No good box should go to the dump!

The paper packaging industry wants old corrugated boxes banned from landfill. A couple of provinces have already done so (Nova Scotia and PEI) but so far the others (including Quebec, Manitoba and Ontario) have only talked about it. It’s time for action!

The environmental benefits are clear. We estimate a ban on old corrugated containers (OCC) would reduce Ontario methane and carbon dioxide emissions by up to 175,000 tonnes/year, the equivalent of taking up to 33,000 cars off the road or eliminating the carbon emissions of up to 70,000 homes. It’s a move that’s perfectly aligned with Ontario’s climate change direction, and would demonstrate much needed provincial leadership on the waste or resource recovery file.

A ban would also mitigate a looming provincial landfill crisis (80% of Ontario landfills will be full within 15 years), and create between 200 and 300 jobs (a conservative estimate). It could Donbe extended to other paper grades (packaging and printed) for larger impact.

After hazardous wastes and organics, paper in general is the prime candidate for banning from landfill. And if the province is risk averse to banning all types of paper from landfill, then a pilot project banning OCC first would be a perfect “guinea pig.” Corrugated is a widely recycled material and has been for decades. Its national recovery rate is estimated to be 85 percent. Some 93% of the corrugated that ends up in Ontario homes is captured by the Blue Box((Stewardship Ontario 2013 data. Sales of old corrugated also provide more revenue to the Blue Box program ($15.5 million) than any other packaging material.)). Even so, some 200,000 tonnes slips through industry and residential hands every year to end up in Ontario or Michigan landfills.

It shouldn’t be there. Every single packaging mill in the province uses old corrugated boxes collected from the back of factories, supermarkets, office buildings, or from curbside, to make new packaging, most of it 100% recycled content((There are eight packaging mills located in Ontario. Seven produce 100% recycled content board, the eighth 60% recycled content board.)). We import OCC from the United States because we can’t get enough here.

So how about it Ontario? We understand that banning organics from landfill would make a bigger splash in the greenhouse gas stakes than banning corrugated would, but it could take five years for the necessary organics processing infrastructure to be developed. Why wait for corrugated? We have the infrastructure for recycling it right now. If nothing is done to ban corrugated from landfill for five years, that’s over a million tonnes of OCC needlessly languishing in landfill when Ontario packaging mills could use it; at least $100 million in foregone recycling revenues; an earlier Ontario landfill crisis; and close to 900,000 tonnes of unnecessary GHG escaping into the atmosphere.

We don’t care frankly whether it’s a landfill ban on OCC or a disposal or generator-based levy. Just get the stuff out of there!

So much for the paperless house!

You’ve heard of the paperless office. What about the paperless house? Not going to happen, at least, not anytime soon.

The weight of paper entering our homes these days is only slightly less than it was 10 years ago. But the types of paper products we use are definitely changing. As we embrace the digital world, we read far fewer newspapers and magazines. Glossy retail catalogues have been replaced by online alternatives, and those heavy paper telephone books have pretty much disappeared for good.

Making up the difference, however, has been a steady increase in the use of paper packaging or what is commonly called cardboard. What we are talking about here are the sturdy corrugated boxes used to deliver the new TV or kitchen appliance. You’ll probably find one or two in your basement or garage holding something they never came with. Eventually, you’ll put them out for recycling. Likewise your boxboard cartons (cereal and tissue boxes). The other changes you may have noted are fewer steel cans and glass bottles. These have both suffered from competition from plastics packaging which has grown substantially over the decade.

Fortunately, most of the paper products entering your home are high in recycled content and being recycled right across Canada. But that good  story deserves a blog all of its own.

What’s in Ontario Households (by weight)


 Source: Stewardship Ontario data 2003, 2013.

Food scientist warns retailers that live bacteria on crates is like a “smoking gun”

A third independent scientific study has raised concerns about re-using plastic crates to deliver fresh produce to retailers. This time it’s from the Center for Food Safety at the University of Arkansas((The two earlier studies, by food scientists at the University of Guelph and the University of California (Davis), are referenced in a previous blog.)). The latest study concluded that bacteria adhered to crates and formed biofilms including salmonella, listeria and E. Coli, and that both commercial and industrial sanitising and scrubbing methods could not eliminate them.

