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Archive for Blue Box

Some of the worst performing Blue Box materials pay the lowest fees

This is a story about what’s recyclable, what is sent for recycling, and the fees that stewards of those materials pay into Ontario’s Blue Box system. In what seems like a perversion of the ‘polluter pays’ principle, some of the worst performing materials pay among the lowest fees.

There are two elements to this story. One is that most of the Blue Box materials currently collected in Ontario are recyclable according to Competition Bureau guidelines on environmental labelling and advertising. What that means is that at least 50 per cent of the Ontario population can put them out for recycling.

But being ‘recyclable’ (able to be recycled) and being physically sent on for recycling are two quite different things. For example, over 99 per cent of Ontario households in 2018 could place aluminum foil in their Blue Boxes but only three per cent of that foil was sent on for recycling. Similarly, with steel paint cans. Over 94% of households were able to recycle them in the Blue Box but only seven per cent were recycled. And polystyrene foam. Over 60 per cent of Ontario households had access to its recycling but only four per cent was recycled. The largest gaps between being ‘recyclable’ and being sent on for recycling are highlighted in the chart below. Unfortunately, there are opportunities here for greenwashing: standing back and saying that a material is recyclable by households but doing little to increase its recovery.

And the fees that some industry stewards pay into the Blue Box system are not exactly encouraging higher recovery of some of the worst performing materials. Stewards of aluminum foil, for example, with a three per cent recovery rate, only pay $133 a tonne. That’s only $20 more than the stewards of corrugated boxes with a 98 per cent recovery rate! Stewards of steel paint cans, with a recovery rate of only seven per cent, pay even less ($69.70 a tonne). In steel’s case, the stewards of paint cans are riding on the backs of the stewards of steel food and beverage cans, who pay the same amount.

Fees, it seems, need to be more closely targeted at specific materials within a broader group. And part of that targeting is sorting out what a material’s real recycling rate is. What is in the sometimes mixed bales that leave a material recycling facility (MRF) for an end-market, for example, and how much of the different materials in that bale actually end up being recycled?

Blue Box materials chart

The current discrepancies between performance and steward fees illustrate the fact that the Ontario Blue Box funding formula gives far more weight to the cost of managing materials in the system than it does to promoting better environmental performance. This is not what former Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky promised when promoting the new 50 per cent industry-funded Blue Box scheme to a meeting of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters way back in 2004: “We plan to send a clear message that in Ontario, good performers are rewarded with incentives while polluters will pay for their actions.”

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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Everything you wanted to know about paper packaging

PPEC’s popular fact sheets have been revamped and updated, all 34 of them. Broken into five sections of interest, the factsheets cover a broad range of topics: from why packaging exists to where it comes from (trees); from what it’s made from to how it’s made; and to the industry’s history of reduction, re-use, and recycling.

Here’s the complete list. Click here to find out more.

Packaging 101

  • Why do we need packaging?
  • Packaging Facts & Figures
  • Corrugated Boxes
  • Paper Bags
  • Paper Boxes
  • What do you mean “cardboard” doesn’t exist?

Where does paper packaging come from?

  • Paper packaging comes from a renewable resource        
  • The Truth About Trees  
  • Re-growing the forest   
  • Canada leads the world in forest certification     
  • Forest certification standards in Canada   
  • The biggest consumer of the forest is not the forest industry (surprise!) 
  • The facts on deforestation          
  • Responsible sourcing of raw materials   
Corrugated Bale for Recycling

What’s paper packaging made from?

  • Virgin, recycled, and blended (or mixed) pulp
  • Most boxes and cartons made in Canada are 100% recycled content
  • What you can say about recycled content in Canada
  • Only 11% of Canadian boxes, bags and cartons are made from freshly-cut trees
  • Made from renewable energy (biomass, hydro)

How is paper packaging made?

  • Paper Packaging Flow Chart
  • What happens at a packaging mill
  • What happens at a converter (box) plant
The 3rs

The 3Rs (Reduction, Re-use, Recycling)

  • Reduction: Making do with less
  • Re-Use: Corrugated Re-trippers
  • Re-Use: Not necessarily “environmentally friendlier” than recycling
  • Re-Use: Sanitisation issues
  • Recycling: Most paper packaging is recyclable and/or compostable
  • Recycling: What “recyclable” means
  • Recycling: Virtually 100% of Canadians can recycle boxes and cartons
  • Recycling: Pioneering the recycling of old boxboard cartons
  • Recycling: Wax alternatives are recyclable
  • Recycling: PPEC wants old boxes banned from landfill
  • Recycling: Where does used packaging go?
  • Composting: The composting alternative

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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Ontario Blue Box recovery rate barely above 60% provincial target

Blue Box Recovery Rates 2018The recovery rate of Ontario’s residential Blue Box system has slipped again, to its lowest level since 2005. According to Stewardship Ontario, the 2018 recovery rate was 60.2%, just barely above the mandated provincial target.

