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Nothing is 100% recyclable or 100% compostable

Claims for 100% recyclable and 100% compostable seem to be proliferating. Are they accurate? Are they legal? Or are they just another form of greenwash?

It’s not surprising that North American consumers are confused. Because in common speech, the words “recyclable” and “compostable” can mean three different things:

  • technically recyclable or compostable, meaning that the product can be physically taken apart for recycling or broken down for composting
  • able to be collected, meaning that the municipality or service provider says you can put it out for recycling or composting collection
  • that the product or material is commonly being recycled or composted already.

Each of these meanings is significantly different. But in terms of environmental labelling, which is what we are talking about here, the Competition Bureau Canada will accept only one. And that is whether the consumer can actually send the product or material for recycling or composting. It does not matter whether the product or material is technically capable of being torn apart or composted. It does not matter what the actual recycling or recovery rate of that material might be (that’s a whole other issue). What does matter is how many Canadians have access (“reach” in the US) to the recycling (or composting) of that product or material.

And the Competition Bureau has guidelines on how that access is determined and when you can use the words: “It is recommended that if at least half the population has access to collection facilities, a claim of recyclable (or compostable) may be made without the use of any qualification.” If less than half the population has access, claims must be qualified: “the specific location of the recycling (or composting) programs or facilities should be identified whenever it is possible and practical to do so.” (10.1.3).

Recyclable and compostable claims, then, are based on whether and to what extent consumers have access to recycling or composting facilities. Putting 100% in front of these words, however, Nothing is 100% recyclable or 100% compostabletakes the issue to a whole new level. We are not lawyers, but to us the clear inference consumers would draw from a claim of “100% recyclable” or “100% compostable” is that 100% of Canadians have access to the recycling (or composting) of that product or material. And that is plainly not true.

While most Canadians now live in cities and towns that have access to recycling or composting facilities, there are a small but significant number of people who live in more remote locations who do not, and probably never will have “conveniently available” access to recycling or composting. Therefore, 100% access for Canadians will likely never be achieved. Which is why we in the paper packaging industry say that virtually all Canadians have access to the recycling of paper packaging. The actual number is 96% for corrugated boxes and paper bags, and 94% for boxboard cartons, determined through an independent third-party study.

Anybody putting the 100% in front of recyclable (or compostable) is therefore, in our view, failing to follow the Competition Bureau guidelines for using the words, and is leaving themselves open to prosecution for misleading advertising. They are compounding existing consumer confusion about what recyclable/compostable mean; or worse, deliberately indulging in what amounts to greenwash. Doesn’t labelling a product or material as 100% recyclable or 100% compostable just serve to dilute and undermine the whole access criteria on which the current use of the words is based? Are we wrong on this?

cc: Competition Bureau Canada

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Paper, paper, everywhere, and not a scrap to waste

Every Tuesday night I come face-to-face with the twin issues of consumption and “sustainable materials management” or the latest buzzword favoured by governments, the “circular economy.” For Tuesday night is Recycling Night.

From the bathroom and bedroom, I gather toilet rolls and tissue, envelopes and writing paper. From the kitchen and dining room, I grab the box of recyclables holding newspapers, cartons, cans, jars, and bottles; the special food scraps bag (made of compostable paper, of course) that’s stored under the sink; and the small “garbage” bag of other stuff. Then I head for the big carts parked in the garage before wheeling the appropriate ones (this week, recycling and organics) out to the curb for the morning pick-up. All told, it takes me maybe five or ten minutes. And I feel good about it, doing my little bit for the circular economy.

What I have learned from this exercise is that education and convenience are key. It is very true, as someone has said, that waste diversion is all about a flick of the wrist, that crucial moment when the householder decides whether something goes into the recycling or into the garbage. If garbage is easier, that’s where it goes, and generally, that’s where it stays.

I have a special interest in enhancing the recovery of paper, and Ontario’s Blue Box system is doing very well in this regard with almost three-quarters of it being sent on for recycling. But far too much paper is still slipping through the cracks: mainly old boxboard (such as cereal and shoe boxes) and printing and writing paper.

