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

John Mullinder, Executive DirectorA 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(1)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.”

References   [ + ]

1. The two earlier studies, by food scientists at the University of Guelph and the University of California (Davis), are referenced in a previous blog.

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

John Mullinder, Executive DirectorThe 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.(1) “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.(2)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.”

 

References   [ + ]

1.  “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. 
2. 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 

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

John Mullinder, Executive DirectorIt 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.(1)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

Mobro4000

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.(2)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.

References   [ + ]

1. 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
2. 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.

False and misleading claims removed from IFCO website

John Mullinder, Executive DirectorThe North American paper packaging industry has served notice that it will challenge (legally, if necessary) any false and misleading claims about its operations and environmental impact. Case in point: major plastic crate supplier, IFCO.

IFCO is lobbying North American grocery retailers to move away from the traditional corrugated box system of delivering fruit and vegetables. In the course of promoting its plastic crate alternative, IFCO has made various economic and environmental claims. This is its right. But IFCO (and others) also have a responsibility to be able to substantiate any such public claims when challenged.

Among the most pernicious of IFCO’s recent claims were that “most (corrugated) boxes” were disposed of in landfills, and that only “a small percentage of used boxes (were) recycled.” These claims were so patently false (certainly to the corrugated industry) that for a while they served as a great example of IFCO’s lack of credibility on this issue.

Colley: Need for facts and data back-up.

Colley: Need for facts and data back-up.

But now the kid gloves have come off. The US-based Fibre Box Association recently sent a “cease and desist” letter to IFCO demanding documentation to substantiate its claims, or removal of them from the IFCO website. Within 24 hours of IFCO receiving the letter, the untrue statements had been removed. “Let’s use this (example) as a reminder,” said FBA President/CEO Dennis Colley, “to be fact-based; to have data to back up our claims; and to challenge those who don’t.”(1)FBA Forces IFCO Website Change, Board Converting News, December 22, 2014

For the record, some 89% of US corrugated boxes were recovered for recycling in the most recent data year. (2)US EPA Municipal Waste Characterisation tables, 2013. PPEC estimates the Canadian rate at about 85 per cent.(3)The most recent national recycling statistics for packaging materials in Canada are now 18 years old! In 1996, Statistics Canada estimated corrugated recovery at 76%. PPEC estimates this has improved since then, partly because of increased residential recovery efforts. The recovery rate for corrugated in Ontario’s Blue Box program, for example, was 85% in 2012.  In both countries, most grocery stores recover nearly all of their corrugated boxes in backroom balers. The baled material is then sold to generate revenue before being recycled back into new corrugated boxes.(4)“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.

References   [ + ]

1. FBA Forces IFCO Website Change, Board Converting News, December 22, 2014
2. US EPA Municipal Waste Characterisation tables, 2013.
3. The most recent national recycling statistics for packaging materials in Canada are now 18 years old! In 1996, Statistics Canada estimated corrugated recovery at 76%. PPEC estimates this has improved since then, partly because of increased residential recovery efforts. The recovery rate for corrugated in Ontario’s Blue Box program, for example, was 85% in 2012.
4. “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.

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

John Mullinder, Executive DirectorThe 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's Forests

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 …

John Mullinder, Executive Director

 

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 www.ppec-paper.com.

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

John Mullinder, Executive DirectorThe 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

John Mullinder, Executive Director

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.

mobiusloop

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

John Mullinder, Executive DirectorA 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.

RPCOntariowrapped

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

RPCBrusselsprouts

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 http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/fs-sa/fs-fi/ecoli-eng.php

[3] For the press release click here. For the study itself, 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.

Stewards need to rethink how they pay for the Blue Box

John Mullinder, Executive Director

One of the prime aims of the Ontario government when it passed the  Waste Diversion Act of 2002 was to regulate and secure industry funding for the province’s popular Blue Box program. The deal, a typical political compromise, was for Blue Box financial responsibility to be shared 50/50 between industry stewards and municipalities.

The hoped-for results were for the Blue Box to become more efficient and effective; to achieve a waste diversion target of 60 per cent; and to reduce the amount of printed paper and packaging ending up in Ontario homes. At the time, the Ministry of Environment claimed that the industry funding formula would encourage companies to use less packaging or recyclable materials; that stewards would pay lower fees when products were packaged in materials that were easily recycled; and that there would be “less and less non-recyclable materials used in packaging” in the future.[1]

Ten years later, we are all much wiser. And many of the fundamental parameters of Ontario’s Blue Box system have changed. Out of necessity, we need to adjust.

For starters, we should recognise that the current 50/50 cost-sharing deal is not an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program at all. It is a financial arrangement. True or full EPR means producer (not municipal) control.[2]  And if the Blue Box is to be 100% industry-funded in future (as some municipalities would like) then it should also be 100% industry-controlled. Currently in Ontario, industry stewards make financial payments but have little or no control over which materials are collected, or how they are collected and processed. A new financial and operational plan needs to be developed (by the stewards who are paying for it), with the province first providing an appropriate overarching policy framework or direction.[3]

BlueBox10If the producers are fully responsible, financially and operationally, then they will be in a better position to reduce the net cost of the program, which has ballooned by almost 70% since 2003.[4]  Today, we do have a pretty good idea of how much it costs to collect and process Blue box materials. But there is a growing disconnect between how stewards pay for that (the funding formula) and the changing nature of the Blue Box system and its material composition.

