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Retailer hands container choice back to growers

A major produce retailer in Canada has decided that the growers who supply it with fresh fruit and vegetables should choose which container to deliver their produce in, the traditional corrugated box or a reusable plastic crate, rather than the retailer telling them which one to use.

This is a significant development in the crate versus box struggle for market share in this sector, even though the company says it’s only a trial. In recent years, some retailers have basically told their growers which container to use whether the growers liked it or not, a sore point with many growers who feel they have been left to carry the can on health and safety liability, and other issues. Now at least they have a choice.

The backdrop to this, of course, are the claims and counterclaims for economic and environmental superiority traded by the crate and box lobbies, and a heightened concern about the effectiveness of crate sanitisation. Stay tuned.

Pot calling the kettle black?

The Toronto Star ran a front page story over the weekend lambasting Ontario’s tire stewardship body (OTS) for spending  “thousands of dollars on wine tasting, meals at fine restaurants, a boat cruise, luxury hotels, and donations to political (parties).” The newspaper huffed in its “little piggies at the trough” depiction that OTS was operating without public oversight.

Now we are no fan of unreasonable administrative expenses. And if, in fact, they were unreasonable in this case, then Waste Diversion Ontario, which is supposed to monitor OTS, and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to whom the WDO ultimately reports, should do something about it.

But it seems to us that the Star’s real target, clear in previous articles it has carried, is the existence of provincial industry funding organisations (IFOs) themselves. These, it recently thundered, are essentially “industry cartels” that pluck “tens of millions of dollars from consumers’ pockets every year.”

TorontoStar

The Star should tread carefully here because what applies to the IFOs for tires and used electronics equally applies to Blue Box materials, including newspapers. In the case of tires, the tire producers and retailers pay for the recycling of tires. In the case of newspapers, the newspaper publishers contribute to an industry Blue Box fund that helps pay for the costs of recycling newspapers.

In the case of tires, the fees are passed on to the consumers of those tires. In the case of newspapers, we assume that the newspaper stewards pass along their fees to the consumers of newspapers as part of their costs. The Star claims that OTS made contributions to political parties. We don’t know whether Stewardship Ontario (the Blue Box IFO) has made similar political contributions, but we do know that individual newspaper publishers, including the Star, frequently throw their editorial weight behind one political party or another.

The only difference that we see, then, between how the newspaper publishers and the tire retailers manage the costs of their respective recycling programs, is that the tire fee is visible at retail. Tire consumers see what they are being charged for. Newspaper consumers, on the other hand, do not see any of their Blue Box eco-fees highlighted. They are hidden, but still passed on (or “plucked from consumers’ pockets”, as the Star would say). In the interests of public transparency and editorial integrity then, we would suggest that before the Star rushes out to loudly denounce eco-fees and IFOs again, that perhaps it should check what’s going on in its own house first. It would be nice to know the difference between the plucker and the plucked.

 


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The more plastics you add to Ontario’s Blue Box, the more it costs

It’s easy to describe plastics as the problem child of the Ontario Blue Box. Just look at the chart below. Its generation continues to increase; its volume fills trucks and landfills; its net cost to recycle is more than three times that of paper packaging; almost 70% of it heads to the dump.

While the plastics industry is making some efforts to render its packaging more easily recyclable, it’s also promoting energy-from-waste (EFW) as a solution for certain packaging grades. EFW may well be a solution to a waste management problem, but it is only one part of a larger issue, that of material choice and design, whether design for the environment or design for recycling.

The Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) in its recently released Strategy document has called it correctly.  It will not allow EFW to be defined as “waste diversion,” as the plastics industry would like. This is not mere quibbling over semantics. The MOECC is not opposed to EFW as a technology. But if EFW is defined as waste diversion then there is nothing to stop the plastics industry and plastic stewards from loudly proclaiming a 60, 70, 80 or 90% “diversion” rate for plastics which would put it on par with what most of the other packaging materials have already achieved through recycling (see graphic below). The plastics industry should not be given a free pass to keep pumping out more (mostly virgin) product without a reasonable effort to recycle more. Just over 30% doesn’t cut it.

One option might be to set two targets, one for recycling (i.e. diversion) and one for recovery (e.g. EFW), rather than to call them both diversion, because, as the MOECC argues, EFW is primarily a disposal option, about burning waste management residues.

There is another key element in this debate: the “message” that the Blue Box fees give to the users or stewards when they choose different packaging materials. The choice to use plastics should fairly reflect its total cost to manage throughout the Blue Box system. At the moment, the overall impact of the fee structure is to reward the materials with lower recycling rates, because the fees are so closely tied to net costs. Put another way, the more you recycle the higher the net costs. So the more plastics that are recycled, the higher the costs for the whole Blue Box.

