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!

China doesn’t want the world’s garbage any more

And who can blame them? For years, the world has been shipping all sorts of waste to China for it to be sorted, made into new products, and shipped back to us. Low labour rates and lax environmental enforcement have benefited all parties to this commercial deal (even perhaps the Chinese workers, a job being better than no job).

One of the first warning signs of impending change occurred in 2013 when China launched “Operation Green Fence” to limit imports of scrap materials. Unscrupulous people were sending more garbage than resources. This was followed by the more recent “National Sword” crackdown on smuggling operations. Then last week, China shocked the global recycling industry with the announcement of a scrap import ban effective the end of this year.

“To protect China’s environmental interests and the people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted” read China’s filing of intent with the World Trade Organisation. Details were scarce beyond general statements about multiple plastics, mixed paper, textiles, and other materials. But the impact of the announcement itself has been significant.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) called the new move potentially “devastating” and “catastrophic” for the US recycling industry. The Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) labelled the new policy as “serious” and wants more time before it comes into effect.

For Canadians involved in the international recovered paper trade, the challenge is that no one yet fully understands exactly what will be banned. The wording that is being used is “unsorted paper” and “mixed plastics.” If this is taken literally then most of the Canadian paper fibre currently being exported to China will not be impacted. The Green by Nature consortium that handles British Columbia’s Blue Box materials, for example, sorts all residential paper and does not ship single stream (or mixed) unsorted material to the republic.

Al Metauro on world's garbage going to China“If this is not acceptable,” says consortium partner Al Metauro, CEO of Cascades Recovery, “then we will have a challenge. The challenge will not be on the curbside fibre but rather on the demand for old corrugated containers (OCC). The Chinese mills rely on imports and with no curbside fibre they will need an alternative. On the other hand, the Chinese government could also ban imports of OCC considering some of the poor quality being shipped.”

Metauro says a ban on “mixed plastics” will impact material recovery facility (MRF) operators that are not sorting their plastic, glass and metal recyclables (the container stream). This will be a bigger challenge in the US, he says, where many program operators are currently shipping commingled single stream material direct to China. In British Columbia, by contrast, all residential plastics are sorted and consumed locally.

The “humble brown box” just got better!

We know it mainly as the brown shipping box, although it also comes in various other shapes, sizes and colours. Whatever, the humble corrugated box just got better.Humble Brown Box - Environmental Impact

According to a life cycle analysis released last week, the average US corrugated box has made significant strides since a previous LCA conducted back in 2006:

  • 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
  • 29% reduction in eutrophication from nutrient discharge
  • 23% reduction in smog
  • 21% reduction in water use and a
  • 21% reduction in respiratory related effects.

 

The latest LCA (2014) was conducted by the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI) for the Corrugated Packaging Alliance, and meets the ISO 14040/14044 standards for a publicly disclosed study. It also has a Canadian connection: the external reviewer was Lindita Bushi of the Athena Institute.

The main reasons for the significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions were increased recovery rates for old corrugated containers (OCC); greater efficiencies in mill energy systems; and increased use of low-impact fossil fuels, including a switch from oil/coal to natural gas.

An executive summary of the LCA can be found here. For the full LCA (199 pages) click here.

 

A moving (and puzzling) story about dead Toronto chickens

Chickens are not something we would normally write about. And, in fact, this little story has less to do with dead chickens than with how they journey across Toronto in the after-life before landing between our knives and forks. Let me explain.

Until very recently in Toronto, fresh cut-up chickens were placed on foam trays with stretch wrap then placed in a corrugated box with their unfortunate comrades and trucked from the processor Chickens voyage across Torontoor packer to a retailer’s distribution centre. From there they were trucked to various retail outlets across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) for us to pick up and take home.

A truck can typically deliver about 12,000 knocked-down corrugated boxes to the chicken processor per trip. And the retailer ending up with the box receives revenue for sending that box on for recycling. Current revenues for old corrugated containers (OCC) are about $100 a tonne.

This circular loop system has been working very well, but now one major retailer has decided to change things up, forcing the chicken processors to do something different if they want to remain suppliers. We don’t have a problem with change but are very puzzled at the logic, extra costs, and increased environmental burden that this new move seems to entail, especially when that same retailer is telling the public that it is cutting carbon and improving the efficiency of moving goods.

The chicken processors in this example are now being forced to use what are called reusable plastic crates (RPCs) to deliver chicken. The costs of the box and the crate are roughly equal but because the crates take up more space on a truck you now need not one (corrugated) truck but four (plastic) trucks to deliver the same quantity of containers. More handling, more miles/kilometres, more burning of fossil fuels, more costs.

And in the crate scenario, someone must pay the (extra) cost of returning not one but four truckloads of crates to a distribution centre (which may be within or outside the GTA, or even out of province). Then that same person or someone else pays for trucking the collected crates to a wash centre, also possibly outside the GTA, out of province, or even in the US, so that the crates can be used again. More handling, more travel miles/kilometres, more burning of fossil fuels, more costs. And unlike in the corrugated box scenario, the retailer gets no revenue for returning the crates.

The chicken processors seem to be taking a major financial hit in this new arrangement. They now have not one truck in their yards delivering packaging but four, and those idling trucks must make it difficult to coordinate production flow at the plant (increasing their labour costs). They also now have the added expense of buying a polybag liner to protect the contents of each crate from leaking. Salmonella poisoning through pathogen transference is a major health risk when processing chickens and packing in crates that are to be used again.

What’s packaging got to do with the price of chicken? Maybe more than we think. Transportation and packaging are responsible for about 9% of the total greenhouse gas contributions of the poultry supply chain. If the crate transportation system outlined above costs more, and the environmental burden is greater, won’t those extra costs eventually be passed on to you and I as chicken-loving consumers?