The current weight-based formula is unfair and outdated.[5]  On a weight basis, the material that ends up in Ontario households is actually slightly lower than it was in 2003. But this is because bulky newspapers have taken a hit from competing digital media and because telephone books are pretty much disappearing. On the packaging side, some of the heavier glass and steel beverage containers have lost out to lighter plastics, whose generation, on a weight basis, is up an amazing 22% over the period. [6]

There has been uneven progress on recycling rates as well. Printed paper, corrugated boxes, and glass bottles have the highest diversion rates (between 85% and 96%) while plastic packaging has made little
improvement (some 73% of it still goes to landfill). And this is the more expensive material to recycle.[7]   As well, the advent and adoption by most large urban municipalities of single stream collection, where all materials are thrown together at curbside and sorted out later at a material recycling facility or MRF, has served to downgrade material quality and revenues. The cost for a single stream system is about 30% higher than the traditional two-stream system it replaced, so not only has its introduction contributed to higher net Blue Box recycling costs, it has also meant that some of the resulting commingled materials have been sent offshore rather than being used as a feedstock by Ontario recyclers.

The predominant material in the Blue Box used to be old newspapers (ONP), with the highest quality grade (#8) being left on the conveyor belt at a MRF and other materials charged the costs of being separated from it (called a positive sort). Today it’s different. A decline in newspaper sales, coupled with steady growth in corrugated and boxboard packaging (not to mention PET plastic thermoforms), and the widespread adoption of single stream processing, have made it increasingly difficult for MRFs to reduce contaminants and out-throws to meet the quality requirements of # 8 News. Many MRF operators, in fact, are giving up on producing the more valuable # 8 News grade and taking a price hit. The City of Toronto and Region of Durham, for example, no longer request #8 in their processing contracts.

These new realities of the marketplace and how MRFs handle them are cogent reasons why the current funding formula needs to be reviewed. At the moment, printed paper and packaging costs are treated separately, in different cost silos. There is also cross-subsidisation between materials in the packaging silo to preserve what’s called a “basket of goods” approach.[8]  The problem now, however, is that the nature of that basket has changed significantly, raising the larger question: how, in today’s predominantly single stream Blue Box system, do you properly allocate costs using the old “basket”?

In summary, what we have in Ontario is an increasingly expensive Blue Box system over which stewards have little control; major changes in Blue Box composition (less paper and more, and lighter plastics); and greater overall contamination with resulting lower revenues. We also have a funding formula that allows cross-subsidisation within the individual silos of packaging and printed paper but not between them (even though all Blue Box materials are now mostly collected and processed in virtually the same way: single stream).

yellowballoon

We have a suggestion which takes these various market and process changes into account. How about a funding formula that is material-neutral, that does not pit one material against another, and which allocates costs fairly, reflecting the actual effort to recycle it? A unit-based formula. The time and effort taken to process materials as they speed down the conveyor belt in a MRF is relatively easy to monitor. Stewards are already measuring their product sales by the unit, or thousands of units. And Canada’s many deposit programs operate this way as well, basing their fees not on the weight of their packaging, but on their unit cost. Why not allocate all Blue Box recycling costs on a per unit basis? You don’t have to convert sales to weight and then come up with something as incredibly complicated and outdated as the funding formula we have now. A unit basis is simple and effective.

We would urge the Canadian Stewardship Services Alliance (which controls Blue Box program plans in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario) and Éco-Entreprises Québec (which funds a similar program in Québec) to seriously consider this alternative. It’s time for a change.

 

 

 


[1] Ontario MOE, Ontario’s 60% Waste Diversion Goal-A Discussion Paper, June 10, 2004, page 28. PPEC has consistently challenged several of these claims made for the funding formula. How it is intended to work and how it actually works are two different things. For example, PPEC pointed out that zero recovery in many cases was far less expensive for stewards that 60% recovery because the fee structure was so closely tied to the net cost of managing individual materials. Generally speaking, the more material managed, the higher the cost, and therefore the higher the fee.

[2] “EPR programs will require producers to take financial and/or physical responsibility for their packaging at the end of the packaging’s life cycle, shifting responsibility away from municipalities.” A Canada-Wide Strategy for Sustainable Packaging, Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, October 2009, page 1.

[3] The Elephant in the Room, PPEC blog, December 19, 2013.

[4] The Blue Box net system cost in 2003 was $117.5 million. In the latest data year (2012) it had reached $198.0 million (Comparison of Stewardship Ontario, Table 2: Gross and Net Costs for 2003 and 2012).

[5] Waste Diversion Ontario warned the minister in April 2004: “Given that fees paid by stewards are tied in large measure to the cost of managing each type of material recovered, there is a potential for a growing inequity in the fee rates (italics added) paid by stewards of materials with the lowest recycling rates who could not be making a fair contribution to total system costs” and that “Under the current weighting factors in the formula, those materials with the highest recycling rates … will attract the highest costs.” (WDO response to the minister, 60% Diversion of Blue Box Waste, Material Specific Targets, Municipal Benchmarks, April 30, 2004, Sections 5.2.2 and Section 5.1.2). See also footnote 1 above.

[6] Stewardship Ontario Blue Box data for 2003 and 2012 (Tables 1 and 2).

[7] Stewardship Ontario Blue Box data (2012).

[8] The “basket of goods” approach was adopted by Stewardship Ontario to both preserve the right of stewards to choose the packaging material they wanted, and to reflect the fact that many stewards used more than one packaging material to get their goods to market. The current funding formula does attempt (unsuccessfully in our view) to address the issue that some materials are less costly to recycle than others.