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 “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.

 

Paper recycling important but uneven across Canada

Paper recycling continues to dominate Canada’s waste diversion efforts, representing almost 40% of total material diversion in 2014, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada.

But the collection of used boxes, newspapers, and printing and writing paper from the back of factories, supermarkets, offices, and homes, remains uneven, ranging from a low of 27 kilograms per person in Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, up to a high of 142 kilos per person in Quebec. The average Canadian sent just 101 kilos of paper (the equivalent of four heavy suitcases) for recycling that year.

We recognise that Canadians use varying amounts of paper in their daily lives. The Greater Toronto Area, for example, is served by several big newspapers, something you don’t see in other places. And it’s clear that geography, climate, and access to recycling determine how much paper is recovered in individual provinces. Small communities that are far from recycling facilities are at a distinct disadvantage. We also recognise that capture rates in high-density condos and apartment buildings are a challenge, although this demographic doesn’t entirely explain why Ontario lags so far behind similarly urbanised Quebec.

Nor does this data tell us how much paper it’s possible to recover (generation), so we really can’t tell how well Canadians and individual provinces are recovering paper overall. We know, as well, that significant tonnages are not captured in the StatsCan surveys, especially those old corrugated boxes that are baled at the back of supermarkets or factories and shipped direct to a paper recycling mill.

Given all these geographic and demographic variables, and the data uncertainties, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect every province to reach Quebec and British Columbia’s 142 and 135-kilo level of annual paper diversion. But if they did, we figure there’s another 1.4 million tonnes of paper out there just waiting to be collected. That would boost Canada’s overall waste diversion rate by four per cent. How about it, folks? A national average of just four heavy suitcases of paper diversion a year is a pretty piddly effort, don’t you think? Time to get serious about disposal bans on paper! We want it back!

Canada’s Best Paper Diverters (2014)

Paper recycling - Best Paper Diverters by Province

For background on this series, see: Prince Edward Islanders and British Columbians are Canada’s “best recyclers” (May 23); Canada diverting only 27% of its waste (April 27); and Canadians are dumping more, and less, at the same time! (April 19).

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

Canadians are dumping more, and less, at the same time!

Call us multi-taskers. According to the latest waste disposal data from Statistics Canada, Canadians dumped 25.1 million tonnes of waste in 2014, a million tonnes more than we did 12 years ago. So on that score, Canada’s waste pile is growing. Not good news.

But because there are 13% more of us now than there were back in 2002, we get to spread that extra million tonnes among more people. What this means is that as individual Canadians, we actually sent 8% less to the dump today than we did before. Only statistics can make you look good and bad at the same time!

Waste disposal by Province

Waste Disposal by Province - 2014

It gets more interesting when you dive into provincial performance over the same period. In tonnage terms, Nova Scotia and Ontario have performed the best (down 6% and 5% respectively) with Alberta and New Brunswick standing out as the bad guys. Alberta’s waste heap has increased by 42% since 2002 and New Brunswick’s by 23 per cent, with Saskatchewan and Manitoba not far behind (up 18% and 15% respectively).

On a per capita basis, Nova Scotia is by far the best performer at 386 kilograms of waste per person. From there you jump to 586 kilograms (British Columbia), 670 kilograms (Ontario), 673 kilograms (New Brunswick), 696 kilograms (Quebec), 786 kilograms (Newfoundland and Labrador), 801 kilograms (Manitoba) and 839 kilograms (Saskatchewan). Alberta heads the pack at almost a tonne (997 kilograms) per person.

Clearly, Nova Scotia is the model to follow if Canada’s bulging waste line is to be reduced. How much of Nova Scotia’s success can be attributed to its longstanding disposal bans on organics and paper is unknown. No other provinces have yet followed its lead in this respect. As for laggard Alberta, it’s got a long way to catch up.

This post was originally posted on the PPEC website on April 18, 2017.

All statistics are correct as of this date.

 

 

 

Waste Dumped by Canadians 2002-2014 More Canadians 2002-2014 Canaidans Per Capita Disposal 2002-2012

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.