on to end-markets to be made into new products and packaging. Its current universe is some 1.3 million tonnes of waste (10% of Ontario’s total generated waste) and while recovery has flatlined a little bit recently, the Blue Box is still sending just over 60% of Ontario’s dry household waste on for recycling. It is responsible for 25% of Ontario’s total recycling effort (not 7% as some critics recently claimed).[5]

Paper the key

And key to understanding the Blue Box recycling program is that 73% of it is paper. Paper is the success story of Ontario’s Blue Box. More than 70% of all the paper that Ontario households generate is recovered through Old Blue. Several paper materials (corrugated boxes, magazines and catalogues, and newspapers) have recycling rates in the high 80s and 90s. And while the revenues for paper grades fluctuate and are currently somewhat subdued, they totalled some $43.7 million in 2018 or 51% of total Blue Box revenues.[6]

What's being collected through Ontario's Blue Box
What’s being collected through Ontario’s Blue Box Source: Stewardship Ontario (2018 data)

Most of this recovered paper is supplied to Ontario packaging mills that use it to produce new, 100% recycled content, boxes and cartons. Ontario thus already has a home-grown circular economy where used paper is recycled over and over again. It is in nobody’s interests to destabilise this situation by penalising the local paper industry, even inadvertently.

The materials that are not doing very well in Ontario’s Blue Box system are widely known (mostly plastics) and are the target of much of the bad press about the Blue Box. But we have to be very careful when coming up with solutions to the plastics’ problem that we don’t imperil the Blue Box itself. One solution is for companies to get out of plastics entirely. Another is to launch re-use programs. A third is to introduce deposit-refund schemes that have far higher material recovery rates than Ontario’s current broader-based multi-material approach. Then there are return-to-retail options, landfill bans and surcharges, minimum recycled content requirements, diversion targets, and EPR fees. But these options, my friends, deserve a whole new blog by itself. Stay tuned.

 

This blog was orignailly posted on the PPEC website on September 3rd 2020


[1] Statistics Canada, Disposal of waste, by source (Table 38-10-0032-01) and Materials diverted, by source (Table 38-10-0033-01). Ontario generated 12,785,183 tonnes of waste in 2016 (comprising disposal of 9,475472 tonnes and diversion of 3,309,711 tonnes. Ontario’s overall waste diversion rate was therefore 26% (not 7% as recently claimed).

[2] Ontario Waste Management Association, Ontario Needs New Landfills, July 10, 2020

[3] Statistics Canada, ibid. Generation equals what was disposed plus what was diverted. In 2016, Ontario residences disposed of 3.7 million tonnes and diverted 2.1 million tonnes for a total waste generation of 5.8 million tonnes. In the same year, ‘industry’ disposed of 5.7 million tonnes and diverted 1.2 million tonnes for a total waste generation of 6.9 million tonnes. Ontario’s total waste generation was therefore 12.7 million tonnes, with residences contributing 46% and ‘industry’ 54%.

[4] This Statistics Canada monitoring exercise over 10 years, and its final result, while now very dated, covered 31 separate industry sectors of the economy and 32 different packaging material types, using surveys as well as information derived from Statistics Canada’s international trade   merchandise data and a national study of household packaging recycling. Some 10,000 surveys representing a total survey frame of almost 400,000 businesses were sent out, with the 61% response rate regarded by Statistics Canada as “consistent with other similar surveys.’’ (Milestone Report, Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, CCME, pages 6-7). Two significant findings of the National Packaging Monitoring System (NPMS) were that over 70% of all packaging consumed in Canada was re-used or recycled, and that industrial recycling of packaging (mostly corrugated boxes) accounted for almost 75% of all packaging recycling (Tables 1 and 29).

[5] Stewardship Ontario, Blue Box data. Table 1: Generation and Recovery (2016 and 2018). Ontario’s waste generation in 2016, according to Statistics Canada, ibid., was 12,785,183 tonnes. The Blue Box in that year sent 836,227 tonnes for recycling. Therefore, the Blue Box was responsible not for 7% of Ontario’s recycling diversion (as claimed recently) but rather 25% of it (836,227 divided by the 3,309,711 tonnes that Ontario recycled).

