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Archive for Blue Box

Ontario’s Blue Box Regulations Reflect PPEC Recommendations, Targets Still a Concern

On June 3, 2021, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks released the final Blue Box Regulation. The new regulation sets out a framework to transfer the costs of the blue box program away from local communities and requires the producers to operate and pay for blue box services.

PPEC has been actively engaged in the government’s consultation process, providing input into the development of the regulation at every stage, as well as providing our formal comments in response to the draft regulation on December 3, 2020; which outlined our industry’s concerns regarding the government’s proposed targets and approach to recycled content.

Several changes were made to the final regulation as a result of the consultations, which are summarized in the Environmental Registry posting.

Of importance to PPEC and its members, the Ontario government reduced the paper diversion targets, and removed the recycled content proposal, in the final Blue Box Regulation.

Paper Targets Reduced

For the paper material category, the target for both 2026-2029, 2030 and beyond, was proposed to be 90% in the draft regulation.

In the final regulation, the proposed target for paper was reduced to 80% for 2026-2029, and 85% for 2030 and beyond.

While PPEC is pleased the government heard our concerns and reduced the target, we remain concerned that the targets of 80% and 85%, respectively, may not be achieved, as explained below and in PPEC’s blog post, Ontario Blue Box will struggle to make 60% diversion, and none of the ministry’s proposed new targets will be reached.

PPEC commissioned a study, conducted by Dan Lantz at Crow’s Nest Environmental, to examine Blue Box diversion data to help determine if the government’s proposed diversion targets could be achieved. The study found that the proposed targets could not be met:

“A 90% target is unreachable. This would effectively require 95% of the population capturing and putting out for recycling 97% of their paper and making sure it is not contaminated at all. And then the recycling facility would have to capture 98% of all that paper (including paper that’s shredded) and send it on to the end-market.”

While paper material is the single largest component of the Blue Box – with 67% of it currently being recovered for recycling – the composition of the overall paper category has been changing, which impacts the diversion rate.

Newspapers continue to see an overall decline as consumers choose to read the news online instead of in print – this decline in newspaper generation means less newspapers being diverted, since less are being collected in Blue Boxes, taking away from the overall paper diversion rate. While other categories – corrugated box diversion is 98% in Ontario – already have high diversion rates, leaving little room for any increase.

So as some materials within the paper category decrease, while others are already at high diversion rates, it begs the question of how will the overall paper diversion rate increase to meet the government’s new targets?

The hope is that a move to a more standardized system across the province will see better consumer participation at the household level – and at the end of the day, it is the consumer who makes the final decision of how they dispose of their waste and recyclables – so the more aware and educated they are, the more likely consumers are to properly source separate their waste and recyclables. This should help increase diversion, and hopefully reduce contamination levels – the higher the contamination, the harder it is to achieve better recovery rates.

But it all remains to be seen and PPEC will be watching the diversion data closely in the coming years.

Recycled Content Proposal Removed

The original proposal for recycled content in the draft regulation stated that:

    • The proposed regulation recognizes the use of recycled content sourced from blue box materials managed in Ontario that is incorporated into new products and packaging. A producer that uses recycled content sources from blue box materials would be allowed to reduce their supply for that material category for the next calendar year in proportion to the initiatives undertaken.
    • The proposed regulation would limit the overall reduction to no more than 50% for a material category. The proposed regulation establishes a formula for calculating a producer’s management requirement. The proposed regulation would ensure that the use of recycled content does not reduce overall diversion by redistributing the sum of recycled materials used in a given material category amongst all producers in that category.

In the final regulation, the government eliminated the recycled content proposal “to ensure that new provision can align with the federal intent to develop national recycled content standards.”

PPEC believes that recycled content is a key component of a circular economy, as it keeps raw materials flowing longer, reducing the need to extract virgin materials.

In our submission we explained our concerns with a mandated approach to recycled content: it only applies to the government’s jurisdiction i.e. Ontario, which could have international trade implications for material being shipped into Ontario; and it disregards that most design decisions on recycled content are often made at a global scale, not a local Ontario one.