“The food industry has a lot of food safety regulations in place,” lead researcher Dr Steven Ricke told The Produce News, “and we do a very good job. (But) what we don’t realise is (that) food-borne pathogens don’t always get the regulatory memo.” “You want to avoid opportunities,” he said. “We know (bacteria) can attach. How extensive is that attachment? How permeable into food products?”

“Our job as experts in food science is to determine how to avoid risks, and from what we know through research is, one, re-use is a source for contamination, and two, cleaning or scrubbing does not eliminate biofilms.”

“In addition to the scanning electron microscope work, we also did a molecular test, which means we had to recover live cells. These were definitely live cells, alive and recoverable, so the opportunity is there. Any guess as to where they go is speculation, but if they’re there and they’re alive they’re sitting there like a smoking gun.”

It’s not as simple as re-use versus recycling

The battle between the corrugated box and the plastic crate industries for market share in the fresh produce sector has traditionally been fought on both economic and environmental grounds. These arguments will continue, although it’s unlikely that any peer-reviewed life cycle analysis will ever deliver a knock-out punch to either of the combatants. The box will win on some life cycle criteria, the crate on others.

What is emerging, however, is the key issue of sanitisation. Retailers, growers and consumers are right to be concerned about the safety of the food they eat, although consumers probably don’t care too much whether it arrives by box or crate. They just want it to be safe.

There are two ways of achieving this. The traditional corrugated box system provides a fresh box for each delivery. Fresh doesn’t mean cutting down trees. In fact, most corrugated boxes made in Canada are 100% recycled content, partly made from those very same used produce boxes that Canadian retailers bale up at the back of their stores and for which they receive significant revenue.(( “When we divert cardboard, not only do we reduce the cost and the environmental consequences of sending it to landfill, it’s all recycled and turned into revenue for us.”- Loblaw Green Team member quoted in Canadian Grocer magazine. PPEC estimates that Canadian retailers received over $50 million in revenue for their old corrugated boxes last year. )) The boxes are recycled several times over the course of their lives, and meet rigid process control standards in their remanufacture.((Paper fibres can be recycled up to nine times. In a typical mill recycling process, the temperature of the paper sheet reaches 220-240 degrees Fahrenheit, well above 100 degrees Celsius, the boiling point of water and the temperature required for sterilisation. The converting process also involves high temperatures and other hygiene controls  ))

Having a fresh box every time minimises the potential for undesirable pathogens and bacteria being carried forward to the consumer. A recent independent study of corrugated produce boxes in the Northwest US, California and Florida, for example, found that every single one of the 720 corrugated boxes tested met acceptable sanitisation levels.

Warriner video backgrounds the issue

Warriner video backgrounds the issue

The crate system, on the other hand, a system based on using the same crates again and again, is clearly struggling to ensure that its crates are adequately sanitised between uses. University of Guelph food scientist, Dr Keith Warriner, recently found that a high proportion of crates arriving in Canada for re-use were in poor sanitary condition. Of particular concern was the high prevalence of food safety indicators, especially E. coli on 13% of the crates tested.

Similar conclusions were reached by Dr Trevor Suslow in a subsequent University of California-Davis study. Suslow even suggested that growers and packer/shippers protect themselves by doing rapid bacterial swab tests on the crates. Fresh produce, he told Food Safety News, shouldn’t come into direct contact with reusable containers. “If you can’t control contamination, you have to start looking for other options.”


A lasting legacy of New York’s famous garbage barge, PPEC turns 25

It was the garbage barge that did it. Over several months in 1987, the waste-packed Mobro 4000 chugged between US ports, hoping to offload its increasingly smelly cargo. Port after port refused to accept it. Turned away by Mexico and Belize, the “most watched load of garbage in the memory of man” took on a life of its own, a television saga, its daily progress (or lack of progress) constantly tracked like the recent search for an airliner missing over the Indian Ocean.((NBC claimed at the time that the Mobro 4000 was “chased away by the warplanes of two nations, presumably Mexico and Belize. The second quotation, “the most watched load of garbage in the memory of man” is attributed to news anchor, Dan Rather. Here is an interesting video from the NY Times, Retro Report ))


The Mobro 4000 morphed into a telegenic symbol of a wasteful society, and together with an OECD report that portrayed Canadians as among the worst wasters in the world, encouraged politicians to do something about waste, especially packaging waste. In true Canadian fashion, a multi-stakeholder committee was set up, plans drafted, and in 1990 a National Protocol proclaimed.

