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

Fewer newspapers but more boxes in the home

There’s just something about paper! Thirteen years of data on what ends up in Ontario homes tells us that Canadians, or at least those who live in Ontario, cannot or do not want to shuck their paper habit, despite all those urgent exhortations to do so. The paper-less home ain’t happening. Well, not yet anyway.Paper Generation Ontario 2015

Newspapers, corrugated boxes, boxboard cartons, and printing and writing paper are still the major paper items ending up in Ontario households, a PPEC analysis of residential generation since 2003 reveals. Paper materials today represent some 65% of the dry recyclables in the home, the same as they did back in 2003.

While there has been an 11% drop in overall generation of paper products over the period, some of this can be attributed to the light-weighting of paper and boxes (everything being measured by weight). But most of that lost tonnage has been on the newspaper side in losses to digital competition. It’s more than just newspapers, though. Printed papers overall are down by 26% collectively.

The biggest hit by far has been taken by the publisher members of the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Ontario Community Newspaper Association (down 35%), but magazines and catalogues (down 31%) and telephone books especially (down 70%), have been savaged too.

On the paper packaging side, however, everything except laminated paper is on the up. Corrugated boxes, likely buoyed by the development of e-commerce, and boxboard cartons are both up between 20 and 22%, and the minor grades, gable top and aseptic cartons, have made significant gains too.

Generation Specific Household Paper Types

The tables outline the generation changes over the 13-year period. The good news, of course, is that most of that paper packaging is made from 100% recycled content material that is widely recycled back into new packaging, an already existing local circular economy.