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Boxes, boxboard, paperboard, folding cartons, cardboard: whatever you call it, we have them covered

John Mullinder, Executive Director

We have just launched a new website on the environmental attributes of paper boxes, but boy did we have a time before settling on what exactly to call it. You wouldn’t think there could be so many different names for what basically is a similar type of packaging material, but it’s a fact. There’s boxes, boxboard, paperboard, cartons, and these are just some of the terms used by industrylogopaperbags folk. Throw in the general, more public catch-all phrase of cardboard, and you can see why people get totally confused (What do you mean “cardboard” doesn’t exist?).

We finally settled on paper boxes because that is what they are made from, paper. And the thin lightweight paper box that we are talking about here is quite structurally different from its cousin, the heavier and stronger corrugated box. Huh? What’s a corrugated box?

Anyway, we now have four websites to get you all straightened out. This site (PPEC) provides general environmental information about paper packaging in Canada. If it’s paper bags you are interested in, you can get more specific info at If you want to know what corrugated means, go to And if you need specific information on Canadian paper boxes or cartons or boxboard or paperboard (!) then this is where you should click ( For those of you who are cardboard-inclined, you have a choice: the corrugated box site or the paper boxes Canada site!

The aim is to provide customers and consumers with easy access to the most accurate, concise and current environmental information possible. Each site outlines the common uses of the packaging type; what it’s made from; how it’s made; where it’s made; plus information on the industry’s use of renewable resources, recycled content, recyclability, compostability, and public policy issues. There’s even a quiz. We’d appreciate your feedback and any suggestions for improvement.

Plastics’ burning ambition and paper’s feedstock supply

John Mullinder, Executive DirectorThe plastic industry has made no secret of the fact that it would like to burn over a million tonnes of currently “non-recycled” plastics in Ontario alone[1] . In strategic terms this would remove a major solid waste problem (some 73% of residential plastic packaging in Ontario, for example, ends up in landfill)[2] , while at the same time provide a feedstock for the energy-from-waste (EFW) plants the plastics industry would like to see built. Better to burn the stuff and get some energy from it, rather than just send it to the dump, the argument goes.

It would be hypocritical of the paper industry to be opposed to energy-from-waste as a technology. After all, kraft paper mills convert parts of the tree that can’t be used to make paper into energy to power their operations; and several mills also use the residuals of municipal solid waste as an energy source. We will leave it to others to comment on the air pollution aspects of EFW plants, and on how much, if any, taxpayers’ money should be used to subsidise them.

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Most boxes and cartons manufactured in Canada are 100% recycled content.

Our major concern in this debate is what can be called the paper feedstock issue. The Canadian paper packaging industry is highly dependent on paper recovered from the back of factories and supermarkets and from households. Most boxes and cartons manufactured in Canada are 100% recycled content. Our mills are generally located in urban areas to capitalise on nearby supplies of recyclable feedstock. Paper materials represent almost 70% of the dry recyclables generated by Ontario households, and almost 80% of all that is recovered for recycling through the province’s Blue Box system[3] .

If anything happens to jeopardise this supply of recovered paper, we have a concern. If local supplies go down, we have to find recovered paper elsewhere, at higher prices, and with a possible cumulative effect of rendering paper products less competitive in the marketplace, in some cases, with certain plastic products that are recycled less easily.

Which brings us to the question of narrowing down exactly what materials, and how much of it, is needed to justify the economics of an EFW plant. Is the tonnage of currently “non-recycled” plastic materials enough? Will it have to be supplemented by paper materials? If so, which ones, and how many tonnes? What will be the impact on the paper industry’s fibre supply, and on the economics of the Blue Box? Do the materials used in an EFW plant count as “recycling” or “diversion”? What would be the impact on the Blue Box funding model if suddenly 82% of residential plastic packaging is deemed to be “recycled” through EFW or “diverted” rather than landfilled?[4]  Lots of questions. Not many answers.




[1] Residential and IC & I Disposal of Plastics, Tables 2 and 3, pages 11-12, Energy and Economic Values of Non-Recycled Plastics (NRP) Currently Landfilled in Canada, M.E. Haight and N. Antadze, University of Waterloo, December 2012, commissioned by the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, CPIA press release of Jan. 18, 2013.