PPEC was not yet in existence, but the National Packaging Protocol certainly got the attention of its future members. High-level meetings were held, and the decision taken to send a delegation to Ottawa to tell Environment Canada just what a great job the paper industry was doing in recycling.

The Ottawa meeting did not go as well as expected. Senior industry executives were stunned to discover that corrugated boxes, in particular, were considered to be “public enemy number one.” On a weight basis, they were a key and inviting target. “But we’re a major packaging material,” the executives argued, “so of course there’s going to be a lot of it. We’re also heavier than most other packaging, so yes, we’re going to stick out.” Adding for emphasis: “We also have a great record of paper recovery.” Nothing seemed to matter.

Somewhat chastened, the group reassembled back in Toronto to pass on the bad news. We need a national umbrella body, they decided, that would represent all the various sectors of the industry, both mills and converters, on environmental issues. A body with one voice, not several; and one that would come up with practical solutions, rather than having stupid (government) ones forced upon us; a body that would tell our story, and promote our achievements.

PPEC was born. This year it turns 25.((PPEC is organising a special afternoon and dinner celebration of its 25th anniversary in Mississauga, Ontario on October 28. Registration details will be available shortly.))

State of Canada’s forests explained in one easy to understand graphic

The latest report on the state of Canada’s forests by the federal government department that’s charged with monitoring it (Natural Resources Canada) has a graphic that succinctly explains much of what PPEC has been writing about during the course of the year.

The Deforestation Myth:  Most of the deforestation occurring in the world is happening in tropical forests, not in Canada or even North America. The percentage of land lost to deforestation in Canada in the latest data year amounts to less than 0.02% of the country’s 348 million hectares of forest.  And contrary to popular opinion, the major cause of that net deforestation in Canada is not the forestry industry but rather forest lost to agriculture and oil and gas exploration. Canada’s net deforestation is represented by the smallest circle in the graphic. You have to squint to see it.

The State of Canada

The “Running out of Trees” mantra: The Canadian lumber and forest industry harvested less than 0.6 million hectares in 2012 (which is actually down by 12% on the previous year). That 0.6 million hectares represents less than 0.2% of Canada’s forest lands (as depicted in the second smallest circle). By law, that harvest must be regenerated, either naturally or by direct seeding and planting. Over a thousand new forest seedlings on average are planted somewhere in Canada every minute.

Natural disturbances have a far greater impact on Canada’s forests than human disturbances: Some 4.2 million hectares of forest was lost to forest fires (the red circle) in the latest data year, more than seven times the size of the commercial harvest. Even larger was the loss of forests to insects (mainly the mountain pine beetle), more than 14 times the area harvested (the turquoise circle).

Canada leads the world in independent, third-party certification of sustainably managed forests:  Over 40% of the world’s certified forests are right here in Canada where they are certified to one or more of the internationally recognised certification programs: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) or Programme for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification (PEFC) which partners with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA).  This is the blue circle. More impressive perhaps is the fact that the area independently certified as sustainably managed forest is an incredible 255 times larger than the total area actually harvested. Now there’s a model for the oil and gas industry to follow!


If you want to get the facts on the state of Canada’s forests, in a very readable and concise format (43 illustrated pages before you hit the back-up data and sources), checking out this Natural Resources Canada report would be a great start.

This is not a puff piece but …

We hosted an excellent morning seminar recently that covered a lot of ground regarding paper packaging and the environment. At least that’s the feedback we’re getting, so we’ll take it! For a flavour of the event, check out this short video summary.

First up was a presentation on the challenges and opportunities the industry faces. These included how to counter misleading environmental claims; the fact that it’s far cheaper to landfill stuff rather than to recycle it; and the urgent need to make the current Blue Box funding formula fairer to all materials.

The second presentation, by Dan Lantz of Cascades Recovery, covered changes in the composition of materials ending up in the home and how both collection and sorting has evolved over time. He outlined several specific cases where producers could design packaging for the environment better, and finished off with a brief update on North America’s first 100% industry-funded and controlled printed paper and packaging Blue Box program in British Columbia. Some good lessons to be learned!

The third and fourth speakers dovetailed nicely on the subject of corrugated boxes and reusable plastic crates (RPCs), which are competing for market share in the fresh produce sector. The traditional corrugated box system is a single-use operation where the box is used once then recycled for further use. The RPC, on the other hand, is used multiple times with a washing stage in between.