We also felt that Ontario’s proposal would be administratively challenging in an already highly complex Blue Box program. In PPEC’s blog How about a different approach to recycled content and the circular economy?, we outline the advantages of looking at alternatives like a tax rebate or credit, as a way to support a Ontario recycling businesses and a more circular approach.

For now, we are pleased that the recycled content proposal has been removed, and we are proud that most of PPEC’s paper mill members already produce 100% recycled content boxes and cartons.

Special thanks to John Mullinder, PPEC’s long-standing Executive Director, for all his work in effectively representing PPEC members’ interests in working with the government on the development of the Ontario Blue Box regulation.

For more information, please see the Ontario government’s news release, Ontario Enhancing Blue Box Program, and the final Blue Box Regulation.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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Providing Clarity on The Ottawa Citizen’s Cardboard Recycling Article

Last week, The Ottawa Citizen’s Kelly Egan wrote an article about cardboard recycling in Canada. In Thinking inside the box — pandemic creates crush of new cardboard, Egan provides some stats about paper packaging recycling and the consumption of trees — some of which are correct, and some of which are confusing.

Egan reached out to the Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) for some information on paper recycling, and while he used some of the data we provided, PPEC was not mentioned in the article.

With regards to recycling, Egan wrote:

“Paper and cardboard are considered the success stories in the recycling world. Two main reasons: as much as 98 per cent (depends who’s counting) of corrugated cardboard is recycled and any “new” cardboard uses very high content of recycled fibre.”

Yes, paper and cardboard are indeed success stories, and PPEC and the Canadian paper packaging industry is proud of that. As for who’s counting, it is Stewardship Ontario (who operates the Blue Box program under the authority of the The Waste-Free Ontario Act, 2016) who is doing the counting. Ontario’s 98% recovery rate for corrugated cardboard, the most recent available data, is from the 2020 Blue Box Pay-In Model.

As for recycled content, most of the paper packaging material made by Canadian mills today is 100% recycled content, according to PPEC’s most recent Recycled Content Survey. Old corrugated boxes and cartons are collected through residential Blue Box recycling programs across the country, as well as from the factories and supermarkets, and used to create recycled content product.

Egan goes on to write about tree consumption:

While this is considered a shining example of the so-called circular economy, paper and cardboard production does gobble up a lot of trees, as per this snippet from a recent Washington Post story: “Global consumption of trees reaches roughly 15 billion each year, including three billion for paper packaging, according to the Environmental Paper Network. The industry relies on recycling virgin fibre — the basis of cardboard boxes — five to seven times, saving trees and improving the bottom line.”

The Washington Post story Egan is quoting from is How Big Cardboard is handling the 2020 box boom (December 30, 2020). But using a global figure about tree consumption, in an article about paper packaging in Ottawa, could lead to some unnecessary confusion.

When it comes to Canada’s trees, less than half of one per cent of our forests are harvested for pulp, paper and lumber uses each year. In 2018, the harvested area represented 0.2% of the total area of forest land, according to Natural Resources Canada. And by law, all forests harvested on crown land (over 90% of Canada’s forest land is publicly-owned) must be successfully regenerated.

Not that we use of lot of trees to make paper packaging to begin with. On average, the recycled content of paper packaging shipped domestically is 71 per cent; and the balance of Canadian paper packaging comes from wood residues – wood chips, shavings and sawdust left over from lumber operations – with only 11% coming directly from trees (roundwood pulp), according to PPEC’s The Truth About Trees members only Fact Sheet.

According to the Washington Post article Egan quoted from, virgin fibre is recycled five and seven times; but according to our information, paper fibres can be recycled between four and nine times in Canada.

And while Egan refers to the “so-called circular economy,” PPEC truly believes that we do have a circular economy for paper packaging. Our Paper Packaging Flow Chart shows the cycle of how our material is collected, sorted, and sent to recycling mills to make new packaging; illustrating the circularity in the manufacture and use of paper, a renewable, sustainable and recyclable resource.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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Ontario Blue Box will struggle to make 60% diversion, and none of the ministry’s proposed new targets will be reached

Green visions, aspirational goals, and political grandstanding are all very well in their place. But at some point, we have to be realistic. The fact of the matter is that the overall waste diversion rate of Ontario’s Blue Box is unlikely to improve much over the next ten years, and the new diversion targets proposed by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) will not be achieved.