If most (say 85%) of that perfectly recyclable but dumped paper were instead captured and sent for recycling, provincial Blue Box paper recovery would jump to an amazing 96%, and the Ontario Blue Box overall from its current 64% to a very impressive 78 per cent. Folks, this is actually achievable, if only we set our minds to it!

It’s not as if there are no steady markets for the various paper materials. There are. In fact, the packaging mills of Southern Ontario led North America in pioneering the recovery of old boxboard back in the 1990s. We have gone from boxboard not being collected at all to virtually all Canadians (94%) being able to recycle it in the space of 20 years. An impressive achievement.

No, the issue is not markets, as some government people will tell you, it is capture. We are not physically getting enough paper material out of the home because it’s too easy for householders to flick the wrist. So how do we get them to flick in the right direction?

Education is key. We drool over British Columbia’s new Blue Box program where there is a standard list of materials accepted province-wide. Imagine that! One consistent recycling message across the whole province. Wouldn’t that be great! Remove the confusion. Save money on promotion. Increase the capture rate.

But we also need to engineer the Blue Box system for greater convenience. Municipalities and their service providers have been very creative in this respect: encouraging recycling by charging for garbage bags or bins and by limiting the number of garbage bags allowed at the curb and/or the frequency of garbage pick-up. Restrict the “garbage opportunity” and encourage recycling. Great stuff. And we do recognize that multi-residential apartments represent a special problem. It’s a lot easier to dump something down a garbage chute than to separate the recyclables and carry them in the elevator to a downstairs recycling bin.

But somehow we have to educate Canadians that most paper materials are perfectly recyclable; that there are long-standing and sustainable markets for them; that most boxes and cartons made in Canada, for example, are already 100% recycled content, and that the industry needs this household paper as feedstock to make new packaging; that this ongoing recycling activity provides local jobs and taxes; and that paper recovery is a great example of the circular economy and the goal of zero waste that we all hopefully aspire to, and is in our collective best interests.

Provincial governments have a key role to play too, in getting more paper out of the waste stream. For years, governments have been telling the packaging industry to reduce, re-use, and recycle. And it’s been doing that. But guess what, the provinces can do something too, something that industry can’t. They can introduce disposal bans on materials headed to landfill.

How about it? It’s not as if it hasn’t been done before. Nova Scotia and PEI have had disposal bans on paper materials for years. Wouldn’t a disposal ban send a great message to everyone that paper doesn’t belong in landfill; that it’s a valuable feedstock; that banning it from the dump would reduce the greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere and mitigate climate change? Isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be doing?

The English novelist Charles Dickens once described politics as the art of scurrying nowhere in a violent hurry. We wish some governments (OK, Ontario in particular) would scurry somewhere fast (hint: disposal bans) in more of a hurry! At the moment the province is not even considering disposal bans on paper until “2019 and beyond.” Which just happens to be safely past the next scheduled elections. Shame on them! Hurry hard!

 

Household paper that shouldn’t be in the garbage

(the 26% that doesn’t make it to the Blue Box)

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The good, the bad, and the ugly about Ontario’s Blue Box

The good news is that the reported recovery rates for almost every single material category in Ontario’s Blue Box have improved over the last 13 years, some by as much as 20 The Uglier Truthpercentage points. The bad news is that several categories have made very little progress and lag way behind the others, and that the real recovery rates are much lower than those reported.

Here is our Report Card by material group, based on the latest recovery numbers from Stewardship Ontario. Please note that this is not a judgement on the merits of individual materials but rather an assessment of how well they are being recovered in Ontario’s Blue Box system. There is clearly room for improvement.


PRINTED PAPER                                                            A 

Printed paper has been a consistent good performer, rising from 67% reported recovery back in 2003 to 82% today (2015). The recovery rate for old newspapers and old telephone books is in the 90s. Somewhat further back, and dragging the printed paper category down, is the recovery rate for printing and writing paper (Other Printed). This has ranged from 39% up to 59% and is currently at 55 per cent.

 GLASS PACKAGING                                                    B+

The reported recovery rate for clear and coloured glass is an impressive 80 per cent. Years ago, all we heard about was glass going to landfill or being used as road fill. Beyond talk of glass breaking in the collection process and contaminating loads of other materials, however, glass recovery is apparently in good shape. A lot of recovered glass these days goes into blast and filter media rather than higher end uses such as fibreglass and cullet which have more demanding quality requirements.