Warriner: found crates unsanitary, doubts being sanitised.

Warriner: found crates unsanitary, doubts being sanitised.


Dr. Keith Warriner, a food scientist at the University of Guelph, gave a detailed background on RPC use in the meat and dairy sectors and the guidelines and recommendations that had been developed for their use with fresh produce. He said that plastic crate operators needed to be far more open about the details of their washing and sanitisation procedures. What he had found in two years of testing, replicated in more recent US studies, was that a high proportion of the crates were unsanitary. In fact, he doubted that all RPCs were going through the required washing and sanitisation stage.



The Fibre Box Association’s Dennis Colley then presented the case for the corrugated box: its role in protecting and delivering produce, its retail appeal and food safety aspects. He compared corrugated and RPCs on a Sustainability Scorecard, concluding that the best way to combat misinformation was to let the facts speak for you.


P.S. Electronic copies of the slide presentations are available to members through PPEC.  For a video of Dr. Warriner’s presentation, click here. PPEC member companies can get the complete video package by logging in to the Members-Only page at

Ontario’s new environment minister getting his ducks in a row

The Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) is quietly preparing the groundwork for some long-delayed action on printed paper and packaging in the industrial, commercial and institutional (IC & I) sector.  Specifically, it wants a report by mid-March on the cost impacts and economic and greenhouse gas reduction benefits of diverting an additional 1,000 tonnes.[1]

Printed paper and packaging are good targets to start with because neither of them should be ending up in landfill, whether in Ontario or across the border in Michigan or New York State. Printing and writing paper and old corrugated boxes (OCC) are perfectly recyclable, and have enjoyed solid end-markets for decades. We want them back!

The ministry appears to be toying with two different approaches to achieve this: what it calls a producer responsibility framework and a generator responsibility framework. We are familiar with the producer responsibility framework enunciated in the ministry’s recent Waste Reduction Strategy document,[2] but frankly, without pre-judging what the ministry finds in its current study, we would prefer the generator model.

One of the problems with IC & I waste generally, is the lack of good data. Producers are often one step removed from what happens with waste, which can lead to the creation of an unnecessary bureaucracy to handle it. Generators, on the other hand, are right there on the spot, making the decision whether to recycle or dump. They are also repositories of much sought after data (or could be). We know, for example, that old corrugated boxes sent for recycling from the back of a supermarket directly to a paper recycling mill or to its processor agent, are not included in the current Statistics Canada surveys of waste. Statistics Canada only counts tonnages sent through waste haulers.[3]  Adopting a generator responsibility model (with appropriate exemptions for small operators) would not only provide data we currently don’t have in Ontario, it would also appear to be the more cost-efficient option.

Ban Old Boxes from Landfill

But it’s not the only option. PPEC lobbied the previous minister of environment to ban old corrugated boxes from landfill back in June 2012.[4]  We estimated then that banning just OCC from landfill in both Ontario and Quebec would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 85,000 tonnes, or the equivalent of taking 15,000 vehicles off the road. A provincial ban on OCC would also extend the life of existing Ontario landfills by two and a half years, delaying costly measures to find new, always hard to site landfills as the current ones rapidly fill. We estimated that Ontario and Quebec municipalities would also benefit, achieving operational cost savings of between $12 million and $18 million.

There is a good case to be made for both the generator model and landfill bans. We will be making both, in the months ahead.


[1] Ontario MOECC Request for Proposals: A Study on the Cost Impacts and Economic and Greenhouse Gas Benefits of Waste Diversion of Selected Waste Materials in Ontario.

[2] Waste Reduction Strategy, Ontario MOE, June 2013.

[3] Statistics Canada (WMIS) 2010 disclaimers: “These  data do not include those materials transported by the generator directly to secondary processors, such as pulp and paper mills while bypassing entirely any firm or local government involved in waste management activities” (p.17). “Some non-residential waste is managed on-site by industrial generators. Also, some waste is transported by the generator directly to secondary processors. These practices are not currently accounted for by these surveys despite anecdotal evidence suggesting that they are becoming increasingly common” (p.33). “These data do not include those materials managed by wholesalers of scrap metal, plastics or paper. As with the other data in this report, these data cover only those firms whose primary source of income accrues from waste management activities and those public bodies  that provide waste management services” (p.35).