[2] Stewardship Ontario, Table 1: Generation and Recovery (2012 data).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Household generation of plastic film, laminants, polystyrene and other plastics together with PET and HDPE bottles currently landfilled, Stewardship Ontario, ibid.


Some signs of progress

John Mullinder, Executive Director

The US-based environmental group, Upstream, has quietly changed the numbers in its Waste of Forests campaign, correcting the error that inflated its packaging waste claim by about 30 per cent (Upstream misses the boat). We remain hopeful that the group will also change its misleading view of how recycled and virgin material are used in packaging production (Upstream misses the boat – part 2).

While we are waiting for that, there’s another claim that caught our eye: that “Paper production is currently the single largest threat to our forests.”  We asked Upstream for the missing footnote (3) that accompanies this claim some time ago, but it hasn’t provided it. Maybe we are misreading this, but we would have thought that the “single largest threat” to any forest (US or Canadian) would be the actual removal of that forest itself for another purpose (deforestation for agriculture, oil and gas projects, or urban development) rather than the process of tree harvesting (where the harvested area is naturally regenerated or replanted with new seedlings). But that’s just us. Isn’t re-forest better than no forest?



P.S. Harvested forests are regenerated by both the US and Canadian forest industries, in Canada by a combination of natural regeneration and the planting of over a thousand new seedlings per minute (More than a thousand new tree seedlings are planted every minute in Canada). The major causes of net deforestation in Canada (the removal of forest for another purpose) are agriculture (41%), oil and gas projects (24%), and urban development 10% (PPEC blog February 14).

Got a spare moment?

John Mullinder, Executive DirectorTired of wading through the hundreds of emails that have accumulated in your inbox while you were on holiday? Can’t get hold of someone because they are now away? Love the kids dearly but secretly can’t wait until school starts again and you can get back on a regular schedule?

We have the answer, and the technology! All you have to do is click here for a small diversionary moment, and likely learn something you didn’t know before. No prizes, just a diversion. But of course we would like to know how well you scored!  Submit your score here

A case of shameless self-promotion

John Mullinder, Executive Director
If you want to find out more about paper packaging and the environment then set aside the morning of November 12 in Brampton, Ontario. There you will be treated to a frank State-of- the-Nation address by the executive director of the industry’s environmental council. This normally shy and diplomatic individual (who wrote this stuff?) will outline the challenges and opportunities facing the sector, and kindly demolish many of the common myths about paper in general and paper packaging in particular.

He will be followed by Dan (Of-all-Trades) Lantz. This gentleman knows the difference between paper and plastic (inside out), and never gets excited about which materials will or will not make it through a recycling plant. Wearing his Cascades Recovery hat, Dan will tell packagers what they need to know so that packaging can be successfully recovered for further recycling. And as COO of Green by Nature EPR, which has the processing contract for British Columbia’s new 100% industry-funded residential recycling program, he will update everyone on what’s really going on out there.

Finally, before lunch, Dennis Colley, President of the US-based Fibre Box Association, will present the findings from two recent life cycle analyses: one of the average US corrugated box, and the second, a comparative life cycle analysis of two competing systems for fresh produce (the traditional corrugated box and the reusable plastic crate). This should be fun!

For more details and to register, click here.  Sponsorships are still available.

Upstream misses the boat – part 2

John Mullinder, Executive DirectorThere are two things that bug us about the recent packaging campaign launched by US-based environmental group, Upstream: its misleading use of data (outlined in an earlier blog) and its superficial and one-sided view of how the paper packaging industries in both Canada and the United States work.

Basically what Upstream claims is that all the recyclable paper packaging thrown in the trash represents x million trees or so many thousand acres of forest land. Hence its tag line of “A Waste of Forests”1.  Upstream argues that if we recycled all this paper “instead of using virgin paper,” we could reduce carbon dioxide emissions, take millions of cars off the road, and save energy. It makes for a good sound-bite and is accompanied by the obligatory stark photo of a clear cut. But is it true? Or more appropriately for us, is it true in Canada?