[6] Stewardship Ontario Blue Box data (2018). Table 1: Generation and Recovery and Table 2: Gross and Net Costs.

Packaging stewards should be rewarded for using recycled content

Recycled content is central to the “Circular Economy” approach that Ontario and some other provinces say they want to adopt. It keeps raw materials flowing through the economy longer, reduces the pressure to extract more virgin materials from the earth, and delays their eventual disposal as waste. It’s something which governments say they want to encourage, and for which stewards of paper products and packaging should be rewarded.

The Canadian paper packaging industry has spent millions of dollars over the years investing in cleaning and screening machinery so that it can re-use and recycle recovered paper. Packaging mills in Southern Ontario led North America in recycling old boxboard for the first time back in the 1990s. Today, some 94% of Canadians can recycle it. And today, most of the corrugated boxes and boxboard cartons made in Ontario are continuously made from 100% recycled content, a circular achievement in and of itself.

The paper packaging industry gets no credit for this effort, while in the commercial marketplace it competes against mostly virgin packaging alternatives. We have suggested the province level the playing field by setting a target of 40% average recycled content for all packaging sold in Ontario by 2020 and an average of 70% within 10 years. This would place Ontario firmly on the path to the circular economy it says it wants, and create a more level playing field between materials at the same time.

An alternative to provincial regulation is a recycled content credit within the Blue Box funding formula itself. This is not a new suggestion. The producer responsibility organisation in Quebec, Éco Entreprises Québec, already has one. And while Stewardship Ontario does float the idea of a recycled content credit in the draft outline of the new Blue Box plan it is currently working on, its support seems rather tepid.

That’s because some Ontario stewards have objected to the concept in the past. Here are three historical objections, and our responses to them.

  1. That assessing recycled content is an administrative burden and costly to track and report.

We think this objection is way overstated. For paper materials we have independent third-party certifiers and chain-of-custody certifications as to where paper materials are coming from, whether from virgin or recycled sources, or a mix of the two. Chain-of-custody certification is an environmental metric supported by the global Consumer Goods Forum, of which most leading Canadian brands and retailers are members.

Making suppliers prove that they have internationally accepted chain-of-custody certification would seem to reduce the administrative burden on stewards and provide a good kick-start to the circular economy at the same time. It would also force other materials to develop chain-of-custody certification programs if they haven’t already done so.

Or stewards could use independently certified industry averages. PPEC has been tracking its members’ use of recycled content for over 25 years and it’s quite willing to open its books to a confidential third-party review. A sliding scale of recycled content usage would reward a lot more stewards and probably be more palatable and make any administration easier. Besides, won’t the new body Ontario has created to bring in the Circular Economy (the Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority) be monitoring this anyway?

  1. The funds to credit stewards using recycled content must come from other stewards (i.e. it is cross-substitution).

Well yes, it is. That’s why you do it, to encourage other stewards to be more circular, to reduce the overall environmental burden of the basket of goods that is the Blue Box, for the common benefit. This is the very same principle that’s supposed to apply to those materials that are recycled through the Blue Box versus the ones that are not. What’s the difference? It’s the same principle of rewarding preferred behaviour.

  1. Federal regulations limit the use of recycled content in food-contact packaging. Making recycled content a requirement would be unfair to those stewards.

First, federal regulations on food-contact packaging apply to all materials (i.e. it is material-neutral). Second, recycled content is not excluded. Food safety is the key issue and the onus is on the brand owner to guarantee food safety, whether through Health Canada “No Objection Letters” or through FDA approvals. It comes down to the material’s direct and indirect contact with the food and the element of risk to humans.