These are the stark findings of a PPEC-commissioned study by Dan Lantz of Crow’s Nest Environmental. Lantz has more than 30 years’ experience in the waste and recycling industries.

The study examines Blue Box diversion patterns from the current program’s inception in 2003 together with industry reports on the future of given materials and an understanding of the capabilities of the recycling system and end-markets. To establish future generation and recycling rates, all on a per person or per capita basis to account for population growth, the study determines and applies mathematical formulas to predict whether Blue Box materials will meet the ministry’s two new proposed diversion target dates of 2026 and 2030. The answer is no, they won’t.

Blue Box will struggle to make 60%

Where are we now? The Blue Box program is currently diverting 57% of the printed paper and packaging that ends up in Ontario homes. Its performance, though, has been steadily declining over the years as lighter and less recycled materials make up a growing portion of the residential waste stream.

The data tell the story. In 2003, the generation of printed paper (mainly newspapers) represented almost half (47%) of the Blue Box materials in Ontario households. By 2019, printed paper’s share of generation had shrunk to 27%. Its share of what was diverted shrank too (from 61% in 2003 down to 30% in 2019).

At the same time, plastic packaging’s share of generation increased from 16% to 25% and its diversion share rose from 5% to 13%. These trends are expected to continue over the next decade and to impact diversion rates accordingly.

And while the ministry has wisely not specified a new overall Blue Box diversion target, its consultation papers make clear it would like to achieve somewhere between 75% and 80% within the next ten years. That’s not going to happen, says Lantz.

“Based on projections out to 2026 and 2030, the ministry’s targets are not realistic under the current program structure.’’ In fact, he says, unless something major changes like the Blue Box giving people more opportunities to recycle (say through an extensive depot network) and the public becomes more engaged and recycles far more than it does at the moment, then the Blue Box will continue to struggle to achieve the existing 60% diversion target into the future. He forecasts just over 58% diversion by 2030.

It’s important to note that the ministry is talking about diversion targets here, not collection targets. It is one thing to measure Blue Box performance by collecting materials at curbside and depots, as British Columbia does. But in Ontario, diversion is measured after the collected material has been processed at a material recycling facility (MRF).

The level of contamination can make a big difference as the higher the contamination the harder it is to achieve better recovery rates. So, BC’s performance (aided by the strategic location of some 250 collection depots) should not be equated with what Ontario is proposing.

Another complication is that the Ontario ministry wants more material diverted from a wider range of sources. This is fine, but broadening how much needs to be diverted (the generation base) automatically reduces the diversion rate as well, because unfortunately not all of that new source material will be diverted.

The only way the diversion rate would improve would be if the new materials achieve diversion rates above the average. Considering that some of the new materials proposed by the ministry for collection (including straws and plastic cutlery which will not be recycled at all because they are too small to be effectively captured and will just end up going to disposal), the diversion rate will not improve above what is projected in the Lantz report.

The province has not offered any estimates of how large this new supply of material will be, making it harder to calculate whether its proposed diversion rates are practically achievable or not.

90% for paper ‘just isn’t going to happen’

And if the ministry is expecting paper to ride to the rescue, forget it. Paper material is the single largest component of the Blue Box with 67% of it currently being recovered for recycling. The ministry’s proposed paper diversion target for 2026 and beyond, however, is 90%.

“Ninety per cent just isn’t going to happen,” says Lantz. There will be even fewer newspapers in future, more online and digital transactions (therefore less paper use), and very little opportunity for significant increases in paper recovery (corrugated box diversion is already at 98%, for example). This means the paper group as a whole will likely come in with a 69% to 70% diversion rate, he says. Far short of the ministry’s wished for 90%.