Almost three-quarters of what’s currently being recovered is paper of one kind or another, the same as it was back in 2003 when industry “stewards” (brand owners and retailers) became legally obligated to co-fund the Blue Box system.  Paper packaging now has the highest recovery rate overall (72%) followed by printed paper (71%), glass bottles (68%) and steel cans (62%).

Paper materials continue to achieve the highest individual material recovery rates: old corrugated boxes (98%); old magazines (89%); old newspapers (80%) and old telephone directories (75%). The 98% corrugated box rate is probably padded by e-commerce purchases slipping into the system.Blue Box Recover Rate

The Blue Box laggards continue to be aluminum and plastics packaging at 41% and 30% recovery respectively. Plastics packaging now represents 43% of what ends up going to disposal (on a weight basis). It’s also by far the most expensive material to recover (the net cost of recovering plastic laminates, for example, is listed at $2,766 a tonne, and plastic film at $2,733 a tonne. The Blue Box average net cost is $346 a tonne).

 Stay tuned for further analysis of the latest numbers.

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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Fewer newspapers but more packaging in Ontario households

While the collective weight of Blue Box materials generated by Ontario households has not changed much over the last 15 years, the type of material that ends up there certainly has.

Far fewer newspapers, for starters. Almost 136,000 tonnes fewer, according to a PPEC comparison of Stewardship Ontario generation data between 2003 and 2017.

Magazines and catalogues have also taken a hit (41,000 tonnes less) together with printing and writing paper (down 13,000 tonnes). Telephone directories, not surprisingly, are on the way out. Overall, the generation of printed paper that ends up in Ontario homes has fallen some 35% over the period, mainly because of inroads made by electronic or digital competition. Millennials (and there are many more of them these days) are not known as great newspaper readers.

Counterbalancing these losses are big tonnage gains in both plastic and paper packaging: some 99,000 more tonnes of plastic (mostly the grab-bag of “Other Plastics” and PET bottles); and 89,000 more tonnes of paper (mainly corrugated boxes and boxboard cartons). The spread of E-commerce delivery is expected to boost residential corrugated box tonnages even more in future years.

The table shows the net change in tonnages of some of the materials generated by Ontario households between 2003 and 2017 (with the losing categories highlighted in yellow) while the pie-charts give a graphic comparison by material group.

Household Generation 2003 & 2017

Source: PPEC Analysis of Stewardship Ontario generation data 2003 – 2017 

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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Ontario Blue Box recovery rate slips again, but paper’s steady

The recovery rate of Ontario’s residential Blue Box system has slipped again, to its lowest level since 2005. According to Stewardship Ontario, the 2017 recovery rate was 61.3 per cent, down Ontario Blue Box 2017almost two per cent on the previous year. The provincial target is 60 per cent.

Almost three-quarters of what’s currently being recovered is paper of one kind or another, the same as it was back in 2003 when industry “stewards” (brand owners and retailers) became legally obligated to co-fund the Blue Box system. Printed paper (newspapers, magazines and catalogues, telephone books and printing and writing paper) has the highest recovery rate overall (83 per cent) followed by glass packaging (70 per cent) with paper packaging at 64 per cent and steel packaging at 63 per cent.

Paper and aluminum packaging are the only material groupings whose recovery rates have either stayed at the same level or improved in every specific category since 2003, with corrugated boxes again being the recovery leader overall in 2017 at an impressive 98 per cent.

The glass recovery rate has dropped significantly from 2015 but the Blue Box laggards continue to be aluminum and plastics packaging at 40 per cent and 28 per cent recovery respectively. Plastics packaging now represents 44 per cent of what ends up going to disposal (on a weight basis). It’s also by far the most expensive material to recover. The net cost of recovering plastic film, for example, is listed at $2,848 a tonne, and plastic laminates at $2,897 a tonne. The Blue Box average net cost is $307 a tonne.

 Stay tuned for further analysis of the latest numbers.

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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Will plastics problem spur the eventual return of deposits to Ontario?

Pile of plastic trashI love fish. Plastic not so much. This puts me in good company, it seems, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who recently told the World Economic Forum that the “plastics issue” will be the main theme at the G7 leaders’ summit in Charlevoix, Quebec in June.

Trudeau’s announcement follows in the footsteps of Coca-Cola saying it intends to make bottles with 50% average recycled content by 2030 (12 years away). And Unilever calling for the consumer goods industry to step up its efforts to tackle the mounting challenge of ocean plastic waste and create a circular economy for plastics.

All good and stirring words. But how are they going to get there? Not using plastics in the first place is one option, of course. British frozen food retailer, Iceland, has just done that, committing to become the first major retailer globally to eliminate plastic packaging from all its own brand products by the end of 2023. But elimination aside, you need the most effective and efficient, not to mention the most “environmentally friendly” way to get plastics back. And what would that be?

