Ontario Blue Box recovery rate slips, but paper steady

The reported recovery rate of Ontario’s residential Blue Box system has fallen to its lowest level since 2005. The draft recovery rates, to be finalised by Stewardship Ontario in December, show a 2016 recovery rate of 62.4%, down 2% on the previous year. This will make the recent “request” by Ontario’s minister of environment and climate change for a new Blue Box recovery rate of 75% rather interesting.

Some 75% of what’s currently being recovered is paper of one kind or another, the same as it was back in 2003. Printed paper (newspapers, magazines and catalogues, telephone books and printing and writing paper) has the highest recovery rate overall (81%), followed by glass packaging (70%), paper packaging (67%) and steel packaging (63%).

Paper packaging is the only material grouping whose recovery rate has either stayed at the same level or improved in every category (boxboard up 9%), with corrugated boxes again the recovery leader overall at a hard-to-believe 98 per cent.

The glass recovery rate has dropped significantly from 2015 but the Blue Box laggards continue to be aluminum and plastics packaging at 38% and 29% recovery respectively. Plastics packaging recovery has gone down in almost every category and now represents 43% of what ends up going to disposal (on a weight basis). It’s also by far the most expensive material to recover (the net cost of recovering plastic film, for example, is listed at $2,646 a tonne).

Here are the latest (draft) numbers for 2016 with a comparison to 2015 and way back to 2003.

Nothing is 100% recyclable or 100% compostable

Claims for 100% recyclable and 100% compostable seem to be proliferating. Are they accurate? Are they legal? Or are they just another form of greenwash?

It’s not surprising that North American consumers are confused. Because in common speech, the words “recyclable” and “compostable” can mean three different things:

  • technically recyclable or compostable, meaning that the product can be physically taken apart for recycling or broken down for composting
  • able to be collected, meaning that the municipality or service provider says you can put it out for recycling or composting collection
  • that the product or material is commonly being recycled or composted already.

Each of these meanings is significantly different. But in terms of environmental labelling, which is what we are talking about here, the Competition Bureau Canada will accept only one. And that is whether the consumer can actually send the product or material for recycling or composting. It does not matter whether the product or material is technically capable of being torn apart or composted. It does not matter what the actual recycling or recovery rate of that material might be (that’s a whole other issue). What does matter is how many Canadians have access (“reach” in the US) to the recycling (or composting) of that product or material.

And the Competition Bureau has guidelines on how that access is determined and when you can use the words: “It is recommended that if at least half the population has access to collection facilities, a claim of recyclable (or compostable) may be made without the use of any qualification.” If less than half the population has access, claims must be qualified: “the specific location of the recycling (or composting)programs or facilities should be identified whenever it is possible and practical to do so.” (10.1.3).

Recyclable and compostable claims, then, are based on whether and to what extent consumers have access to recycling or composting facilities. Putting 100% in front of these words, however, Nothing is 100% recyclable or 100% compostabletakes the issue to a whole new level. We are not lawyers, but to us the clear inference consumers would draw from a claim of “100% recyclable” or “100% compostable” is that 100% of Canadians have access to the recycling (or composting) of that product or material. And that is plainly not true.

While most Canadians now live in cities and towns that have access to recycling or composting facilities, there are a small but significant number of people who live in more remote locations who do not, and probably never will have “conveniently available” access to recycling or composting. Therefore, 100% access for Canadians will likely never be achieved. Which is why we in the paper packaging industry say that virtually all Canadians have access to the recycling of paper packaging. The actual number is 96% for corrugated boxes and paper bags, and 94% for boxboard cartons, determined through an independent third-party study.

Anybody putting the 100% in front of recyclable (or compostable) is therefore, in our view, failing to follow the Competition Bureau guidelines for using the words, and is leaving themselves open to prosecution for misleading advertising. They are compounding existing consumer confusion about what recyclable/compostable mean; or worse, deliberately indulging in what amounts to greenwash. Doesn’t labelling a product or material as 100% recyclable or 100% compostable just serve to dilute and undermine the whole access criteria on which the current use of the words is based? Are we wrong on this?

cc: Competition Bureau Canada

Packaging is the villain again (sigh)

There is no doubt that some goods are over-packaged and that more can be done to reduce the amount of paper, glass, metal and plastic packaging that ends up in consumers’ homes. But blaming packaging all the time is only part of the story. To put it bluntly, we in the so-called developed world eat, drink and buy far too much stuff.

Consumption is the real issue, not the packaging that delivers it. As consumers, however, we find it difficult to limit what we purchase. It’s so much easier to point the finger at the packaging that’s left behind.

For example, a recent anonymous letter to the editor of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine outlines the increase in convenience packaging of produce (plastic bags for peppers, a bundle of herbs in a plastic case, fresh grapes in a plastic bag with grab-and-go handles). The writer complains that the increased packaging waste from this new convenient shopping trend means higher costs for municipalities dealing with it down the line. A reasonable argument.

It’s when the letter writer rather loosely broadens the attack to packaging in general that we get concerned. “Our waste streams are clogged with unnecessary packaging at every turn,” he/she writes, “and most of it is neither recyclable nor compostable.”

Now hang on a minute there! If you are talking about convenience packaging of fresh produce (the peppers, herbs and grapes above) then you might have a point, although we suspect there will be debate over exactly what “necessary” means.

But when you broaden the issue to all packaging, you are lumping all packaging together in the same boat. Setting aside the argument over what might be deemed necessary or unnecessary, packaging is definitely not “clogging” our waste streams “at every turn.” In the most comprehensive national survey of packaging ever done in Canada, packaging represented only 13% of total solid waste. Significant, but not exactly “clogging.”

Consumption is the issue not the packagingThis survey was conducted by Statistics Canada for the Canadian Council of Ministers for the Environment (CCME) and is admittedly now some 20 years old, but there’s no obvious reason why the percentage would not be hugely different if measured today. Some people (including the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change) claim a higher percentage, but that’s because they change the denominator, they use a much narrower definition of solid waste.

It’s the claim that “most of it is neither recyclable nor compostable” that really gets us going though. Again, if the writer is talking about specific convenience packaging for produce, he/she might have a case. But by far  most packaging used in Canada is able to be recycled (recyclable). And a fair chunk of it (mostly paper-based) is compostable. Whether it is actually being recycled and composted is an issue for another day, and an argument for better and more current national data.