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?

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.

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.

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.

 

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.