90%

“A 90% target is unreachable. This would effectively require 95% of the population capturing and putting out for recycling 97% of their paper and making sure it is not contaminated at all. And then the recycling facility would have to capture 98% of all that paper (including paper that’s shredded) and send it on to the end-market. Add in the fact that some Ontarians use paper with kindling to start their fireplaces and woodstoves in winter and burn paper, and it’s just not reasonable to expect a 90% diversion rate.”

Other material groups won’t make targets either

Rigid plastics (bottles containing water, soft drink, laundry detergent and shampoo, and mixed plastic tubs and lids, cottage cheeses and ice cream containers) currently have a diversion rate of 26 per cent. The ministry is targeting an improvement to 60% by 2030. Lantz predicts, however, that there will be little change over the next ten years, maybe an increase to 47 per cent.

As for flexible plastic packaging (currently at 8% and targeted for 40%), he says 15% may be as far as it gets, unless there is a dramatic shift to mono-materials (single-resin) flexibles, that is, stand-up plastic pouches that are much easier to capture and recycle. “Most plastics aren’t hard to sort in a material recycling facility. People just don’t put them in the recycling system like they should, and until they do, recycling rates will stay low.”

He predicts that steel and aluminum diversion through the Blue Box will improve to maybe 60% (missing the metals target). Glass packaging will also miss its target but maybe reach 75% diversion by 2030.

There are many factors that could influence these projections: pressure for higher recycled content levels; landfill bans or surcharges; alternative collection systems including deposit/return; and the impact of the extra tonnes the ministry wants collected from a wider range of sources.

There are also behavioural changes that could influence the results. “It often boils down to that flick of the wrist decision where the householder decides whether to put something into the garbage or into the box,’’ says Lantz. “We need to be much clearer about what goes where, and to give people more opportunities to make the right decision.”

Lantz suggests the province should set disposal targets instead, thereby reducing the burden on municipalities that have to handle the recyclables that householders place in the garbage. Environmentally, he says, it would be better if we reduced consumption at the front end. “Setting unreachable diversion targets that effectively allow unfettered consumption, and relying on recycling to overcome that consumption, is not the best approach.”

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

John Mullinder

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

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How about a different approach to recycled content and the circular economy?

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Recycled content is the key component in the creation of a circular economy. It keeps raw materials flowing within the economy longer, reduces the pressure to extract more virgin materials from the earth, and delays their eventual disposal as waste. Recovering more materials for further use also creates jobs. A circular economy is something that companies and governments say they want to encourage.

Voluntary and Mandatory Approaches

The strategies to encourage recycled content range from voluntary approaches through to government mandated minimums and the threat of banning product sales if those minimums are not met.

With a voluntary strategy, the government adopts a hands-off approach, allowing the marketplace to determine what happens. In the Canadian province of Ontario, the paper packaging industry has gone from below 50% recycled content to all but one mill today producing 100% recycled content boxes and cartons. This is presumably the type of ‘’circular economy” that Ontario wants. The ‘problem’ is that the approach is slow. It took some 25 years to get there.

The mandatory approach, on the other hand, is where the government regulates or legislates a framework of minimum recycled content targets, with fines or penalties or sales bans for non-achievement.

One of the problems with government mandates, however, is that they apply only to that government’s jurisdiction. For example, an Ontario mandate would not apply to other provinces. There may also be international trade implications for material being shipped into Ontario. Another complication is that most design decisions on recycled content are not made in Ontario but rather at company head office (in the US or Europe) with packaging design undertaken at global not local (Ontario) scale.

Also, the last thing industry wants is provinces or states leapfrogging over themselves to set successively higher (and perhaps public relations inspired) targets for industry to achieve in different jurisdictions. A federal mandate would be preferable, but that would mean getting all provinces/states to agree (which may prove difficult and time-consuming). 

Mixed Approaches

Some governments have chosen to mix voluntary and mandatory approaches to increasing recycled content. They have done this by including incentives within regulated programs. The choice is voluntary and at a company’s own pace.

An example of this is the current suggestion by the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) where companies are offered discounts on Blue Box diversion targets when they can prove use of Ontario Blue Box recycled content.