[4] Paper industry wants old boxes banned from landfill, PPEC press release and backgrounder, June 18, 2012.

Slap on the logos! Virtually 100% of paper packaging is recyclable in Canada

Canadian box, bag and carton manufacturers can now print the word “Recyclable” and the Recyclable logos on their packaging, safe in the knowledge that the industry has independent, third-party proof to back up the claim.

We’ve claimed recyclability for most paper packaging for years,based on our own knowledge, and an internal study. But now we have data at the municipal, provincial and national levels that tells us exactly what paper packaging can be sent for recycling, and where. [1]

The study by CM Consulting shows exceptionally high national access rates compared to most other materials: 96% for old corrugated boxes and kraft paper (bags); and 94% for old boxboard (cartons). The slightly lower access rate for old boxboard is probably because some Nova Scotia programs encourage residents to compost the used cartons rather than to recycle them.


PPEC is now actively encouraging its members and their customers to print the word “Recyclable” and the recyclable logos on their packaging. For a summary of the report, click here.




[1] The data that PPEC purchased covers Canadians’ access to the recycling of the major packaging grades: corrugated boxes, boxboard or paper cartons, and kraft paper (including bags). Minor categories such as waxed paper or waxed corrugated, paper cups, fibre coffee sleeves or “other” paper packaging, are not included.

Re-use is not always the better alternative

A year ago, a food safety expert at the University of Guelph claimed that using reusable plastic crates (RPCs) to ship food in Canada was “a recipe for disaster”.[1] The claim made headlines even as Dr. Keith Warriner, Director of Food Safety and Quality, freely acknowledged that the data he used to derive his conclusion came from a small sample size. Now, after completing a second, more robust study, he’s sticking to his guns.

In his latest sampling of new and supposedly clean RPCs delivered to growers’ farms in Ontario and Quebec, Warriner found a high proportion of crates to be in poor sanitary condition, even worse than in last year’s study. Of particular concern was the high prevalence of food safety indicators, especially E. coli on 13% of the crates tested. While most strains of E. coli are harmless, some strains can make people sick, causing severe stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. Serious complications of an E. coli 0157:H7 infection can include kidney failure.[2] The key is the risk factor.


Ontario crates wrapped in plastic film, suggesting they have been through a washing facility.


Brussels Sprouts label, Product of Mexico, still attached.

Almost half (43%) of the crates arriving at the growers’ farms failed basic sanitary standards; 73% exceeded bacteria loading levels; and 51% and 35% failed tests for enterobacteriacea and coliform respectively. The results also showed a clear geographical split between Ontario and Quebec, suggesting that the RPCs tested in Quebec had probably been given a quick hose down in Quebec and then simply transferred from farm to retailer and then on to another farm, rather than being shipped to the closest RPC wash facility, which is what is meant to happen in a re-use system. About 10% of the crates were visibly dusty or contained dried plant material, and 30% still had the previous label attached.[3]

Plastic crate operator IFCO claims that its washing process “destroys 99.5% of bacteria” and that “RPCs are washed, sanitised and air-dried between every issue, without fail”.[4]  This may be true, but clearly the whole re-use cycle is failing to deliver sanitary crates for further use. Bacteria such as E.coli was present in the latest test round, and Loblaws, as the major promoter of reusable crates for produce in Canada, should be very concerned.

Canadian consumers should be concerned too. What exactly are the microbiological testing standards being applied to the RPCs being used in Canada? What’s a pass and what’s a fail? And how is it, if the RPCs are being decontaminated in a washing plant, that the residual bacteria counts being reported are so high? And who exactly is tracking whether the crates sent to Canada are actually being shipped back to the US for washing, or whether they are just being hosed down locally and taking a short cut to the next farm?



[1] Loblaw and IFCO need to clean up their act, PPEC blog October 2013

[2] E.coli fact sheet, Public Health Agency of Canada

[3]For the study, click Microbiological Standards for Reusable Plastic Containers within Produce Grower Facilities within Ontario and Quebec, Dr. Keith Warriner, Director of Food Safety and Quality, University of Guelph. Both studies were commissioned by the Canadian Corrugated and Containerboard Association (CCCA) which PPEC represents on environmental issues. To protect the growers’ commercial interests, only the author knows the farm locations used in the tests.

[4] IFCO RPCs and Food Safety (5 Things you Need to Know) page 4.