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Recycled content must be recognised in setting circular economy targets

The Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) is in the process of considering what it calls specific material “management” targets for Blue Box recyclables such as paper, plastic, glass, steel and aluminum. It has already stated that it wants to see a collective 75% Blue Box diversion rate, up from the current 64 per cent.

But before we get into the details of specific targets for materials, there’s a major issue that we need to address that has everything to do with the circular economy that the minister and the province say they want to embrace. And that’s the issue of recycled content. The use of recycled content keeps materials flowing around in a circular loop for as long as possible.

Most corrugated boxes and boxboard cartons made in Ontario, for example, are already 100% recycled content: made from used boxes and paper collected from the back of factories and supermarkets, from offices and hospitals, and from curbside (Blue Box) collection and depots. The Ontario paper packaging industry achieved this milestone over many years with the expenditure of millions of dollars in new cleaning and screening equipment. Indeed, the mills of Southern Ontario led North America in incorporating residentially collected old boxboard into their recycling mix back in the 1990s. Today some 94% of Canadians can recycle it.

The industry’s environmental council, PPEC, has been very public in tracking and reporting on the industry’s progress towards a more circular economy. But now its members find themselves competing in the marketplace against virgin materials that have made minimal or little progress towards higher recycled content or “circularity.”

The plastics industry, for example, does not publish any numbers on average recycled content that we can find, and plastics’ overall Blue Box diversion rate is frankly poor (32%). Plastic film diversion has gone from 6% to 12% over the last 13 years, and polystyrene from 3% to 6% over the same period.

If we are going to have a level playing field between materials, we need public policy that encourages the greater use of recycled content and/or some recognition of recycled content achievement in the Blue Box funding formula and/or performance targets. We don’t see it at the moment, and yet paper packaging faces increasing competition from cheaper virgin plastics. How about the province set a target of 40% average recycled content for all packaging sold within Ontario by 2020 and 70% by 2027 ? That would put us on the path to a more circular economy and create a more level playing field at the same time.

The big “hurry up” on the Blue Box in case the Liberals lose

When Ontario released the final version of its waste strategy six months ago, dealing with the future financing of the province’s popular Blue Box program was at the backend of the queue. Sorting out the respective roles and responsibilities of municipalities and industry, not to mention the thorny issues of legal contracts and stranded assets, was considered so complicated and politically sensitive that the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change pencilled in 2023 (safely after the next provincial election) to complete its transition to 100% industry-pay and individual producer responsibility.

Now the ministry wants a new plan by February! What changed? The governing Liberals started to tank in the public opinion polls and industry and municipal leaders feared that not only wouldChris Ballard a great opportunity to move forward be lost, but also that an incoming government of different political stripes in 2018 would inevitably mean further delays and a possible fracturing of the current and welcome climate of common interest.

To their credit, municipal and industry leaders have been meeting over the last few months and cobbling together an accord, with the quiet blessing of ministry staff. In July, they asked then minister Glen Murray to buy into their plan to transfer the legal obligations and responsibilities of municipalities to collect and manage the Blue Box to industry stewards (brand holders and others with a commercial connection to the supply of printed paper and packaging into Ontario). This would be done through an amended Blue Box plan that would allow municipalities to opt in or out of providing collection services, and to have an opportunity to participate in processing Blue Box recyclables.

Newly appointed minister, Chris Ballard, leapt at this offering in August and has now directed the also new Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority and Stewardship Ontario to develop a proposal for an amended Blue Box Program Plan that will lead to individual producer responsibility down the road. But of course, he couldn’t resist adding a bit of direction in an addendum to his approval.

The amended plan shall (not may) “use means to discourage the use of materials that are difficult to recycle and have low recovery rates” (plastics be warned); increase the diversion target to 75% for the material supplied by stewards in the municipalities where Stewardship Ontario collects and manages the printed paper and packaging (the current Blue Box diversion rate is 64%); and “establish material-specific management targets.” We are not quite sure where material-specific “management” targets differ from material-specific “diversion” targets, but guess we’ll find out shortly.

If all goes well, Ontario will have a new Blue Box plan in February/March and the Liberals will be able to go to the polls saying they have saved the Blue Box (yet again)! Isn’t politics fun!

Circular Economy or spinning our wheels?

The Circular Economy (CE to some) has become something of a buzzword of late, just like sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) before it. Good intentions, but a lot of public relations too. Perhaps we’re being too cynical, but the issue is a bit like climate change. We know it’s coming (most of us) or is already here. But we really don’t want to have fewer children, abandon our cars, or go vegetarian: three actions a research scientist recently claimed would have more direct impact on slowing climate change than anything else we can do. We would add planting trees to that list.