Only 29% of plastics packaging is currently being recovered in Ontario’s multi-material Blue Box system. The Stewardship Ontario “recovery” rate for PET and HDPE bottles does the best of the plastics at 53%, followed by the mixed resins of “Other Plastics” at 32%, with plastic film lagging way behind at only 12 per cent. Nothing much has changed on the bottle front over the last 13 years of Blue Box EPR or “industry-pay” stewardship; the recovery rate for plastic bottles improving a paltry 3% over that time.

Is the answer throwing millions of dollars in promotion and education money at the good people of Ontario, to try and persuade them to increase the Blue Box plastics recovery rate from its current 29% to 50% or higher? It won’t work. Especially when there are no penalties for non-performance in the amended Blue Box program that Stewardship Ontario has passed on to the new Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority for approval. The plan indicates there will be a lot of talk about “problem materials” and maybe some research and development and “collaborative forums,” but no actual penalties for not performing.

So, what about the deposit option? Ontario is one of the few Canadian provinces not to have a full deposit/return system alongside its Blue Box. Traditionally, the Coke and Pepsi folks have been opposed to deposit schemes because they single out beverages, and the retailers have been opposed because they don’t want to become return-to-retail depots.

But maybe things are changing. Coca-Cola recently said it would consider “well-run” deposit systems. What exactly does that mean? Does it mean globally? Does it mean anything in the Ontario context? While those big questions remain unanswered, Coke is saying that it wants to get to a 50% recycled content average within 12 years. To do that you need recycled plastic feedstock, and a lot of it. Deposit schemes certainly provide that.

The recovery of plastic bottles and aluminum cans in Canada’s many provincial deposit/return programs is quite respectable. BC’s Encorp Pacific, for example, reports a 74% recovery rate for plastics and 82% for aluminum cans. In Ontario’s multi-material Blue Box, by comparison, the recovery rate for PET and HDPE bottles is 53% and aluminum food and beverage cans, a mere 42 per cent. (In fact, if you take out the non-PET (HDPE) from the bales, the real Ontario recycling rate is even lower. A direct aluminum comparison is a little tricky too. Deposit programs take only used beverage cans (UBCs). Non-deposit programs are more comprehensive, including cat food and other aluminum containers).

The plastic, steel, aluminum and glass industries may not say it publicly for fear of offending some of their major customers, but privately they are not at all opposed to deposit/return systems. And the reason is simple. They get far more material (economies of scale matter), and it’s in far better (less contaminated) condition. Quantity and quality count. On the other hand, deposit programs are known to be very expensive, with the transportation of light-weight, high-volume containers being a major cost.

A key question, of course, is what impact a deposit scheme would have on the major material remaining in the Blue Box. Paper today supplies 63% of the generated material, 75% of the recovered material, and 52% of Ontario Blue Box revenues. Basically, the Blue Box is a paper box. Would paper quality (and revenues) increase enough to make a difference?  Maybe if the stewardship body (or bodies) kept pounding on the collectors to reduce contamination, it might have some impact.

Any supportive decision by Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the retailers would clearly boil down to economics and avoided costs. We estimate that to get plastic bottles alone to a 50% recovery rate under the current Blue Box system in Ontario would cost stewards around $185 million, based on reported costs and revenues.

If you threw those plastic bottles instead into a deposit/return scheme and added other containers and factored in the avoided costs of contamination for all materials at both collection and processing stages, plus increased revenues for better quality product, including perhaps paper, then a deposit/return system with the Blue Box for paper might make sense, maybe. But you would still need the Blue Box for non-deposit containers. In British Columbia, for example, it’s understood that about 25% of the Blue Box is plastic, glass, aseptic/polycoated containers and metal material that’s not on deposit.

There are so many variables in this discussion and competing objectives. Lots of fish hooks too.

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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Packaging stewards should be rewarded for using recycled content

Recycled content is central to the “Circular Economy” approach that Ontario and some other provinces say they want to adopt. It keeps raw materials flowing through the economy longer, reduces the pressure to extract more virgin materials from the earth, and delays their eventual disposal as waste. It’s something which governments say they want to encourage, and for which stewards of paper products and packaging should be rewarded.

The Canadian paper packaging industry has spent millions of dollars over the years investing in cleaning and screening machinery so that it can re-use and recycle recovered paper. Packaging mills in Southern Ontario led North America in recycling old boxboard for the first time back in the 1990s. Today, some 94% of Canadians can recycle it. And today, most of the corrugated boxes and boxboard cartons made in Ontario are continuously made from 100% recycled content, a circular achievement in and of itself.