PAPER PACKAGING                                                       B 

Old corrugated containers (OCC) or boxes have the highest reported recovery rate of all Blue Box materials (98%). From there it’s a drop back to paper-based gable top cartons which have surged from a 10% to a 61% recovery rate; boxboard at 43%; followed by aseptic cartons (made of paper, plastic and aluminum), and laminants. The relatively low recovery rate for old boxboard is a concern. It reached as high as 65% recovery in 2008 but has dropped back to 43% since. Stewardship Ontario did target boxboard toothpaste cartons, toilet paper roll tubes, tissue boxes and other toiletry packaging in an advertising campaign in 2015.

 STEEL PACKAGING                                                      B 

The latest reported recovery rate for steel food and beverage cans is a respectable 71 per cent. Other steel packaging such as aerosols and paint cans drag the overall steel category down 10 per cent. In fact, paint cans are the only category in the Blue Box whose recovery rate has declined over the last 13 years.

ALUMINUM PACKAGING                                          D 

The low reported recovery rate for aluminum food and beverage cans in Ontario (42%) has always been a bit of a puzzler and is frequently compared unfavourably with its far higher recovery rates in Canada’s many deposit provinces where recovery ranges between 61% and 97 per cent. One reason offered for the difference is that the recovery rate for cans in Ontario is only for those that end up in the home. It doesn’t include those used at public events, in offices, or factories. The aluminum stewards also reported residential sales some 13% lower in 2015 than what various waste audits used to provide a provincial total suggested was in the home. But even if you allow for this difference, the reported recovery rate only rises to 48 per cent. We doubt that Blue Box scavengers are grabbing the other 52 per cent.

 PLASTICS PACKAGING                                                D 

The reported recovery rate for plastics packaging reached 32% in 2015. The highest rate was for PET bottles (66%) and the biggest increase over the years was turned in by the “Other Plastics” category with one-third now being reported as recovered. Apart from PET and HDPE bottles, however, the plastic recovery rates are poor.


The far uglier truth about all reported Ontario Blue Box recovery rates, however, is that they don’t tell the real story. They are basically “sent for recycling numbers,” in most cases, what was sent to an end-market from a material recycling facility or MRF. These reported “recovery” rates don’t deduct the various yield losses that occur in remanufacturing that curbside material back into new products, or the contamination that must be removed (and is normally landfilled) before remanufacturing can actually take place.

For example, all reported paper numbers need to be shaved by at least 10% because paper fibres shrink in the re-pulping process. When a municipality sends 100 tonnes of paper to a paper recycling mill, only 90% of it will come out the other end. And with single-stream collection there is a lot more plastic, glass and metal contamination in the paper bales. This is usually sent to landfill. And you can chop maybe 30% off the reported PET bottle “recovery” rate since PET yields at the end-market range, at best, between 60 and 70 per cent.

A recent attempt by the Canadian Standards Association to grapple  with this issue and come up with a definition of recycling, falls short in our view, and is one of the reasons why PPEC is developing a more accurate and real measurement of what paper materials are actually being recycled in this province.

 

P.S. In our last blog on the Blue Box, we claimed that “over 75%” of what the Ontario Blue Box collected in 2015 was paper of one kind or another.  The “alternative fact” is 74.55%. Close but not correct. Sorry!

 

Reported Recovery Rates

 

Source: PPEC    Analysis of Stewardship Ontario Blue Box data between 2003 and 2015

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Over 75% of what the Blue Box collects is paper, and it has the highest recovery rates

When you crunch the numbers on Canada’s various provincial Blue Box systems, one fact stands out more than any other. The Blue Box is basically a Paper Box, part of a larger feeder supply network for Canadian and other paper recycling mills.

Paper’s overwhelming dominance is more obvious, of course, in the many “deposit” provinces where beverage containers are returned outside of the Blue Box system. But even in “non-deposit” Ontario, paper is king. Over 75% of all the material collected in Ontario’s Blue Box is paper of some kind, whether printed paper like newspapers or packaging boxes and cartons. This has not changed over the last 13 years of data compiled by the province’s Blue Box industry-funding organisation, Stewardship Ontario.