Circular Economy or Spinning Our Wheels?The Circular Economy is really about the same thing as climate change: reducing our consumption of the earth’s various resources by using less of them, in a smarter way. But to do that we need to incent “good” behaviour and to penalise “bad,” which is generally taken to mean removing or reducing fossil fuel subsidies and encouraging the use of renewable resources.

This is fine at the academic level but how exactly is this going to translate in practical terms to say, the Blue Box system? Where consumers face a spur of the moment choice to recycle or dump? How do we penalise the “non-circular” products and packaging, while encouraging the “circular”? Through differentiated Blue Box fees? And who gets to decide those?

Now for the plug! PPEC will be holding a seminar on this very subject on October 3 in Etobicoke, Ontario. The speakers include Chris Lindberg (Ontario Circular Economy Innovation Lab), Glenda Gies (Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority), Andrew Telfer (Walmart Canada), Renee Dello (City of Toronto) and Al Metauro (Cascades Recovery). For details and registration click here. This is a limited space event and we always fill up quickly.

China doesn’t want the world’s garbage any more

And who can blame them? For years, the world has been shipping all sorts of waste to China for it to be sorted, made into new products, and shipped back to us. Low labour rates and lax environmental enforcement have benefitted all parties to this commercial deal (even perhaps the Chinese workers, a job being better than no job).

One of the first warning signs of impending change occurred in 2013 when China launched “Operation Green Fence” to limit imports of scrap materials. Unscrupulous people were sending more garbage than resources. This was followed by the more recent “National Sword” crackdown on smuggling operations. Then last week, China shocked the global recycling industry with the announcement of a scrap import ban effective the end of this year.

“To protect China’s environmental interests and the people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted” read China’s filing of intent with the World Trade Organisation. Details were scarce beyond general statements about multiple plastics, mixed paper, textiles, and other materials. But the impact of the announcement itself has been significant.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) called the new move potentially “devastating” and “catastrophic” for the US recycling industry. The Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) labelled the new policy as “serious” and wants more time before it comes into effect.

For Canadians involved in the international recovered paper trade, the challenge is that no one yet fully understands exactly what will be banned. The wording that is being used is “unsorted paper” and “mixed plastics.” If this is taken literally then most of the Canadian paper fibre currently being exported to China will not be impacted. The Green by Nature consortium that handles British Columbia’s Blue Box materials, for example, sorts all residential paper and does not ship single stream (or mixed) unsorted material to the republic.

“If this is not acceptable,” says consortium partner Al Metauro, CEO of Cascades Recovery, “then we will have a challenge. The challenge will not be on the curbside fibre but rather on the demand for old corrugated containers (OCC). The Chinese mills rely on imports and with no curbside fibre they will need an alternative. On the other hand, the Chinese government could also ban imports of OCC considering some of the poor quality being shipped.”

Metauro says a ban on “mixed plastics” will impact material recovery facility (MRF) operators that are not sorting their plastic, glass and metal recyclables (the container stream). This will be a bigger challenge in the US, he says, where many program operators are currently shipping commingled single stream material direct to China. In British Columbia, by contrast, all residential plastics are sorted and consumed locally.

The “humble brown box” just got better!

We know it mainly as the brown shipping box, although it also comes in various other shapes, sizes and colours. Whatever, the humble corrugated box just got better.Humble Brown Box - Environmental Impact

According to a life cycle analysis released last week, the average US corrugated box has made significant strides since a previous LCA conducted back in 2006:

  • 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
  • 29% reduction in eutrophication from nutrient discharge
  • 23% reduction in smog
  • 21% reduction in water use and a
  • 21% reduction in respiratory related effects.

The latest LCA (2014) was conducted by the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI) for the Corrugated Packaging Alliance, and meets the ISO 14040/14044 standards for a publicly disclosed study. It also has a Canadian connection: the external reviewer was Lindita Bushi of the Athena Institute.

The main reasons for the significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions were increased recovery rates for old corrugated containers (OCC); greater efficiencies in mill energy systems; and increased use of low-impact fossil fuels, including a switch from oil/coal to natural gas.

An executive summary of the LCA can be found here. For the full LCA (199 pages) click here.

 

Paper recycling important but uneven across Canada

Paper recycling continues to dominate Canada’s waste diversion efforts, representing almost 40% of total material diversion in 2014, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada.