The paper packaging industry gets no credit for this effort, while in the commercial marketplace it competes against mostly virgin packaging alternatives. We have suggested the province level the playing field by setting a target of 40% average recycled content for all packaging sold in Ontario by 2020 and an average of 70% within 10 years. This would place Ontario firmly on the path to the circular economy it says it wants, and create a more level playing field between materials at the same time.

An alternative to provincial regulation is a recycled content credit within the Blue Box funding formula itself. This is not a new suggestion. The producer responsibility organisation in Quebec, Éco Entreprises Québec, already has one. And while Stewardship Ontario does float the idea of a recycled content credit in the draft outline of the new Blue Box plan it is currently working on, its support seems rather tepid.

That’s because some Ontario stewards have objected to the concept in the past. Here are three historical objections, and our responses to them.

  1. That assessing recycled content is an administrative burden and costly to track and report.

We think this objection is way overstated. For paper materials we have independent third-party certifiers and chain-of-custody certifications as to where paper materials are coming from, whether from virgin or recycled sources, or a mix of the two. Chain-of-custody certification is an environmental metric supported by the global Consumer Goods Forum, of which most leading Canadian brands and retailers are members.

Making suppliers prove that they have internationally accepted chain-of-custody certification would seem to reduce the administrative burden on stewards and provide a good kick-start to the circular economy at the same time. It would also force other materials to develop chain-of-custody certification programs if they haven’t already done so.

Or stewards could use independently certified industry averages. PPEC has been tracking its members’ use of recycled content for over 25 years and it’s quite willing to open its books to a confidential third-party review. A sliding scale of recycled content usage would reward a lot more stewards and probably be more palatable and make any administration easier. Besides, won’t the new body Ontario has created to bring in the Circular Economy (the Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority) be monitoring this anyway?

  1. The funds to credit stewards using recycled content must come from other stewards (i.e. it is cross-substitution).

Well yes, it is. That’s why you do it, to encourage other stewards to be more circular, to reduce the overall environmental burden of the basket of goods that is the Blue Box, for the common benefit. This is the very same principle that’s supposed to apply to those materials that are recycled through the Blue Box versus the ones that are not. What’s the difference? It’s the same principle of rewarding preferred behaviour.

  1. Federal regulations limit the use of recycled content in food-contact packaging. Making recycled content a requirement would be unfair to those stewards.

First, federal regulations on food-contact packaging apply to all materials (i.e. it is material-neutral). Second, recycled content is not excluded. Food safety is the key issue and the onus is on the brand owner to guarantee food safety, whether through Health Canada “No Objection Letters” or through FDA approvals. It comes down to the material’s direct and indirect contact with the food and the element of risk to humans.

Is it unfair to single out “food” stewards?  No. They choose to be producers of foods and the safe delivery of food is part of that. Just as a producer of a washing machine or a microwave is “forced” to use a large package to have his or her product delivered. Or a perfume manufacturer with an elaborately designed stand-out boxboard carton. All choose of their own free will to be in those lines of business. That’s the game they’ve chosen to be in. Whether they can use recycled content or not in their delivery packaging is part and parcel of that original choice.

In summary, rewarding those who use recycled content is a good, fair, and effective way to achieve a circular economy and to level the playing field between “circular” and “non-circular” performers. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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Ontario Blue Box recovery rate slips, but paper steady

Draft Blue Box Recovery Rates 2016

The reported recovery rate of Ontario’s residential Blue Box system has fallen to its lowest level since 2005. The draft recovery rates, to be finalised by Stewardship Ontario in December, show a 2016 recovery rate of 62.4%, down 2% on the previous year. This will make the recent “request” by Ontario’s minister of environment and climate change for a new Blue Box recovery rate of 75% rather interesting.

Some 75% of what’s currently being recovered is paper of one kind or another, the same as it was back in 2003. Printed paper (newspapers, magazines and catalogues, telephone books and printing and writing paper) has the highest recovery rate overall (81%), followed by glass packaging (70%), paper packaging (67%) and steel packaging (63%).

Paper packaging is the only material grouping whose recovery rate has either stayed at the same level or improved in every category (boxboard up 9%), with corrugated boxes again the recovery leader overall at a hard-to-believe 98 per cent.

The glass recovery rate has dropped significantly from 2015 but the Blue Box laggards continue to be aluminum and plastics packaging at 38% and 29% recovery respectively. Plastics packaging recovery has gone down in almost every category and now represents 43% of what ends up going to disposal (on a weight basis). It’s also by far the most expensive material to recover (the net cost of recovering plastic film, for example, is listed at $2,646 a tonne).

Here are the latest (draft) numbers for 2016 with a comparison to 2015 and way back to 2003.

Estimated Recovery Rates 2016

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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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 Ontario 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.

Ontario Blue Box chartThe 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.

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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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!

John Mullinder

John Mullinder, Executive Director, PPEC - Regular posts on environmental and sustainability issues impacting the Canadian paper packaging industry

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