This approach does have several benefits. It gets the government out of the role of playing policeman and sorting out the technical issues of how to actually set specific recycled content targets for different materials that are sensible and fair. It also means the province does not need to enforce the achievement of these targets because they are voluntary. The onus is on the brand owner/retailer/publisher to prove the claim, with the added expense of mandatory auditing of company reports.

Administratively challenging

The current Ontario proposal, however, is administratively challenging at best, and impossible at worst.

Let’s follow the path of some recovered Ontario Blue Box paper. First it goes from a municipality or a service provider to either a broker or a MRF (processor). That first step is relatively easy to track. Then it gets complicated. Because the broker and the processor have other clients, other suppliers of recovered paper fibre. It could be Blue Box fibre from Quebec or Manitoba; it could be used boxes and office paper recovered from industrial, commercial and institutional (IC & I) sources within Ontario or maybe shipped in from Manitoba or Quebec or the United States. It could be pre-consumer clippings and cuttings from those same disparate sources (Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, the US).

The same diversity of sources applies at the mill level when the recovered fibre gets there from the processor. The mill is interested in the quality of the different fibres it uses to make its product, not in placing a special watch-out for the fibres coming in specifically from Ontario’s Blue Box program.

From all those different fibres, the mill (which may or may not be located in Ontario) makes board or paper that is shipped to converters who then turn it into the end-product (a newspaper, printing and writing paper, corrugated boxes, boxboard cartons and so on). These converters could be in Ontario or the US and they have other mills supplying them with other recovered fibre feedstock as well, making it very difficult to single out only those fibres coming from Ontario’s Blue Box.

It gets more complicated. A corrugated box comprises two parts (linerboard and corrugating medium). Each of these can be made from recycled content but each could come from different mills and be blended at the same or different converting plants. So, the medium of the box could have a portion of Ontario Blue Box fibres in it but the linerboard none. However, it’s all blended into one box for the customer. How do you keep track of that? And the customer (the brand owner/retailer) could be located in Canada, the US, Asia, Africa or Europe. And can ship the box anywhere in the world.

Tracing specific fibres such as from Ontario’s Blue Box once they enter the regional and international fibre recovery streams is thus extremely problematic. And what about corrugated boxes shipped into Ontario from China? They might have recycled content in them (which is a good thing) but not Ontario-processed recycled content.  What about old corrugated boxes that are collected through the Blue Box in Ontario but shipped across the border to the US for recycling there? There is no credit for the use of that Ontario-derived recycled content.

There are possible ways around some of these complications. If a mill can create a paper trail linking say 25% of its annual feedstock to Ontario’s Blue Box, then could 25% of its annual output be considered to be Ontario Blue-Box sourced? Could that 25% be pro-rated across all its customers? Or 25% allocated to those customers who are placing paper into the residential Ontario marketplace and therefore obligated under the Blue Box regulations?

Complete accuracy is not possible under the current proposal. And, as one insider has noted, it leaves lots of opportunity for fraud and gaming the system. Is there another way of looking at the problem?

How about a tax rebate or credit?

The current Ontario approach to recycled content seems unnecessarily complicated in a Blue Box program that is already highly complex. Recent research also indicates that EPR fees or adjustments for things like recycled content provide little incentive to brand owners to change packaging design or to influence consumer behaviour in purchasing.[i]

So why not look at an alternative approach (a tax rebate or credit) that focusses on supporting Ontario recycling businesses, on creating Ontario jobs, on companies that use Ontario Blue Box material as feedstock? Encourage them to enhance Ontario’s circular economy. Think globally but act locally.

