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.


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.


Dick Staite: former PPEC director and “interim” chair

Dick Staite: former PPEC director and “interim” chairIt is with great sadness that we report the passing of Dick Staite, a former chairman of PPEC and a long-time employee of Atlantic Packaging in Toronto.

In the early 1990s, Dick’s boss, Harry Shelson, came to him and said: “I want you to join PPEC.” Dick had no idea what PPEC was. Told that it was “some environmental thing” and that he should find out about it as soon as possible, Dick said: OK boss, and away he went.

He would end up as one of the longest-serving directors of the council, and as a somewhat reluctant interim chair. “I was at home one evening and the phone rang,” he said recently. “It was the executive director of PPEC, and eventually I learned that PPEC was looking for a chairman. I was racking my brain thinking who that might be, and then it came out that the council was thinking of me. I also happened to be the only guy living in Toronto at the time, so it was much more convenient for the council to get cheques signed and everything.

“So I sort of reluctantly said OK on condition that I would relinquish my post as soon as we found a chairman. So we called me “interim.”  Interim lasted over five years! So if you ever get asked to be interim anything, be careful!’’

In a memory that obviously stuck with him, Dick recently recounted the story of an Ontario provincial government official wondering why Atlantic didn’t simply go straight to the local dumps to pick out old corrugated boxes for recycling. The official seemed amazed to learn that while Atlantic sourced most of its used fibre for recycling from within Canada, that there were occasions when it had to bring in used paper from the US.

“Why would you do that?” asked the official.

“Well for one thing,” replied Dick, “It gets to be less expensive.”

“Do you mean to tell me that you bought used paper from the States because it was cheaper?

Dick said he had a hard time figuring out the answer to that one, other than “Yes, we did,” all the time thinking that it must be great to have government money and not to have to worry about making profits.

Dick Staite was a fun guy and contributed much to the early successes of PPEC back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Thanks for the memories.


Click here for visitation and funeral details.

Did you know that more adult diapers are now sold in Nova Scotia than baby diapers?

This is not a knock on Nova Scotia, simply pointing out that aging baby boomers are beginning to impact both the products and the packaging that Canadians will use in the future. The diaper info comes courtesy of John Wright, Senior Fellow at the Angus Reid Institute, who just happens to be a keynote speaker at PPEC’s upcoming seminar November 1.John Wright

Wright will talk about the silver wave (goodbye?) as aging baby boomers give way to new immigrants, and how this will impact the packaging of the future, both physically and culturally.  He will be assisted by a panel discussion on sustainability, what retailers and brandowners and material suppliers see as the key issues moving forward. Speakers include Scott Tudor of Sobeys, John Coyne of Unilever, and Dave Boles of Atlantic Packaging.

Rounding out the morning event will be an update on the key environmental issues impacting the packaging industry across North America by Dennis Colley of the US Fibre Box Association and yours truly (PPEC).

If you would like more information or to register for the event, please click here. If you would like adult diapers, you are on your own!

Paper recycling represents 40% of Canada’s waste diversion

A recent Statistics Canada report on household e-waste reveals some interesting diversion data on other materials.

Paper, for example, represented 40% of what was diverted in Canada from both residential and non-residential sources in 2012. Paper recycling has increased by about 8% since 2002. The diversion of organics has really jumped, however, and now represents 29% of total diversion, with construction and demolition materials following at close to 8 percent.

Here’s the diversion line-up, expressed as a percentage of total tonnes diverted:

StatsCan Recycling report

Source: Statcan EnviroStats, Trash talking: dealing with Canadian household e-waste. Table 1: Materials diverted from residential and non-residential sources, by type, Canada, 2002-2012.



Something really fishy about plastic crate study

The battle between the corrugated box and the plastic crate industries for share of the fresh produce market is getting stranger by the minute. The latest twist is the release by leading crate supplier, IFCO, of a comparative life cycle analysis (LCA) that, guess what, favours the crate.

At first IFCO released only the executive summary of the study, garnering the “corrugated is worse” headlines that it sought in the trade press, and effectively delaying public scrutiny of any backup for its claims. LCAs and especially comparative ones, are supposed to be transparent so that everyone can assess the veracity or otherwise of the claims and assumptions made. PPEC requested a copy of the full report and finally received one. In the meantime, of course, IFCO has been touting the results of its study to growers and retailers alike, encouraging them to accept its conclusions as gospel.

Now hang on a minute! We had questions before, but the full study raises even more! In particular, we were looking for substantiation of the claim that more recycling of corrugated leads only to more global warming potential (GWP); and for back-up for the claim that the average recycled content of a US produce box is only 15 percent.