But the collection of used boxes, newspapers, and printing and writing paper from the back of factories, supermarkets, offices, and homes, remains uneven, ranging from a low of 27 kilograms per person in Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, up to a high of 142 kilos per person in Quebec. The average Canadian sent just 101 kilos of paper (the equivalent of four heavy suitcases) for recycling that year.

We recognise that Canadians use varying amounts of paper in their daily lives. The Greater Toronto Area, for example, is served by several big newspapers, something you don’t see in other places. And it’s clear that geography, climate, and access to recycling determine how much paper is recovered in individual provinces. Small communities that are far from recycling facilities are at a distinct disadvantage. We also recognise that capture rates in high-density condos and apartment buildings are a challenge, although this demographic doesn’t entirely explain why Ontario lags so far behind similarly urbanised Quebec.

Nor does this data tell us how much paper it’s possible to recover (generation), so we really can’t tell how well Canadians and individual provinces are recovering paper overall. We know, as well, that significant tonnages are not captured in the StatsCan surveys, especially those old corrugated boxes that are baled at the back of supermarkets or factories and shipped direct to a paper recycling mill.

Given all these geographic and demographic variables, and the data uncertainties, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect every province to reach Quebec and British Columbia’s 142 and 135-kilo level of annual paper diversion. But if they did, we figure there’s another 1.4 million tonnes of paper out there just waiting to be collected. That would boost Canada’s overall waste diversion rate by four per cent. How about it, folks? A national average of just four heavy suitcases of paper diversion a year is a pretty piddly effort, don’t you think? Time to get serious about disposal bans on paper! We want it back!

Canada’s Best Paper Diverters (2014)

Paper recycling - Best paper diverters in Canada

For background on this series, see: Prince Edward Islanders and British Columbians are Canada’s “best recyclers” (May 23); Canada diverting only 27% of its waste (April 27); and Canadians are dumping more, and less, at the same time! (April 19).

Paper recycling and organics collection represent almost 70% of Canada’s waste diversion efforts

Paper recycling continues to dominate Canada’s waste diversion efforts, representing almost 40% of total material diversion in 2014, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada. Organics followed at 30 per cent. The next largest categories, on a weight basis, were metals and construction, renovation, and demolition materials.

The biggest change in tonnage terms since 2002 has been the big increase in organic tonnes diverted (up 41%), as provinces and municipalities have turned their attention to getting food scraps out of landfill. And while electronic goods are a tiny proportion of what’s being diverted overall (1% by weight), they have registered by far the most impressive percentage increase in recovered tonnes over the same period (up 634%).

We’ll be taking a closer look at the major diversion category (paper) in our next blog. For background on this series, see: Prince Edward Islanders and British Columbians are Canada’s “best recyclers” (May 23); Canada diverting only 27% of its waste (April 27); and Canadians are dumping more, and less, at the same time! (April 19).

Chart for organics collection and paper recycling

Prince Edward Islanders and British Columbians are Canada’s “best recyclers”

The people of Prince Edward Island and British Columbia are the “best recyclers” in Canada and “Newfies” and Manitobans the worst, according to PPEC’s analysis of the latest data from Statistics Canada. The average Canadian recycles 255 kilograms of stuff a year, the equivalent of about 11 heavy suitcases.

Waste Diversion by ProvinceThe data covers the industrial, commercial, and residential waste streams of paper, plastic, glass, metals, textiles, organics (food), electronics, white goods such as fridges and appliances, and construction, renovation and demolition materials like wood, drywall, doors, windows, and wiring. It excludes materials from land clearing and asphalt, concrete, bricks, and clean sand and gravel.

The diversion numbers from landfill and incineration are likely understated because they don’t include beverage recycling in provincial deposit/refund programs or the mostly paper materials that go from a retailer, say, direct to a paper recycling mill, rather than through a waste hauler or local government.

The weight (or tonnes) of waste diverted or recycled by Canadians has increased by 36% since 2002. That’s good, but our diversion efforts as individual Canadians (per capita) are less impressive (20% better over the same period). Several provinces have done very well (Nova Scotia up 44%, Quebec up 38%, and Saskatchewan up 32%). But Manitoba and Alberta are going backwards, and Newfoundland and Labrador remains way at the bottom with the lowest diversion rate per capita in Canada.

Waste Diversion by Province

There are explanations for why provincial diversion performance is so uneven. Stay tuned. For background, see our previous blogs in this series: Canadians are dumping more, and less, at the same time! (April 19) and Canada diverting only 27% of its waste (April 27).