The chicken processors will almost certainly be forced to pick up the tab, and will no doubt try to pass on their new costs to their customers (meaning us, eventually). But the biggest victim in this puzzling trial would seem to be the environment. Whichever way you slice it, it’s the planet that should be crying foul!

Something fishy about crate supplier’s recycled content assumptions

Corrugated Packaging Alliance

 

 

 

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:

Rachel Kenyon (847) 364-9600, rkenyon@fibrebox.org
Cheryl Reynhout (401) 932-8126, creynhout@corrugated.org
Katharine Eaton (202) 463-2434, katharine_eaton@afandpa.org

IFCO REPORT USES INACCURATE DATA FOR CORRUGATED CONTAINERS

ITASCA, IL (May 10, 2016) – The Corrugated Packaging Alliance (CPA) reviewed IFCO’s recently-published Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Reusable Plastic Containers and Display- and Non-Display Ready Corrugated Containers Used for Fresh Produce Applications, which was conducted by Franklin Associates and compares the environmental impact of reusable plastic containers to corrugated containers.

“We have been reluctant to comment on IFCO’s latest LCA without having access to the actual report that identifies the boundaries, key assumptions and methodologies used in the study. Transparency is a key LCA requirement and publishing the full facts allows them to be fairly and accurately understood”, said CPA Executive Director Dennis Colley. “We are disappointed in the approach used by IFCO to announce the report’s findings.”

“For the LCA’s most popular environmental impact indicator, Global Warming Potential (GWP), IFCO uses a baseline assumption of 15 percent recycled content for corrugated. Life Cycle Assessment of U.S. Industry-Average Corrugated Product (PE Americas and Five Winds International, December 2009), Life Cycle Assessment of U.S. Average Corrugated Product (NCASI, April 2014), and many other publications note corrugated containers’ average recycled content of approximately 50 percent, which advantages corrugated containers by almost 40 percent over RPCs for CO2 emissions or GWP.”

The recycled content of corrugated boxes is tied to total system fiber usage and therefore is linked to many variables in an LCA. The amount of new virgin fiber required in the system is offset by the recycled content which affects energy consumption and emissions at the mills. The demand for recycled fiber also drives the high recovery rate of Old Corrugated Containers (OCC), currently 92.9 percent in 2015 and reduces waste to landfills and subsequent methane generation.

IFCO acknowledges that a higher recycled content (such as 52.7 percent) for corrugated packaging generates superior GWP results for corrugated, as compared to RPCs. However, this analysis is buried in the last section of the report’s Executive Summary.

The CPA will publish the corrugated industry’s third LCA – including baseline assumptions and documented statistics – in October and expects continued improvements for several environmental impact indicators. The 2014 study revealed a 32 percent reduction in the GWP from the first-ever corrugated industry LCA published in 2009, along with double-digit reductions in eutrophication, respiratory, and fossil fuel depletion indicators.

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The Corrugated Packaging Alliance (CPA) is a corrugated industry initiative jointly sponsored by the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), AICC – the Independent Packaging Association, Fibre Box Association (FBA) and TAPPI. Its mission is to foster growth and profitability of corrugated in applications where it can be demonstrated, based on credible and persuasive evidence, that corrugated should be the packaging material of choice; and to provide a coordinated industry focus that effectively acts on industry matters that cannot be accomplished by individual members. CPA members include corrugated manufacturers and converters throughout North America.

The reports of paper’s death are greatly exaggerated

We frequently hear and see comments about paper “dying” or being supplanted by other materials. It’s not happening, or at least not happening in the way many people think.

While the weight of paper entering Ontario homes, for example, fell by 8% between 2003 and 2014,(( PPEC analysis of Stewardship Ontario Blue Box data for 2003 and 2014. PPEC analyses on the generation, recycling, net costs, and EPR fees for all materials across Canada are available to members upon request.))  at least part of the reason is the continuous light-weighting of paper products that’s gone on over the years: newspapers and magazines with narrower pages, fewer flaps and layers of packaging, and a tighter fit between packaging and product. The introduction of lighter, high-performance board or micro-flutes has also displaced what some boxboard or paperboard used to do. Who could have predicted, for example, that a fast-food hamburger would one day be delivered in a lightweight corrugated box! Check out that distinctive corrugated ripple in the packaging next time you visit one of the chains.

Measuring generation by weight, of course, doesn’t give a complete picture of what’s going on in the marketplace, where volume and sales units rule. But it can be a useful indicator of changing market forces. Printed paper (especially newspapers), for example, has taken a severe hit from its electronic competitors. The weight of newspapers ending up in Ontario homes fell by 21% over the period, magazines and catalogs by 25%, telephone directories by a whopping 47% and “Other Printed Paper” by seven percent. This is the demise part of the paper story we mostly hear about.
Packaging exceeds newsprint in Ontario for the first time
But at the same time as printed paper generation declined by 20%, the use of paper packaging increased by 16%, basically offsetting any major changes to paper’s overall share. In fact, for the first time in Ontario, more paper packaging (corrugated and boxboard) ended up in the home than newsprint. So paper products, whether printed or packaging, still represent two-thirds of the dry recyclables in Ontario households by weight.

The two main household packaging types (boxboard/paperboard and corrugated) are up 27% and 9% respectively, with the small market gable top and aseptic containers also making significant gains (up 24% and 118 percent).

When you put these two changes together (newsprint down and paper packaging up), we pretty much have the status quo, although the trend line within the paper group seems to be clear. And as e-commerce distribution ramps up in Canada, more and more paper packaging (mostly corrugated) is expected to end up in the home. The good news is that most of it is 100% recycled content already, with almost all of it (98%) being collected for further recycling.