Is it unfair to single out “food” stewards?  No. They choose to be producers of foods and the safe delivery of food is part of that. Just as a producer of a washing machine or a microwave is “forced” to use a large package to have his or her product delivered. Or a perfume manufacturer with an elaborately designed stand-out boxboard carton. All choose of their own free will to be in those lines of business. That’s the game they’ve chosen to be in. Whether they can use recycled content or not in their delivery packaging is part and parcel of that original choice.

In summary, rewarding those who use recycled content is a good, fair, and effective way to achieve a circular economy and to level the playing field between “circular” and “non-circular” performers. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?

Recycled content must be recognised in setting circular economy targets

The Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) is in the process of considering what it calls specific material “management” targets for Ontario Blue Box recyclables such as paper, plastic, glass, steel and aluminum. It has already stated that it wants to see a collective 75% Blue Box diversion rate, up from the current 64 per cent.

But before we get into the details of specific targets for materials, there’s a major issue that we need to address that has everything to do with the circular economy that the minister and the province say they want to embrace. And that’s the issue of recycled content. The use of recycled content keeps materials flowing around in a circular loop for as long as possible.

Most corrugated boxes and boxboard cartons made in Ontario, for example, are already 100% recycled content: made from used boxes and paper collected from the back of factories and supermarkets, from offices and hospitals, and from curbside (Blue Box) collection and depots. The Ontario paper packaging industry achieved this milestone over many years with the expenditure of millions of dollars in new cleaning and screening equipment. Indeed, the mills of Southern Ontario led North America in incorporating residentially collected old boxboard into their recycling mix back in the 1990s. Today some 94% of Canadians can recycle it.

Recycled Content is important to a circular economyThe industry’s environmental council, PPEC, has been very public in tracking and reporting on the industry’s progress towards a more circular economy. But now its members find themselves competing in the marketplace against virgin materials that have made minimal or little progress towards higher recycled content or “circularity.”

The plastics industry, for example, does not publish any numbers on average recycled content that we can find, and plastics’ overall Blue Box diversion rate is frankly poor (32%). Plastic film diversion has gone from 6% to 12% over the last 13 years, and polystyrene from 3% to 6% over the same period.

If we are going to have a level playing field between materials, we need public policy that encourages the greater use of recycled content and/or some recognition of recycled content achievement in the Blue Box funding formula and/or performance targets. We don’t see it at the moment, and yet paper packaging faces increasing competition from cheaper virgin plastics. How about the province set a target of 40% average recycled content for all packaging sold within Ontario by 2020 and 70% by 2027 ? That would put us on the path to a more circular economy and create a more level playing field at the same time.

The big “hurry up” on the Blue Box in case the Liberals lose

When Ontario released the final version of its waste strategy six months ago, dealing with the future financing of the province’s popular Blue Box program was at the backend of the queue. Sorting out the respective roles and responsibilities of municipalities and industry, not to mention the thorny issues of legal contracts and stranded assets, was considered so complicated and politically sensitive that the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change pencilled in 2023 (safely after the next provincial election) to complete its transition to 100% industry-pay and individual producer responsibility.

Now the ministry wants a new plan by February! What changed? The governing Liberals started to tank in the public opinion polls and industry and municipal leaders feared that not only wouldNew minister, Chris Ballard, wants a new Blue Box plan a great opportunity to move forward be lost, but also that an incoming government of different political stripes in 2018 would inevitably mean further delays and a possible fracturing of the current and welcome climate of common interest.

To their credit, municipal and industry leaders have been meeting over the last few months and cobbling together an accord, with the quiet blessing of ministry staff. In July, they asked then minister Glen Murray to buy into their plan to transfer the legal obligations and responsibilities of municipalities to collect and manage the Blue Box to industry stewards (brand holders and others with a commercial connection to the supply of printed paper and packaging into Ontario). This would be done through an amended Blue Box plan that would allow municipalities to opt in or out of providing collection services, and to have an opportunity to participate in processing Blue Box recyclables.

Newly appointed minister, Chris Ballard, leapt at this offering in August and has now directed the also new Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority and Stewardship Ontario to develop a proposal for an amended Blue Box Program Plan that will lead to individual producer responsibility down the road. But of course, he couldn’t resist adding a bit of direction in an addendum to his approval.