 

Fact and fiction in the fight to deliver your fruit and veggies

Most consumers don’t see this but there’s an intense battle going on right now in North America for the job of delivering food from the farm to the retailers who sell it to you. An old ding-dong fight between the traditional corrugated box with its colourful graphics showing who grew the produce, and the anonymous reusable plastic crate. Between a system that uses a fresh box every time (minimising the potential for undesirable pathogens and bacteria being carried forward to the consumer) and a crate that must be thoroughly washed and sanitised before it can be used again. An economic and environmental debate between paper and plastic, re-use and recycling.

A recent article in the Globe and Mail newspaper highlighted some of the issues. But it also added to the confusion. Here’s our attempt to sort fact from fiction:

  • Claim (by major crate supplier IFCO) that the scientific studies showing food-safety risks with reusable crates are “flawed” and rely on “faulty methodology.”

FACT:  Several independent studies by reputable food scientists have now been carried out over the last few years in both Canada and the United States, including by the Universities of Guelph, British Columbia, California (Davis) and the University of Arkansas. At least one has been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal. The studies range from a lab simulation that shows biofilms surviving common crate cleaning procedures to in-field tests revealing unacceptably high total aerobic and yeast and mould counts, and the presence of E. coli after the crates had supposedly been washed. In the Globe article, a food science professor at McGill University, Lawrence Goodridge, throws his support behind the latest University of Guelph findings.

FACT: IFCO by comparison has not funded any independent research or presented the results of  any in-house studies for public review; has declined to provide details of the standards it deems to be acceptable; and has responded to the data in the above studies only with general and critical sound bites. If its crates are so clean why is IFCO unwilling to share publicly exactly how it draws those conclusions? And why aren’t retailers like crate promoter, Loblaw, and government inspection agencies, putting more pressure on IFCO to share those testing procedures publicly so that food scientists and consumers can be confident that the crates meet acceptable sanitisation standards?

  • Claim (by the Reusable Packaging Association) that the corrugated industry has funded tests on the safety of its competitor’s products but not its own.

FACT: Not true. The corrugated industry has been very open in commissioning independent food scientists to do the crate studies noted above. It had hoped that IFCO and government bodies might fund some joint research on both crates and boxes, but neither party came to the table. It has also tested its own product’s performance. One independent box study shows that the heat of the process of making the box kills all bacteria. Another study tested 720 corrugated boxes in three different US states, and found that every single one of them met acceptable sanitisation levels.

  • Claim (by Loblaw spokesperson Catherine Thomas) that “each year, by using these reusable crates, we keep millions of wax-corrugate boxes out of landfill.”Corrugated Recycles

FACT: Not true. “Millions” is a gross exaggeration for a start. Waxed boxes represent maybe 3% of all corrugated boxes produced and maybe 10% of boxes used for delivering fresh produce today. The waxes provide a moisture barrier so that ice, for example, can be added to the box to keep produce such as broccoli, fresh in transit. The paper industry has spurred development of alternatives to wax treatments and, in fact, sales of wax alternatives now surpass those of traditional waxes. Wax alternatives are perfectly re-pulpable and recyclable in packaging recycling mills throughout North America.

Loblaw and other grocers should check to see what’s actually happening at the back of their stores. Many grocers today are being asked to separate the waxed boxes from the normal (non-waxed) corrugated boxes they receive. The waxed boxes are then baled and shipped to companies that make fire logs or extract the paraffin from them. Stores that take advantage of this opportunity obviously don’t send any waxed boxes to landfill.

Canada diverting only 27% of its waste

For those promoting a more circular economy where materials are used again and again rather than made, used and dumped, the latest data from Statistics Canada provides a solid gut check on how far we have to go. Only 27% of our waste is currently being diverted from landfill or incineration. The “good” news is that at least our diversion rate has been steadily improving, up from 22% back in 2002.

The data measures the industrial, commercial, and residential waste streams of paper, plastic, glass, metals, textiles, organics (food), electronics, white goods such as fridges and appliances, and construction, renovation and demolition (CRD) materials like wood, drywall, doors, windows, and wiring. It excludes materials from land clearing and asphalt, concrete, bricks, and clean sand or gravel.

The only “good” news here is that the data, we believe, substantially understates the recycling that is going on in this country because it doesn’t include tonnages from provincial deposit/refund programs or the mostly paper materials that go from a retailer, say, direct to a paper recycling mill, rather than through a waste hauler or local government. Canada’s recycling success story (up 36% since 2002) will be the subject of a future blog.

In the meantime, we get to dwell on the bad news. As noted in our previous blog on this subject, Nova Scotia (and to a lesser extent British Columbia) are way out in front of everyone else. The diversion rates for New Brunswick, Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador have declined over the last 12 years.

Waste Diversion by Province