The first point to make is that more than 70% of the consumer paper packaging that unfortunately ends up in Canadian landfills is already recycled content packaging2.  It’s been recycled at least once and maybe as many as nine times3.   It is not a question of racing into the forest with a chainsaw to find a virgin replacement for it.  Mills will simply seek alternative sources of recycled fibre, most likely from among the millions of tonnes of used packaging already being collected in North America and exported to Asia for recycling there4.

The 30% of so-called “virgin” material left in Canadian landfills represents less than 2,500 hectares of forest land, less than the size of Port Coquitlam in British Columbia. How many Port Coquitlam’s would fit into Canada? How about 342,0005! Four times more forest land is lost to oil and gas exploration, seven times more to agriculture, not to mention the real biggies: losses to forest fires (consuming 1.9 million hectares) and insects/bugs (chomping their way through a whopping 9.2 million hectares)6.

And of course, Upstream fails to mention that the harvested forest is regenerated by both the US and Canadian forest industries. That virgin material in landfill is actually replaced, in Canada by a combination of natural regeneration and the planting of over a thousand new seedlings per minute7.

So no, we don’t agree with the way Upstream exaggerates and characterises used consumer packaging as “a waste of forests.” We do agree with Upstream, however, that any paper packaging that ends up in landfill is a waste of resources that could be further recycled or composted. It seems to us that instead of playing the emotional card of the clear cut and laying blame at the feet of the paper industry, that Upstream would be far more effective focusing more closely on why packaging actually ends up in landfill. We don’t want it there either. It’s our feedstock. But we as the paper industry don’t have any control over the relative costs of sending stuff to landfill and recycling. State governments and provinces do. But that’s a subject for a whole other blog.




1 Upstream’s Make It, Take It Campaign, A Waste of Forests.

2It is substantially higher than 70% because we have not factored in imported packaging from countries like China where recycled content is known to be high. In Canada, most corrugated boxes and folding cartons are made from 100% recycled content, from old boxes collected from the back of factories and supermarkets or from curbside. The average recycled content of paper-based packaging as a whole is almost 80 per cent. There are only three packaging mills that actually use 100% virgin material, and these, plus a few that blend virgin fibres with recycled, do not use whole trees as such, they use wood chips and sawmill residues that are left over from logging trees for lumber (to make homes and hospitals).  For further information see PPEC press release and document Understanding Recycled Content.

3 Paper fibres can be recycled between four and nine times but progressively become weaker until eventually they wear out and must be replaced with a fresh infusion of longer and stronger virgin fibres (PPEC blog).

4 For example, the US collects almost 9 million tons of old corrugated boxes and exports them for recycling in other countries, principally China.

5 In the absence of national statistics on consumer packaging disposal, we extrapolated Ontario residential disposal data to Canada’s 2012 population, assuming that other Canadians disposed of paper packaging in a similar fashion. From this total of 440,811 tonnes we deducted recycled content tonnes (303,291 or 69%) based on national average recycled content rates (81.1% for corrugated, 70% for boxboard/folding cartons, and assuming 80% for laminants) to get a total of 137,520 tonnes of so-called “virgin” material in landfill. We then converted this total to short tons and used the same tons/acre ratio that Upstream uses (0.04 per acre) to derive a forest use number of 6,063 acres (which is 2,452 hectares when converted back to metric). Port Coquitlam is slightly larger than this at 2,917 hectares.

6 PPEC blog on net deforestation using Environment Canada/Natural Resources Canada data, and The State of Canada’s Forests, Annual Report, 2013, pages 16, 45.

7More than a thousand new tree seedlings are planted every minute in Canada (PPEC blog).




Upstream misses the boat

John Mullinder, Executive Director

There’s no question that the folks at the US-based environmental group, Upstream, have their hearts in the right place. We just wish they would get all of their facts straight.

The group recently launched a wide-ranging campaign against packaging waste, including a section on what it calls paper-based “consumer” packaging. Upstream defines this as pretty much everything except corrugated boxes, and claims that only 25% of it is being recycled in the US[1].