The amended plan shall (not may) “use means to discourage the use of materials that are difficult to recycle and have low recovery rates” (plastics be warned); increase the diversion target to 75% for the material supplied by stewards in the municipalities where Stewardship Ontario collects and manages the printed paper and packaging (the current Blue Box diversion rate is 64%); and “establish material-specific management targets.” We are not quite sure where material-specific “management” targets differ from material-specific “diversion” targets, but guess we’ll find out shortly.

If all goes well, Ontario will have a new Blue Box plan in February/March and the Liberals will be able to go to the polls saying they have saved the Blue Box (yet again)! Isn’t politics fun!

Prince Edward Islanders and British Columbians are Canada’s “best recyclers”

The people of Prince Edward Island and British Columbia are the “best recyclers” in Canada and “Newfies” and Manitobans the worst, according to PPEC’s analysis of the latest data from Statistics Canada. The average Canadian recycles 255 kilograms of stuff a year, the equivalent of about 11 heavy suitcases.

Waste Diversion by ProvinceThe data covers the industrial, commercial, and residential waste streams of paper, plastic, glass, metals, textiles, organics (food), electronics, white goods such as fridges and appliances, and construction, renovation and demolition materials like wood, drywall, doors, windows, and wiring. It excludes materials from land clearing and asphalt, concrete, bricks, and clean sand and gravel.

The diversion numbers from landfill and incineration are likely understated because they don’t include beverage recycling in provincial deposit/refund programs or the mostly paper materials that go from a retailer, say, direct to a paper recycling mill, rather than through a waste hauler or local government.

The weight (or tonnes) of waste diverted or recycled by Canadians has increased by 36% since 2002. That’s good, but our diversion efforts as individual Canadians (per capita) are less impressive (20% better over the same period). Several provinces have done very well (Nova Scotia up 44%, Quebec up 38%, and Saskatchewan up 32%). But Manitoba and Alberta are going backwards, and Newfoundland and Labrador remains way at the bottom with the lowest diversion rate per capita in Canada.

There are explanations for why provincial diversion performance is so uneven. Stay tuned. For background, see our previous blogs in this series: Canadians are dumping more, and less, at the same time! (April 19) and Canada diverting only 27% of its waste (April 27).

Waste Diversion by Province

Canada diverting only 27% of its waste

For those promoting a more circular economy where materials are used again and again rather than made, used and dumped, the latest data from Statistics Canada provides a solid gut check on how far we have to go. Only 27% of our waste is currently being diverted from landfill or incineration. The “good” news is that at least our diversion rate has been steadily improving, up from 22% back in 2002.

The data measures the industrial, commercial, and residential waste streams of paper, plastic, glass, metals, textiles, organics (food), electronics, white goods such as fridges and appliances, and construction, renovation and demolition (CRD) materials like wood, drywall, doors, windows, and wiring. It excludes materials from land clearing and asphalt, concrete, bricks, and clean sand or gravel.

The only “good” news here is that the data, we believe, substantially understates the recycling that is going on in this country because it doesn’t include tonnages from provincial deposit/refund programs or the mostly paper materials that go from a retailer, say, direct to a paper recycling mill, rather than through a waste hauler or local government. Canada’s recycling success story (up 36% since 2002) will be the subject of a future blog.

In the meantime, we get to dwell on the bad news. As noted in our previous blog on this subject, Nova Scotia (and to a lesser extent British Columbia) are way out in front of everyone else. The diversion rates for New Brunswick, Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador have declined over the last 12 years.

Waste Diversion by Province

Paper, paper, everywhere, and not a scrap to waste

Every Tuesday night I come face-to-face with the twin issues of consumption and “sustainable materials management” or the latest buzzword favoured by governments, the “circular economy.” For Tuesday night is Recycling Night.

