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Plastics industry makes false claims for bag study

The Canadian plastics industry is embellishing the credentials of a study it says proves that plastic bags are more “environmentally friendly” than paper bags.

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The industry’s website claims that the ULS Report (2007) “was completed according to ISO standards 14040-14043, and was peer reviewed by North Carolina State University.”  In fact, the ULS study (or more correctly, its updated version of March 2008) was never an original life cycle assessment; never claimed to meet ISO standards; nor does it claim to have been peer reviewed by independent life cycle experts.

While they are correcting that sloppy and embarrassing error, perhaps the plastic folks will address some of the other false and misleading claims on their website. Here’s two for starters:

False Claim 1: “That kraft paper grocery bags have to be made from virgin pulp, not recycled pulp, to be suitably durable for market use.”

FACT: Paper grocery bags can be made from both virgin pulp and recycled pulp or a blend of the two. It all depends on the bag specifications of the customer (for strength, durability, printability and so on). A lot of the retail paper bags used in Canada today are 100% recycled content.

False Claim 2: “That post-consumer recycled paper cannot be used to carry heavy items. It is too weak. This often results in double bagging groceries, which doubles waste.”

FACT: As noted above, a lot of paper retail bags today are made from 100% recycled content material (mostly from old corrugated boxes collected from the back of supermarkets and factories, office buildings or from curbside). Most paper packaging in Canada, in fact, is 100% recycled content and all of it performs to customers’ specifications. As for double bagging, we suggest the plastic folks visit their local store to see firsthand what’s going on with plastic bags. And then maybe check out the local trees, rivers and lakes where some of their products end up.

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,(1) 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.

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.

 

 

References   [ + ]

1.  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.

Old European “life cycle’’ studies are of little use in Canadian bag wars

When the plastics industry promotes and widely circulates false and misleading claims about the environmental impact of paper bags in Canada we have an obligation to defend ourselves, and to Old Studiesensure that Canadians get all the facts, not just some of them.

What we find particularly offensive is the public parade of various European “life cycle” studies in support of the claim that paper bags are bad or worse for the environment than plastic ones. None of these studies, in fact, reflect the realities of Canadian paper bag production. They are old, of varying quality and relevance, and not one of them includes Canadian data on how bags are actually made in this country.

  1. The data is old

Accurate data is critical to life cycle conclusions. The respected not-for-profit Institute for Environmental Research and Education (IERE) says that all primary data (data gathered directly from actual bag-making operations, for example) “shall be no more than three years old.” Secondary data (gathered from publications in the peer reviewed literature or grey literature such as government publications) “must be no more than 10 years old, unless it can be verified by an industry expert to be unchanged.”

When we look at the European studies that the Canadian plastics industry loves to quote, however, and which it splashes all over its bag-specific website, we see that every single one of them includes data that is over 10 years old.  The UK Environment Agency Report  (Data requirements and data quality 3.5, and Annex C Description of Inventory Data)  was published in 2011 for the data year 2006 but in fact uses life cycle inventory data that stretches back to 1999 (17 years); and the Scottish Report adjusts data from an earlier French study (Carrefour) whose data was “taken largely from the mid to late 1990s.

That’s over 20 years ago! Around the time of the Million Man March in Washington DC or the murder trial of OJ Simpson; Jack Nicklaus winning the British Open or former US Vice President Al Gore helping push the internet from academia into schools for the first time!

  1. The studies vary in quality and relevance

If you are going to quote life cycle assessments (LCAs) then at least quote the ones that are current (not old, as noted above) and ones that meet internationally acceptable standards for comparative analysis (ISO 14020, ISO 14021, ISO 14025, ISO 14040, ISO 14044, and ISO 14050).

Only two of the European studies cited were original LCAs. And both have problem areas which the authors and/or other life cycle practitioners have acknowledged. The Carrefour study was specific to France and how that country made and imported bags using data back in the 1990s; its relative treatment of greenhouse gas emissions at end-of-life has been questioned; and it used a different functional (measuring) unit than the other, later studies.

The UK study acknowledged that most plastic carrier bags were imported from Asia, but because no Chinese data-sets were identified, it modified average numbers supplied by the European plastics industry instead. Its Final Review statement also agreed that no clear comparison had been established based on the functional unit (thus not meeting a key ISO requirement).

And the Scottish Report, which the plastics industry says has “some of the most credible data,” was neither an original LCA nor peer reviewed, and acknowledged that its findings “cannot be used for a precise quantification of environmental impacts. This would require a full life cycle analysis based on the Scottish situation, which is outside the scope of this study.”

And here’s the clincher!

  1. There is no Canadian data in these studies!

We learn something about French, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Malaysian and Chinese bags but nothing about Canadian bags from these studies. We learn about France’s energy grid (highly nuclear) and China’s energy grid (78% coal-burning at the time of one of the studies), but nothing about Canada’s energy grid (which is quite different). And this is crucial, because energy consumption is the major environmental impact category for every type of bag.

Life cycle experts like IERE say that “wherever possible, the electric grid data should represent the electricity purchased or generated by the local entity.” If that data is not available then you move to aggregated regional or national data.

So until Canadian energy data is used, as just one example, these studies have little relevance to Canada. The Canadian plastics industry tacitly acknowledges this when it rushes to point out that most Canadian plastic bags are not made from dirty coal or crude oil from China but rather from fossil fuel extraction in Alberta. But for some reason it doesn’t extend the same Canadian-specific rights to the Canadian paper bag industry for its high use of leftover sawmill residues and renewable, carbon-neutral biomass.

It’s not as if we haven’t told them this before,  numerous times. We have. Maybe, just maybe, incorporating this science and these facts into their public messaging to Canadians would seriously impact their preferred story line of paper bags being worse than plastic.

Hopefully, for its own credibility if nothing else, the plastics industry will do the honourable thing and delete these old and irrelevant-to-Canada studies from its website. And while it’s at it, maybe, just maybe, it will cover off one key factor that these studies and its bags website don’t address, the impact of bag litter on marine life, a growing environmental concern.

The end-markets get no love!

We were struck by a sentence in the recently released draft Strategy for a Waste Free Ontario. Not by what was said, but rather by what was not said.

In a chapter titled Transforming Ontario into a Leader, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change pays tribute to the Blue Box: “an internationally recognised recycling program (that’s) available in 97% of households and (that) keeps approximately 66% of residential printed paper and packaging from landfills.” All good and true. Then it gives the credit: “Residents, municipalities, businesses, and waste management companies are responsible for its ongoing success.”

What! No mention of end-markets? Where does the ministry think all this material goes to? Where’s the credit for companies like Atlantic and Abitibi/Resolute that pioneered the recycling of old newspapers in this province? Where’s the credit for Cascades/Norampac, Strathcona Paper and others, that pioneered packaging recycling in Ontario back in the 1990s, including being the first mills in the whole of North America to use and develop a market for old boxboard?

Every siVarious Balesngle packaging mill in Ontario now uses old corrugated boxes from industrial and/or residential sources to make new packaging, most of it 100% recycled content. All provide jobs to Ontarions. All pay municipal taxes. As for the Blue Box, paper materials represent 75% of what’s collected and 50% of total Blue Box revenues. And that’s just the paper end-markets. There have been end-market innovations with other materials as well.

We are not saying that municipalities and their residents, businesses (especially those that supported the early work of OMMRI, CSR and now Stewardship Ontario), or the waste haulers, have not played an important role in the Blue Box success story. They have. We just want some of the credit too! There is no great Circular Economy without us. Our importance needs to be recognised.  Give us some love!

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.