The full report is disappointing on both counts. There is no credible substantiation for the 15% claim, for example, only a deliberately vague reference to discussions with unnamed “industry Plastic Crate studyconsultants and fiber produce container manufacturers” (page 134). With some assistance, because the footnote reference in the study no longer works, we managed to track down one corrugated manufacturer who acknowledged that in 2012 he used 85% virgin board (from Australia) to make some produce boxes for a very specific application involving wet conditions.

That’s it! One guy, and some unnamed consultants! This is the flimsy evidence for surmising that the whole industry works this way. It gets worse. From Appendix F it seems that the Peer Review Panel didn’t even question the validity of the 15% assumption, which is really odd given how the results of the study depend so much on it being correct.

We can understand why the US corrugated box industry is upset. Their average recycled content has been publicly stated and verified to be close to 50 percent. In Canada, ours is even higher, at 80 percent. IFCO and its consultants really need to produce a lot more backup for their 15% claim if they want to be taken seriously.


Something fishy about crate supplier’s recycled content assumptions

Corrugated Packaging Alliance







Rachel Kenyon (847) 364-9600,
Cheryl Reynhout (401) 932-8126,
Katharine Eaton (202) 463-2434,


ITASCA, IL (May 10, 2016) – The Corrugated Packaging Alliance (CPA) reviewed IFCO’s recently-published Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Reusable Plastic Containers and Display- and Non-Display Ready Corrugated Containers Used for Fresh Produce Applications, which was conducted by Franklin Associates and compares the environmental impact of reusable plastic containers to corrugated containers.

“We have been reluctant to comment on IFCO’s latest LCA without having access to the actual report that identifies the boundaries, key assumptions and methodologies used in the study. Transparency is a key LCA requirement and publishing the full facts allows them to be fairly and accurately understood”, said CPA Executive Director Dennis Colley. “We are disappointed in the approach used by IFCO to announce the report’s findings.”

“For the LCA’s most popular environmental impact indicator, Global Warming Potential (GWP), IFCO uses a baseline assumption of 15 percent recycled content for corrugated. Life Cycle Assessment of U.S. Industry-Average Corrugated Product (PE Americas and Five Winds International, December 2009), Life Cycle Assessment of U.S. Average Corrugated Product (NCASI, April 2014), and many other publications note corrugated containers’ average recycled content of approximately 50 percent, which advantages corrugated containers by almost 40 percent over RPCs for CO2 emissions or GWP.”

The recycled content of corrugated boxes is tied to total system fiber usage and therefore is linked to many variables in an LCA. The amount of new virgin fiber required in the system is offset by the recycled content which affects energy consumption and emissions at the mills. The demand for recycled fiber also drives the high recovery rate of Old Corrugated Containers (OCC), currently 92.9 percent in 2015 and reduces waste to landfills and subsequent methane generation.

IFCO acknowledges that a higher recycled content (such as 52.7 percent) for corrugated packaging generates superior GWP results for corrugated, as compared to RPCs. However, this analysis is buried in the last section of the report’s Executive Summary.

The CPA will publish the corrugated industry’s third LCA – including baseline assumptions and documented statistics – in October and expects continued improvements for several environmental impact indicators. The 2014 study revealed a 32 percent reduction in the GWP from the first-ever corrugated industry LCA published in 2009, along with double-digit reductions in eutrophication, respiratory, and fossil fuel depletion indicators.


The Corrugated Packaging Alliance (CPA) is a corrugated industry initiative jointly sponsored by the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), AICC – the Independent Packaging Association, Fibre Box Association (FBA) and TAPPI. Its mission is to foster growth and profitability of corrugated in applications where it can be demonstrated, based on credible and persuasive evidence, that corrugated should be the packaging material of choice; and to provide a coordinated industry focus that effectively acts on industry matters that cannot be accomplished by individual members. CPA members include corrugated manufacturers and converters throughout North America.

Plastics industry quietly removes false bag claims

The Canadian plastics industry has quietly deleted a couple of the false claims it was making on its bags website. PPEC highlighted the claims in a blog last month.

Gone is the claim that the ULS Report was completed according to ISO 14040-14043 standards and peer reviewed by North Carolina State University. Not true. Also absent now is the false claim that paper bags have to be made from virgin pulp. In fact, they can be made from virgin or recycled pulp, or a blend of the two.

And instead of saying that “post-consumer recycled paper cannot be used to carry heavy items” (a ludicrous claim considering that much of the paper packaging made in Canada incorporates post-consumer recyPlasticsMay04cled paper, and performs well), the site now says that post-consumer recycled paper used to carry heavy items is “problematic.” About as “problematic,” we would assume, as carrying heavy items with post-consumer plastic. But then who are we to quibble?

All the plastic folks have to do now is remove those irrelevant summaries of old European “life cycle” studies that they love to quote on bags. Yes, the ones that have absolutely no Canadian data on how bags are actually made in this country. Canadians are not stupid, eh.



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.


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.