A huge chunk of that recovered paper goes to Ontario recycling mills to be turned into new newspapers, new corrugated boxes, or new boxboard cartons. A local and active circular economy. The mills, and the converters who turn that recycled fibre into new paper products, provide employment to many local communities and pay taxes to municipal governments.

Paper categories also have the highest individual recovery rates of all materials in Ontario’s Blue Box. Used corrugated boxes top the bill at an amazing 98% recovery rate followed by old telephone books (96%) and old newspapers (92%). The paper or fibre stream overall has a very respectable 74% recovery rate. The recovery rate for the container stream (plastic, glass and metal packaging), on the other hand, is only 46%, dragged down by plastics’ lowly 32 percent.

Select Recovery Rates

Source: Stewardship Ontario (2015 data)

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A moving (and puzzling) story about dead Toronto chickens

Chickens are not something we would normally write about. And, in fact, this little story has less to do with dead chickens than with how they journey across Toronto in the after-life before landing between our knives and forks. Let me explain.

Until very recently in Toronto, fresh cut-up chickens were placed on foam trays with stretch wrap then placed in a corrugated box with their unfortunate comrades and trucked from the processor Chickens voyage across Torontoor packer to a retailer’s distribution centre. From there they were trucked to various retail outlets across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) for us to pick up and take home.

A truck can typically deliver about 12,000 knocked-down corrugated boxes to the chicken processor per trip. And the retailer ending up with the box receives revenue for sending that box on for recycling. Current revenues for old corrugated containers (OCC) are about $100 a tonne.

This circular loop system has been working very well, but now one major retailer has decided to change things up, forcing the chicken processors to do something different if they want to remain suppliers. We don’t have a problem with change but are very puzzled at the logic, extra costs, and increased environmental burden that this new move seems to entail, especially when that same retailer is telling the public that it is cutting carbon and improving the efficiency of moving goods.

The chicken processors in this example are now being forced to use what are called reusable plastic crates (RPCs) to deliver chicken. The costs of the box and the crate are roughly equal but because the crates take up more space on a truck you now need not one (corrugated) truck but four (plastic) trucks to deliver the same quantity of containers. More handling, more miles/kilometres, more burning of fossil fuels, more costs.

And in the crate scenario, someone must pay the (extra) cost of returning not one but four truckloads of crates to a distribution centre (which may be within or outside the GTA, or even out of province). Then that same person or someone else pays for trucking the collected crates to a wash centre, also possibly outside the GTA, out of province, or even in the US, so that the crates can be used again. More handling, more travel miles/kilometres, more burning of fossil fuels, more costs. And unlike in the corrugated box scenario, the retailer gets no revenue for returning the crates.

The chicken processors seem to be taking a major financial hit in this new arrangement. They now have not one truck in their yards delivering packaging but four, and those idling trucks must make it difficult to coordinate production flow at the plant (increasing their labour costs). They also now have the added expense of buying a polybag liner to protect the contents of each crate from leaking. Salmonella poisoning through pathogen transference is a major health risk when processing chickens and packing in crates that are to be used again.

What’s packaging got to do with the price of chicken? Maybe more than we think. Transportation and packaging are responsible for about 9% of the total greenhouse gas contributions of the poultry supply chain. If the crate transportation system outlined above costs more, and the environmental burden is greater, won’t those extra costs eventually be passed on to you and I as chicken-loving consumers?

The chicken processors will almost certainly be forced to pick up the tab, and will no doubt try to pass on their new costs to their customers (meaning us, eventually). But the biggest victim in this puzzling trial would seem to be the environment. Whichever way you slice it, it’s the planet that should be crying foul!

 

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Fewer newspapers but more boxes in the home

There’s just something about paper! Thirteen years of data on what ends up in Ontario homes tells us that Canadians, or at least those who live in Ontario, cannot or do not want to shuck their paper habit, despite all those urgent exhortations to do so. The paper-less home ain’t happening. Well, not yet anyway.Paper Generation Ontario 2015

Newspapers, corrugated boxes, boxboard cartons, and printing and writing paper are still the major paper items ending up in Ontario households, a PPEC analysis of residential generation since 2003 reveals. Paper materials today represent some 65% of the dry recyclables in the home, the same as they did back in 2003.