This “message to stewards” issue will become even more important when Ontario stewards fund 100% of Blue Box costs, double what they pay now. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that the new fee structure currently being developed by the Canadian Stewardship Services Alliance (CSSA) will be one of the most closely scrutinised documents around. Everyone wants a more level playing field.

 

Recovery Rates Charts 2014 - Paper Packaging & Plastics

Retailers urged to “follow the science” on sanitisation

The corrugated box industry is just fear-mongering about food safety, according to the reusable crate lobby, which has obviously been stung by the release of yet another study questioning whether, and how well, crates are being cleaned between uses.

The latest study by Dr. Steven Ricke’s team at the Department of Food Science at the University of Arkansas demonstrates that typical industry cleaning procedures don’t actually sanitise the crates. Salmonella cells remained on the crates after cleaning. The authors suggest that bacterial biofilms hide in the cracks and crevices of the crate’s surface, making it harder for industrial sanitizers to reach them.Dirty Crates

Dr. Ricke says industry claims that crates are “99.5%” clean after sanitisation sound impressive, but that the missing 0.5 % could hold a lot of cells that could cause a lot of trouble. All it needs is one cell to multiply, to spoil product, to transfer to the next batch of fresh produce, to make someone sick or cause premature spoilage.

Any promises to remove pathogens or micro-organisms from reusable packaging that’s carrying food, he says, are not based on data. “The only guarantee that’s valid from a scientific standpoint is (that) these cells cannot be removed using commercial methods or materials.” To eliminate that risk of contamination, Ricke recommends shippers use single-use rather than multi-use packaging.

The crate industry has fired back at Ricke’s latest work, saying that “laboratory experiments” and results are no indicator of real-world realities. Point taken. But that doesn’t mean a problem doesn’t exist. Dr. Keith Warriner’s real-world studies in Ontario and Quebec in 2013-2014 strongly suggested that crates being re-used in Canada were either bypassing the washing facility in Chicago entirely or not being washed properly when they got there. E. coli was found on 13% of the crates tested. And here’s another real-world experience. A PPEC-member company recently received an emergency call to supply corrugated boxes because the crates that had arrived were mouldy and unusable.

It’s way past time for all the interested parties to agree to an independent study to establish a credible baseline for sanitisation testing. Is the crate lobby willing to participate?

Getting the facts straight on packaging diversion in Canada

In the course of an otherwise interesting article on Individual Producer Responsibility (IPR), Tom Chervinsky makes a statistical boo-boo. See, I am mellowing. I didn’t call it package bashing.

Chervinsky is certainly not the first, and won’t be the last, to play footsie with the facts. He starts out well, observing that the percentage of waste that Ontario diverts from landfill has remained stagnant for the last 20 years. The most recent Statistics Canada survey (2012) pegged it at 24 per cent.Compare packaging rates

But then he asks us to compare Ontario’s low number with the claimed packaging recycling rates for Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Whoa already! You can’t compare the Ontario diversion rate for all wastes (paper, organics, white goods, electronics, construction, renovation, and demolition materials, plus tires and other stuff) with some countries’ claim for a single category such as packaging. You have to compare packaging rates with packaging rates.

And there, Ontario, and Canada, have a problem. Because we don’t know the current diversion or recycling rates for packaging in this country. The most comprehensive survey ever conducted specifically on packaging in Canada is now almost 20 years old. We can debate its validity today, and certainly there have been changes in packaging usage over the years (less glass and more plastics). In fact, this issue of packaging recycling rates in Canada is a well-travelled road. We have taken both Ontario and Canada’s Ministers of the Environment to task for similar misuse of available data in the past.

So what can we say about packaging recycling rates in Ontario or Canada? Our alternatives seem to be to quote the 1996 National Packaging Survey which estimated that over 70% of packaging was being re-used or recycled, and that industry (not households) was doing most of it (91%). Or we can apply those 1996 per capita rates to current populations while recognising the statistical cautions that arise in doing so.

But what we cannot do, as Mr. Chervinsky has done, is blindly assume that packaging‘s recycling rate is the same as that of all other materials in the waste stream (white goods, organics, tires). Besides, some data, and admittedly anecdotal evidence, suggests that Canada may, in fact, be doing as well as, if not better than, many of its European cousins on the packaging recycling front. But that’s a whole other blog.

PPEC celebrates its 25th anniversary in style

PPEC's 25th Anniversary

Apart from breaking out the bubbly and destroying a cake, PPEC members and friends celebrated the environmental council’s 25th anniversary last week with the release of three warmly received videos.

PPEC:  The Early Years

PPEC: History of Achievement

PPEC’s Role and Performance

The videos cover the early years of the council (why it was formed); highlight its major achievements (some of them world or North American firsts); touch on current issues (including EPR); and end with some quick quotes from some of its movers and shakers.

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 from Waxed Corrugated is Recyclablethe others. 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.

