Virtually 100% of Canadians can now recycle paper boxes, bags, and cartons

Canadians can no longer say they’d love to recycle their old paper boxes but can’t do it where they live.

That’s because virtually all Canadians now have access to the convenient recycling of corrugated boxes, paperboard or boxboard cartons, and kraft paper bags.  The actual access numbers, calculated by independent consulting firm, CM Consulting, are 96% for corrugated and kraft paper and 94% for boxboard. The numbers update an earlier paper industry study that placed access numbers in the 83% to 85% range.

“What this means,” says John Mullinder, who heads up the paper packaging industry’s environmental council, PPEC, “ is that Canadians no longer have any excuses for placing paper boxes in the garbage. They don’t belong there, and besides, we need them to make new boxes.” Most of the new boxes manufactured in Canada, he says, are made from 100% recycled material that’s been collected from the back of factories or supermarkets or from curbside or depot programs.

About 40 years ago the only paper packaging collected for recycling in Canada was the old corrugated boxes that had been used to deliver supplies to factories and supermarkets. When the supply of these boxes tightened up, the recycling mills started to look for additional sources of paper fibre, which led them to lobby municipalities to add the collection of old corrugated containers (or OCC) from households. Then in the early 1990s, PPEC and a select group of customers led North America in the further recycling of old boxboard (the common cereal or shoe box). This is normally 100% recycled content as well, and can be blended in with old corrugated boxes to make new paper packaging.

“While we have used old corrugated to make new boxes for years, “says Mullinder, “we are particularly proud of our efforts to divert old boxboard from landfill. Within a relatively short timeframe we’ve gone from zero public access to its recycling in one province (Ontario) to almost 100% access nationally.”

What the industry really wants now, he adds, is for Canadians to make sure that they take full advantage of their recycling opportunities. “We need that material to make new boxes. It should not go to waste.”

Pioneering the recycling of old boxboard cartons

The Canadian paper box industry relies heavily on recycled materials to make the boxes its customers use to deliver their various products. Used boxes for further recycling are mostly collected from homes (the Blue Box). But other used paper fibres are frequently thrown into the mix as well: old printing and writing paper from offices, old corrugated boxes from both industrial and residential sources, and old newspapers.

In the early 1990s, most boxboard cartons (cereal, shoe boxes) headed straight to landfill after use. The industry’s environmental council (PPEC) and some key customers decided, however, to see if this mostly 100% recycled content fibre could be used yet again. No one in North America had done this before.

PPEC coordinated trials with several Ontario municipalities and mills, and tested the resulting board to ensure it met customer and health specifications. In most cases, the old boxboard (OBB) was blended in with old corrugated containers (OCC) to make new corrugated boxes. As the mills and customers became more comfortable with this new source of fibre, additional municipalities, including Toronto, were encouraged to join the recycling effort. Word spread, and before too long, municipalities outside Ontario also added old boxboard to their household paper collection list.

Today, some 20 years later, almost 100% (94%) of Canadians can recycle their old cereal or shoe boxes, a major achievement of which the industry is justifiably proud.

PPEC wants old boxes banned from landfill

The national recovery rate of old corrugated boxes for recycling is an estimated 85%, with at least one provincial Blue Box program reaching 98 per cent. But that still means some corrugated ends up in landfill, either in Canada or in the US.

PPEC doesn’t think it should be there, and is appealing to Canadian provinces to ban the disposal of old corrugated from landfill, either with disposal bans, landfill levies, or a mix of the two policies. Nova Scotia and PEI already have bans in place, and Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba are talking about it.

Bans would reduce methane and carbon dioxide emissions from landfills, increase waste diversion, prolong landfill life, create jobs, reduce the packaging mills’ needs to import used boxes from the US, while demonstrating provincial leadership on climate change.

PPEC has written a blog on the subject, and prepared a one-page summary of its “win-win” proposal to the Ontario government together with a report on the pros and cons of various policy options, the lessons learned from other jurisdictions, and some suggestions on how bans and/or levies could be implemented in Ontario. This is not the first time PPEC has raised this issue (see earlier press release of June 2012).

Where does used packaging go?

Most gets recycled!

  • Into new boxes.
    A corrugated box can be made from a mixture of old corrugated boxes, corrugated cuttings, printing and writing paper, old cartons (boxboard) even wood chips, shavings and sawdust left over from logging and sawmilling operations.  Average recycled content in 2016 was 83%.  See Press Release (11/05/2017) and Understanding Recycled Content backgrounder.
  • Into new paper bags.
    Paper bags and sacks are mostly made from sawmill residue (wood chips, shavings or sawdust left over from logging operations).  Most used bags are recycled into new corrugated boxes. One Canadian mill in 2012 used old corrugated boxes to make new paper bags but it has now closed.  Average recycled content in 2014 was 32 per cent.
  • Into other stuff!
    Old paper packaging is also used to make construction board and insulation materials, printing and writing papers, and tissue and toweling products.

Used paper and board are both imported and exported

Canadian packaging mills are highly dependent on receiving regular supplies of used paper and board. Why? Because most of them produce 100% recycled content material, made from old corrugated boxes and other paper fibre that has been collected from the back of factories, supermarkets, office buildings, and from Canadian homes.

For many years, the packaging mills couldn’t get enough used paper and board from within Canada and had to import it from the United States to make sure that their mills could keep running. Imports are still necessary, but in more recent years Canada has exported more old corrugated boxes for recycling elsewhere than it has imported for recycling here.

In 2012, for example, Canada imported over 200,000 tonnes of old corrugated boxes (OCC), mostly from the United States, while exporting more than 800,000 tonnes of the same material (60% to the US and 40% to Asia, for recycling there). The trade in used box material is a regional and international one that reflects supply and demand, price, quality, and freight distance.

Industry well on the way to solving the waxed box issue

Although relatively few corrugated boxes have wax applied to them (about 3% of all corrugated produced), they have long been a “problem” material when it comes to recycling. Those days may be numbered.

Wax coatings have traditionally been applied as a moisture barrier to preserve the strength of a box holding wet or iced products such as fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry and seafood. The problem was that the waxes made the boxes difficult to recycle along with the other corrugated. The recycling mills couldn’t use them, and retailers didn’t like sending them to the dump. And because it was sometimes hard for the young kids employed at the back of stores to tell the difference between waxed and non-waxed boxes, a lot of “good” corrugated went to landfill as well.

PPEC was part of a North American industry alliance in the 1990s that came up with the idea of identifying the waxed boxes in some way so that they could be easily separated.  We suggested that the words for wax in English, French and Spanish be printed on the box flaps. Unfortunately, the idea never took off, mainly because some box manufacturers felt that identifying their boxes as waxed was a negative, that it made them a target. At the same time, the reusable plastic crate lobby was exploiting the image of waxed corrugated going to the dump as an entry point to gain market share against the traditional corrugated box system. On top of that, some coatings manufacturers were going around to mills and corrugated manufacturers claiming that they had developed new coatings that were recyclable.

To get a handle on the issue, the US-based Fibre Box Association, working through the Corrugated Packaging Alliance, developed a science-based protocol that coatings manufacturers would have to meet to be able to claim that their coatings were recyclable in mills throughout North America. Company products meeting the standard were certified and allowed to use the wax alternatives logo.

The use of wax alternatives has ramped up significantly over the last few years, and this month was reported, for the first time, to have overtaken sales of boxes using traditional coatings. Almost 50 different wax alternatives have now been certified as recyclable. This is great progress and an industry success story.