While there has been an 11% drop in overall generation of paper products over the period, some of this can be attributed to the light-weighting of paper and boxes (everything being measured by weight). But most of that lost tonnage has been on the newspaper side in losses to digital competition. It’s more than just newspapers, though. Printed papers overall are down by 26% collectively.

The biggest hit by far has been taken by the publisher members of the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Ontario Community Newspaper Association (down 35%), but magazines and catalogues (down 31%) and telephone books especially (down 70%), have been savaged too.

On the paper packaging side, however, everything except laminated paper is on the up. Corrugated boxes, likely buoyed by the development of e-commerce, and boxboard cartons are both up between 20 and 22%, and the minor grades, gable top and aseptic cartons, have made significant gains too.

Generation Specific Household Paper Types

The tables outline the generation changes over the 13-year period. The good news, of course, is that most of that paper packaging is made from 100% recycled content material that is widely recycled back into new packaging, an already existing local circular economy. But that’s the subject of a future blog.

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EPR (Blue Box) Fee Backgrounder (for 2017)

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The history of paper packaging in Canada

Interesting to look back sometimes. Here is my contribution to a recent book on 100 years of papermaking in Canada.

Lightweight, Recycled, Sustainable: the Story of Canada’s Packaging Grades

The last 100 years of packaging in Canada have seen the replacement of heavy wooden crates with lighter corrugated boxes, and the rise of plastic and composite packaging, mainly at the expense of glass. While not immune to attacks from both inside and outside the industry, the paper packaging sector has chugged along, with the recent growth in e-commerce giving the corrugated box a timely boost.

The period has witnessed major shifts in product delivery: the decline in movement of goods by rail in favour of more “just-in-time” shipping by road; and changing demographic and consumption patterns: more people in towns and cities, an ageing population with different packaging requirements, more and smaller households (independent servings), and the rapid growth of the fast-food industry and convenience..  Read the rest of my article hereHistory: PAPTAC 100 Years of Knowledge

To purchase your own copy of this book:   PAPTAC- 100 Years of Knowledge Connections

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Plastic lobby tells a big whopper, continues to smear paper bags

As whoppers go, this is a big one. The plastics lobby wants you to believe that only 7% of plastic shopping bags are thrown away in Montreal: “ZERO WASTE – CLOSE TO IT,” it proudly claims. Zero Waste - NoWhat a stretch! 

The claim is blatantly misleading and dishonest. What the plastics lobby has done is combine a re-use estimate with a recycling estimate to come up with an impressive 93% total. The problem is that almost two-thirds of that total is bags re-used for household garbage or pet waste. Yes, bags that will shortly be in the dump or roaming the streets as litter.

To claim that “only 7% of the bags (in Montreal) are thrown away” and that “bag waste management is very close to zero waste” when in fact almost 70% of them end up in landfill, is blatantly misleading. This claim shifts all of the environmental burden off of shopping bags and onto garbage bags.

It is also false accounting. Think of all those used corrugated boxes in your garage or basement holding stuff they didn’t deliver in the first place. Are we going to count them as “re-use” now, as the plastics folks are doing, so that we can claim that virtually no corrugated boxes go to landfill? In fact, if we did what the plastics people are doing for bags and added the re-use number for corrugated to the recycling number for corrugated in Ontario households (98%), poof, we’d be over 100% easily! Yeah baby, we’re even better than zero waste!

The recycled percentage is also questionable. It’s for plastic bags collected, not actually recycled. Ask the operator of a material recovery facility (MRF) how many plastic bags have to be removed from their machinery and sent to landfill, or a paper recycling mill how much plastic film ends up as residue and has to be dumped at their expense, and you’ll start to get more accurate numbers.

And, of course, facing bans on bags in various cities, the plastics industry can’t resist having a go at plastic alternatives such as reusable bags and paper bags. It’s been doing this for a while, mainly through a website that’s rather ironically called “all about bags.” Well, not quite all about bags. Its special section on litter somehow neglects to mention the fact that bags end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans.

majorholesAnd it gives an entirely false impression of paper bag production and environmental performance in Canada. We have previously pointed out one dirty lie and several factual errors on this site. There are also some major holes in the waste management comparison it tries to make. For starters, a typical paper bag carries more goods than a plastic bag (a fact recognised by life cycle experts). So you can’t crunch numbers based on the assumption that one paper bag will replace just one plastic bag. It’s more than that. And this, of course, changes any calculations of greenhouse gas impact.