We don’t cut down trees just because paper is in the landfill

A slide shown at the Conference on Canadian Stewardship in Banff last week claimed a direct connection between paper ending up in landfill and the need to harvest fresh trees. There is none, as far as paper packaging in Canada is concerned.NoDirectConnection

While it’s true that the overall paper life cycle requires fresh (virgin) fibre to be introduced at some point in the system to keep the whole paper cycle going (we wrote a blog about this some time ago), it is not true that paper products ending up in landfill automatically require the harvesting of fresh trees to supply new feedstock. It is especially not true when applied to paper packaging made in Canada, for two main reasons.

First, most Canadian packaging mills are not built to run using virgin material. So when a containerboard mill, for example, runs short of locally available recycled fibre to make a new corrugated box, it does not seek virgin fibre to make up the difference. Because it is built to run on recycled fibre, it must seek recycled fibre from other sources. Usually this means eating into the millions of tonnes of used packaging already being collected in North America and exported to Asia for recycling there. There’s plenty of it to go around (about nine million tonnes exported from the US in the last year alone).

Second, most of the boxes that end up in Canadian landfills are not made from virgin material in the first place, so you are not replacing virgin boxes, you are replacing mostly recycled material. In fact, given the nature of the fibre cycle itself, that material may very well have been recycled up to nine times already, before becoming too thin and weak for further recycling. As noted in a previous blog, most packaging mills in Canada make a 100% recycled content product. We don’t want any of it to end up in the dump. This is our feedstock and we want to use it again and again, which is why we are lobbying provincial governments to ban it from disposal.

So next time you see this false chainsaw assumption because of what’s in landfill, please challenge it.

Key decisions looming on Canada’s Blue Box EPR programs

North America’s first full producer responsibility EPR program for the Blue Box has been running for over a year now in British Columbia, with positive results. Will Ontario and the other provinces follow suit? Will they have the political wherewithal to effectively address the key issues of free-riders and producer control?

The paper industry has a major interest in these matters. Some 75% of the material collected in Canada’s Blue Box systems is paper of one kind or another, most of it used again and again as feedstock to produce new printed paper or packaging. Paper products provide more than half of all Blue Box revenues.

But the Blue Box is only part of the story. Canada’s recycling mills rely far more on the collection of old corrugated boxes from the back of factories and supermarkets, and on the used printing and writing paper collected from offices. The infrastructure to recycle this material has existed for years.

This is why it is so important that the provincial politicians who make decisions on who controls the Blue Box, make them based on overall need, not just on what municipalities say they want or are lobbying for. There are economies of scale to be achieved by better coordinating the location and capacities of all transfer stations and material recycling facilities (MRFs) in a province, whether they cater to industrial, commercial and institutional recycling or to what comes out of people’s homes. Too many MRFs, with all the same bells and whistles, is a recipe for financial disaster.

PPEC’s upcoming seminar on October 28th couldn’t be better timed. The speakers include:

GlenMurrayGlen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change. The minister has promised to introduce new waste reduction and resource recovery legislation to Ontario. This will impact all waste streams and recycling in the province. Here’s your chance to hear the minister explain, in person, the major thrust and intentions of the new legislation.

 


DLPicDan Lantz
, COO of Green by Nature EPR, which processes the residential materials from all of BC’s recycling programs. How is North America’s first full producer responsibility program working? What can we learn from it? Do we want it to be applied in other provinces? What are the implications for the paper, glass, plastic and metal industries?


RobertChantBob Chant
, VP Corporate Affairs and Communication at Loblaw, who represents Canada’s major grocery retailer on several producer-related bodies, including the industry funding organisation for Ontario’s Blue Box program, Stewardship Ontario, and its parent, the Canadian Stewardship Services Alliance (CSSA). What’s the retailer perspective on EPR in Canada? How are they handling the conflicting demands and range of programs across the country? What do they see as the key decisions to be made going forward? What are the implications for the material sectors?

DennisColleyThe seminar will be rounded out by an American perspective from Dennis Colley, President of the Fibre Box Association, representing the US corrugated box industry. What is the status of the EPR debate in the US, and what are the implications for the paper industry there?

 

For more details on this timely seminar, click here.

To register for this event please click here.

Meeting the demand for simple, concise factsheets

Anyone who has had anything to do with websites knows that they are much like airports, constantly under construction. We have four terminals, as it were, and it is a constant effort to ensure that the environmental information we post here, and on our three grade-specific websites (boxes, bags, and cartons), is accurate, concise, and current. We do try!

Boxwithquestion

Readers want information in an easily digestible format. So we have boosted our factsheets section from 15 to forty four. By dividing it into six general subject areas, we hope it’s easier to find what you are looking for:

If there’s an area we are not covering, please let us know and we’ll see what we can do about it.