The advantages are these:

  • The credit/rebate focusses on one thing only: increasing the use of recycled content in Ontario. It does not get cluttered or distracted by other waste management objectives (see the quotation from the Eunomia report to the EU commission in the footnote).
  • It can apply beyond the Blue Box (bringing in the IC & I sector) so it is broader in scope and in line with the province’s overall goal of a comprehensive waste management (and circular economy) policy.
  • It retains a voluntary approach with incentives for companies to act.
  • It applies to Ontario specifically but is transferable to other provinces (so could become national).
  • It doesn’t have to be in the current Blue Box regulation (greatly simplifying it).
  • Depending on how the credit/rebate is structured, the people who are actually building the recycling infrastructure in Ontario could benefit (the paper, plastic, glass and metal plants) rather than a brand owner head office in the US or Europe. It would make local (Ontario) businesses more competitive in what are global markets for recycled materials.
  • The credits could go to companies located in Ontario only (unless expanded across Canada). The system could therefore help keep existing industries in Ontario (meaning green jobs). For example, one paper packaging mill in Ontario (using 100% recycled content) recently closed.
  • It will create jobs (by encouraging recyclers to stay in Ontario and to invest in recycling infrastructure here).
  • It could have declining levels of tax credit (higher for sourcing from Ontario’s Blue Box, lower for feedstock imported from other jurisdictions).
  • It could be a joint governmental effort (Environment, Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, Finance). Make Ontario the recycling hub of Canada or go for a national approach. A federal climate change project? We need to look beyond a narrow environmental approach, beyond our own provincial borders on this one. The idea needs work and it needs champions.

[i] From the Eunomia report for the Director General Environment for the European Commission: “It is better to focus a policy instrument on doing one thing well, than on seeking to achieve multiple objectives. A tension can be created within an EPR scheme if it is seeking to do too many things. A focus on seeking to meet recycling targets in a way that is cost-effective and fair to different packaging formats gives a clear steer to the way in which an EPR scheme should use fee modulation. However, to also introduce an incentive for recycled content can disrupt the efficient operation of the price signals.” (Study to Support Preparation of the Commission’s Guidance for EPR Schemes).

John Mullinder

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

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Good news and bad news on Ontario’s Blue Box

The good news is that Ontario householders are generating less paper, plastic, glass and metal waste these days, 14% less than they were back in 2003. That is the year the province regulated industry to share the net cost of the province’s popular Blue Box program and waste statistics became more widely available.

Of course, the number of people living in the province has increased since 2003, which normally means more waste is generated, but on an individual basis Ontarians have done well here too, reducing their generation of Blue Box waste by an impressive 27% over the period.

Generating less waste in the first place (the first of the three Rs, reduction) normally means sending less waste to garbage. Which, in this case, is also true. Ontario households dumped 22% less printed paper and packaging in 2019 than they did some 16 years ago. As individuals, Ontarians were even better, dumping 34% less than before.

This is all good news. The ‘bad’ news is that waste performance is usually measured by weight (as above): by kilograms per person, tonnes per household. Unfortunately, measurement by weight distorts the overall picture somewhat because it is not the weight of materials that fills up recycling trucks and landfills, it is how much space they take up (their volume). Landfills get fat, not heavy, as they say.

This caveat on measurement, weight instead of volume, helps explain the other piece of bad news: that Ontario’s Blue Box today is sending less material on for recycling than ever before. In 2003 the system was estimated to be recovering 53% of all Blue Box materials. In 2010 it peaked at 68%, but ever since then it has been on a progressive downward slide to its current 57% (the first time it has been lower than the province’s required 60% target since 2005).

Why? In addition to some straight out elimination of printed paper and packaging there has been a significant light-weighting of materials over the years (reducing the size and shape of newspapers, using lighter and thinner variations of paper, plastic, glass and metal, cutting out a layer here, a flap there).

But there has also been a major change in the type of material ending up in the home. Gone are many newspapers (replaced by digital alternatives). And when did you last see a telephone directory delivered to your doorstep? The generation of printed paper has plummeted 36% over the last 10 years alone. And these, of course, are heavier materials.

At the same time, there has been a major increase in the amount of lighter weight plastics in the home (up 20% per person since 2010). The biggest increase has been in the catch-all category of “other plastics” (things like yoghurt containers, hand cream tubes, margarine tubs and lids, blister packaging for toys and batteries, egg cartons, and laundry detergent  pails). Most of these (65%) currently end up in the garbage.