Nor can you assume that all banned plastic bags will be replaced by paper bags. In reality, bans on plastic bags seem to achieve major reductions in plastic bag usage (straight reduction) and a significant increase in reusable bags. We don’t see new paper bag mills springing up everywhere!

In the same vein, the net cost of recycling plastic film in the recycling system is more than six times the cost of recycling paper bags in a corrugated bale. So there are huge avoided costs (savings) that have to be taken into account when plastic bags are replaced.

And then there’s the so-called life cycle studies (LCAs) that the plastics industry loves to promote. As we have pointed out before, most of these are old; of varying quality and relevance; and perhaps most significantly, incorporate no actual data on paper and plastic bag production in Canada. Assumptions and conclusions based on studies of how French, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Malaysian, and Chinese paper and plastic bags were made up to 20 years ago, are of little value to us in Canada today!

The high amount of sawmill residues and renewable energy (carbon-neutral biomass) that are used to make bag material in Canada are not taken into account in the life cycle studies being promoted by the plastic folks. So making claims that solid waste management costs in Montreal and elsewhere will skyrocket and greenhouse gas emissions soar if plastic bags are replaced by paper bags, are spurious, to say the least.

Until these key paper production issues (the use of sawmill residues and renewable energy) and the impact of marine litter are factored into LCAs, we are not, however, going to claim that paper bags are “environmentally friendlier” (a phrase the Competitions Bureau cautions against using anyway). But we will continue to point out the false claims, the misrepresentations, and yes the big whoppers made by our less principled competitors.

 

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Packaging is the villain again (sigh)

There is no doubt that some goods are over-packaged and that more can be done to reduce the amount of paper, glass, metal and plastic packaging that ends up in consumers’ homes. But blaming packaging all the time is only part of the story. To put it bluntly, we in the so-called developed world eat, drink and buy far too much stuff.

Consumption is the real issue, not the packaging that delivers it. As consumers, however, we find it difficult to limit what we purchase. It’s so much easier to point the finger at the packaging that’s left behind.

For example, a recent anonymous letter to the editor of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine outlines the increase in convenience packaging of produce (plastic bags for peppers, a bundle of herbs in a plastic case, fresh grapes in a plastic bag with grab-and-go handles). The writer complains that the increased packaging waste from this new convenient shopping trend means higher costs for municipalities dealing with it down the line. A reasonable argument.

It’s when the letter writer rather loosely broadens the attack to packaging in general that we get concerned. “Our waste streams are clogged with unnecessary packaging at every turn,” he/she writes, “and most of it is neither recyclable nor compostable.”

Now hang on a minute there! If you are talking about convenience packaging of fresh produce (the peppers, herbs and grapes above) then you might have a point, although we suspect there will be debate over exactly what “necessary” means.

But when you broaden the issue to all packaging, you are lumping all packaging together in the same boat. Setting aside the argument over what might be deemed necessary or unnecessary, packaging is definitely not “clogging” our waste streams “at every turn.” In the most comprehensive national survey of packaging ever done in Canada, packaging represented only 13% of total solid waste. Significant, but not exactly “clogging.”

Consumption is the issue not the packagingThis survey was conducted by Statistics Canada for the Canadian Council of Ministers for the Environment (CCME) and is admittedly now some 20 years old, but there’s no obvious reason why the percentage would not be hugely different if measured today. Some people (including the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change) claim a higher percentage, but that’s because they change the denominator, they use a much narrower definition of solid waste.

It’s the claim that “most of it is neither recyclable nor compostable” that really gets us going though. Again, if the writer is talking about specific convenience packaging for produce, he/she might have a case. But by far  most packaging used in Canada is able to be recycled (recyclable). And a fair chunk of it (mostly paper-based) is compostable. Whether it is actually being recycled and composted is an issue for another day, and an argument for better and more current national data.

 

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