The assumption that corrugated boxes should not be considered part of consumer packaging, however, directly contradicts the 10 years of detailed residential data we have here in Canada. In fact, corrugated boxes are the single largest component (on average 46%) of Canadian consumer paper packaging (containing everything from appliances through to electronics, wine and beer, pizza, even hamburgers)[2].  So it doesn’t seem very honest to us for Upstream to exclude almost half of residential paper packaging from its calculations. We have no reason to believe that American and Canadian residential consumption patterns are significantly different.
AvggerationofpaperbasedpkgExcluding corrugated from one’s definition of consumer packaging, of course, makes a huge difference in the recycling rate. In Canada, more than 80% of these “consumer” corrugated boxes are being recovered for recycling[3].  We don’t know the equivalent rate for the US, but Upstream’s claim of only 25% recovery (by excluding residential corrugated) gives a very misleading impression to say the least[4].

This false impression is compounded when Upstream tries to calculate the supposed environmental impact of the “consumer” packaging that ends up in landfill, what it calls “a waste of forests.” For some reason, Upstream does not use the US EPA discard total for non-corrugated paper packaging (6.42 million tons), which would be consistent with its limited definition of consumer packaging.

textboxInstead it uses a tonnage number that’s almost 30% higher (the discard total for corrugated and non-corrugated packaging from both industrial and residential sources)[5].   In effect, what Upstream has done is ignore residential corrugated when discussing the recovery rate, but include residential (and industrial-sourced corrugated) when it calculates waste. You can’t do that! You can’t change your definition of consumer packaging halfway through without inviting criticism that you are deliberately distorting the numbers to make your target (paper-based consumer packaging) look worse.

Even if you buy Upstream’s argument of a “waste of forests” (we don’t, and will explain why in a later blog), correcting this statistical miscalculation would shrink the size of that “forest” by almost a third. We suggest that Upstream do the honourable thing and remove its “Waste of Forests” piece from both its website and its campaign while it corrects these errors.



[1] Upstream’s Make It, Take It Campaign, A Waste of Forests, claims that “only 25% of paper-based consumer packaging is recycled.” This ties in with Table 4, Paper and Paperboard Products in Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: Facts and Figures, 2012 (US EPA) which cites a recovery rate for paper packaging (excluding corrugated boxes) of 24.7%.

[2] Stewardship Ontario data for Ontario’s residential Blue Box program (2003 to 2012). Residential corrugated averaged 46% of all residential (consumer) paper packaging generation over a 10-year period.

[3] Stewardship Ontario, ibid. The recovery rate for residential corrugated over the same period averaged 81% (85% in the latest data year).

[4] Table 4 above (US EPA) cites a corrugated recovery rate in the US of 90.9% but there is no breakdown of recovery by consumer or industrial source.

[5] Upstream claims that “only 25% of paper-based consumer packaging is recycled. The rest – 9.1 million tons is wasted each year….”  But according to the US EPA (Table 4 above), the discards of Upstream’s chosen definition of “consumer” packaging (excluding corrugated) was only 6.42 million tons. Upstream inflated its waste calculation by 29 per cent.

Great news on the corrugated life cycle front

John Mullinder, Executive Director
The average US corrugated box has registered significant environmental improvements over a four-year period, according to a life cycle analysis released today.

Global warming results were 32% lower than recorded in a similar study undertaken in 2006, mainly because more old corrugated containers (OCC) were diverted from landfill (recovery increasing from 72% to 85%). Also significant were lower fossil fuel usage, a switch from coal to less carbon-intensive fuels such as natural gas, and reduced mill effluent phosphorus and atmospheric emissions.

The cradle-to-cradle study, commissioned by the Corrugated Packaging Alliance, was completed by the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI), a third-party independent research body specialising in forestry issues. A Critical Review Panel comprising life cycle experts from the Athena Institute and EarthShift LCC confirmed that the study conforms to ISO 14040/14044 standards. The study considers seven environmental impact indicators and four inventory indicators.

All pertinent information is available here.

What do a cathedral, furniture, and a bicycle have in common?

John Mullinder, Executive Director


Corrugated, of course. The gothic stone cathedral that was the centrepiece of Christchurch, New Zealand, was badly damaged in a 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people and has temporarily been replaced with a corrugated  alternative. The triangular prism shape of the 700-capacity cathedral was fashioned around 98 interlocking corrugated tubes set on a concrete base. Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has also constructed corrugated shelters and homes in Haiti and New Orleans after natural disasters there.