From the bathroom and bedroom, I gather toilet rolls and tissue, envelopes and writing paper. From the kitchen and dining room, I grab the box of recyclables holding newspapers, cartons, cans, jars, and bottles; the special food scraps bag (made of compostable paper, of course) that’s stored under the sink; and the small “garbage” bag of other stuff. Then I head for the big carts parked in the garage before wheeling the appropriate ones (this week, recycling and organics) out to the curb for the morning pick-up. All told, it takes me maybe five or ten minutes. And I feel good about it, doing my little bit for the circular economy.

What I have learned from this exercise is that education and convenience are key. It is very true, as someone has said, that waste diversion is all about a flick of the wrist, that crucial moment when the householder decides whether something goes into the recycling or into the garbage. If garbage is easier, that’s where it goes, and generally, that’s where it stays.

I have a special interest in enhancing the recovery of paper, and Ontario’s Blue Box system is doing very well in this regard with almost three-quarters of it being sent on for recyclingBut far too much paper is still slipping through the cracks: mainly old boxboard (such as cereal and shoe boxes) and printing and writing paper.

If most (say 85%) of that perfectly recyclable but dumped paper were instead captured and sent for recycling, provincial Blue Box paper recovery would jump to an amazing 96%, and the Ontario Blue Box overall from its current 64% to a very impressive 78 per cent. Folks, this is actually achievable, if only we set our minds to it!

It’s not as if there are no steady markets for the various paper materials. There are. In fact, the packaging mills of Southern Ontario led North America in pioneering the recovery of old boxboard back in the 1990s. We have gone from boxboard not being collected at all to virtually all Canadians (94%) being able to recycle it in the space of 20 years. An impressive achievement.

No, the issue is not markets, as some government people will tell you, it is capture. We are not physically getting enough paper material out of the home because it’s too easy for householders to flick the wrist. So how do we get them to flick in the right direction?

Education is key. We drool over British Columbia’s new Blue Box program where there is a standard list of materials accepted province-wide. Imagine that! One consistent recycling message across the whole province. Wouldn’t that be great! Remove the confusion. Save money on promotion. Increase the capture rate.

But we also need to engineer the Blue Box system for greater convenience. Municipalities and their service providers have been very creative in this respect: encouraging recycling by charging for garbage bags or bins and by limiting the number of garbage bags allowed at the curb and/or the frequency of garbage pick-up. Restrict the “garbage opportunity” and encourage recycling. Great stuff. And we do recognize that multi-residential apartments represent a special problem. It’s a lot easier to dump something down a garbage chute than to separate the recyclables and carry them in the elevator to a downstairs recycling bin.

But somehow we have to educate Canadians that most paper materials are perfectly recyclable; that there are long-standing and sustainable markets for them; that most boxes and cartons made in Canada, for example, are already 100% recycled content, and that the industry needs this household paper as feedstock to make new packaging; that this ongoing recycling activity provides local jobs and taxes; and that paper recovery is a great example of the circular economy and the goal of zero waste that we all hopefully aspire to, and is in our collective best interests.

Provincial governments have a key role to play too, in getting more paper out of the waste stream. For years, governments have been telling the packaging industry to reduce, re-use, and recycle. And it’s been doing that. But guess what, the provinces can do something too, something that industry can’t. They can introduce disposal bans on materials headed to landfill.

How about it? It’s not as if it hasn’t been done before. Nova Scotia and PEI have had disposal bans on paper materials for years. Wouldn’t a disposal ban send a great message to everyone that paper doesn’t belong in landfill; that it’s a valuable feedstock; that banning it from the dump would reduce the greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere and mitigate climate change? Isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be doing?

The English novelist Charles Dickens once described politics as the art of scurrying nowhere in a violent hurry. We wish some governments (OK, Ontario in particular) would scurry somewhere fast (hint: disposal bans) in more of a hurry! At the moment the province is not even considering disposal bans on paper until “2019 and beyond.” Which just happens to be safely past the next scheduled elections. Shame on them! Hurry hard!

Household paper that shouldn’t be in the garbage

(the 26% that doesn’t make it to the Blue Box)

Ban Old Boxes