Corrugated furniture has been around for a while too, although it tends to be a novelty item. More likely to take off, literally, is an Israeli mechanical engineer’s corrugated bicycle. The latest version of this bike is said to be waterproof, rust-proof, made of renewable and recyclable materials, and able to support a rider 20 times its weight.





All three items (cathedral, furniture, bicycle) speak to the great strength properties of corrugated board and point to its prime purpose, to deliver goods safely and efficiently to their destination. The corrugated box, of course, has impressive environmental attributes as well: made from a renewable resource, high in recycled content (most corrugated boxes manufactured in Canada are 100% recycled content); recyclable and compostable. You can read more about these attributes on a new website we have just launched that focuses specifically on corrugated. If you take the Quiz, you might even find out what corrugated is!


P.S. This just in. Another interesting use of corrugated as furniture: Aarambh converted discarded boxes into classroom furniture that can also be used as school bags for developing nations  by

  Leah Gonzalez Leah Gonzalez on May 22, 2014. @leahgonz


More than a thousand new tree seedlings are planted every minute in Canada

John Mullinder, Executive Director

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, 169 new tree seedlings will have been planted somewhere in a commercial forest in Canada. By the time you get to the bottom of the page that number will have jumped to over 2500. On average, more than a thousand seedlings are launched on a new life every minute, regenerating what Canada has plenty of — forests. The latest annual harvest for timber and pulp and paper amounted to less than 0.2% of what’s out there[1].


Average number of new seedlings planted per minute

Forest companies regenerate the forest they use because of self-interest (they want it to be there when they need it in future), but also because over 90% of Canada’s commercial forests are located on crown land, owned by the provinces. By law, these companies must meet provincially-set sustainability levels. At the moment, timber is being harvested at rates 30% below what’s considered to be the sustainable limit for Canada’s wood supply[2].  The Canadian forest industry is also a world leader in both independent third-party certification of forests and chain-of-custody certification (responsible sourcing of its raw materials)[3]. This environmental indicator is endorsed by the global alliance of retailers and consumer goods companies, The Consumer Goods Forum[4].

What’s this got to do with paper packaging? Canada’s paper packagers are by no means the major “consumers” of the forest (bugs and insects chomp their way through 14 times as much as the whole lumber and pulp and paper industries combined, forest fires almost four times as much)[5]. And, in fact, most of the boxes and cartons manufactured in Canada are made from 100% recycled fibre collected from the back of factories and supermarkets, or from curbside. But public perception always seems to come back to the tree, and to our collective stewardship of it. We don’t have a problem with this, because we can prove that Canada’s forest industry has done, and is doing, a pretty good job.

It does make us wonder, though, why more attention is not being paid by our customers and governments to the stewardship of the non-renewable resources used by our packaging competitors, who don’t seem to have any qualms about throwing mud at us, an industry that’s founded on resources that are actually renewable. Where are their independent third-party certifications of the resources they use? Where are their chain-of-custody certifications?

The major retailers and consumer packaged goods companies are loud advocates of the principle of a level playing field between themselves and between importers of packaging when it comes to extended producer responsibility or EPR schemes; and are adept at arguing for the principle of a level playing field (no cross-subsidisation in the funding fee formulas) between packaging materials. Many of these same level playing field advocates have endorsed and insisted that their paper suppliers meet independent third-party forest certification and chain-of-custody standards.

So where’s their action (not words) on developing similar independent third-party certification and chain-of-custody requirements for the extraction of non-renewable oil and natural gas deposits, for example?  Don’t we have a right to a level playing field too?


[1] Planting of tree seedlings per minute derived from over 500 million planted per year; Canada’s harvest area (0.2%) from The State of Canada’s Forests, Annual Report 2013, Natural Resources Canada, pages 11 and 19.

[2] Ibid., page 11

[3] Ibid., page 4. Some 38% of the world’s total certified forests are in Canada. Also see PPEC press release on its members’ Chain-of-Custody certification here.

[4] Consumer Goods Forum, Global Protocol on Packaging Sustainability.

[5] The State of Canada’s Forests, ibid., page 45. Harvest area 0.6 million hectares; Fire burned 1.9 million hectares: Defoliated by insects and beetle-killed trees 9.2 million hectares.