So, there you have it. We are generating less waste but the waste we are generating today tends to be lighter and less recyclable. Which is why the overall Blue Box recycling rate is trending downwards. This has major implications for meeting the province’s proposed new waste diversion targets. Are they realistic? Or are they just a political green wish? Stay tuned.

Source: Stewardship Ontario

John Mullinder

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

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Almost 80,000 more tonnes of plastic in Ontario homes than 10 years ago

An analysis of the last 10 years of data on Blue Box-type materials generated by Ontario households shows a 34% increase in the amount of plastic packaging ending up in the home. And most of it (70%) did not get sent on for recycling.

The major increase is in the catch-all category of “other” plastics, things like yoghurt containers, hand cream tubes, margarine tubs and lids, blister packaging for toys and batteries, egg cartons, and laundry detergent pails. The amount of “other” plastics in the home increased by 67% between 2010 and 2019. There have also been big increases in the tonnages of PET drink bottles (up 54%) and mostly non-recycled plastic laminants (up 30%). Other materials to register significant increases over the period are aseptic cartons (up 46%), boxboard cartons (up 29%) and coloured glass (up 25%).

Increase in plastic packaging

What is missing from Ontario homes compared to 10 years ago is a lot of paper, almost 200,000 tonnes of it. Most of this is newspapers no longer being published (generation is down 35%), but telephone directories, magazines and catalogues, and printing and writing paper have also taken a big hit (down 87%, 51%, and 23% respectively).

These changes in what Blue Box materials end up in the home impact how much is recovered for recycling (Ontario’s Blue Box recovery rate has dipped below the provincial target of 60% for the first time since 2005); and how much the recycling system costs. For example, most paper packaging is recyclable and relatively cheap to recover. Plastics packaging, on the other hand, is currently not widely recycled at all (only 31% in 2019 compared to paper’s 68%) and is two and a half times more expensive to recycle. But that subject deserves a blog all by itself!

John Mullinder

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

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Let’s get the facts straight on Ontario’s Blue Box

The current debate over what to do about Ontario’s Blue Box frequently confuses at least four distinct but interrelated issues: waste management in general; the recycling option; the relative roles of industry and householders; and the nature of the Blue Box program itself.

First, the broader context. The Blue Box program is just one waste collection system, among many. Others include the deposit/return systems for beverage containers run by the Beer Store and the province itself through the Liquor Control Board of Ontario; some industry stewardship programs; private sector recycling efforts; and numerous return-to-retail options.

The Blue Box program does not, and was never intended to, address the almost 13 million tonnes of waste that Ontario generates every year.[1] To suggest, as some critics have, that the Blue Box is somehow failing because it focuses on only about 10% of Ontario’s generated waste, totally ignores its objective and scope.

What are these critics suggesting? That we should load up our Blue Boxes with meat scraps and leaves, rusty fridges and stoves, and old planks of plywood? These are best handled in other ways (used tires, laptops and cellphones, for example, already have separate, industry-led stewardship programs).

But the province does need to act more urgently on this front because it will run out of landfill space within 12 years. Typically, it takes between five to 10 years of consultations and reviews just to get all the approvals in place to site a new one.[2] Remember NIMBY and NIMTOO (not in my backyard and not in my term of office)? The clock is ticking on this one.

Disposal bans and landfill surcharges have been adopted in other provinces and regions, with varying degrees of success. For its part, the paper packaging industry has for seven years now lobbied successive Ontario ministers of the environment to introduce disposal bans, specifically on organics and paper (which give off greenhouse gases when left to rot in landfill). The province has talked a lot but done little.

Blue Box is a residential system

Second, the Blue Box program is a residential waste collection system. It focuses on what is in Ontario homes. It was never intended to collect materials from factories or supermarkets, offices or hospitals. And for good reason. The wastes from these operations are quite different in both nature and percentage composition. A Blue Box for wire strapping, chemicals, steel drums, and wooden pallets, as well as for paper, plastic, glass and metal? It doesn’t make sense. And who would do the collection? Municipalities?

These wastes are best left to ‘industry’ to manage. Sure, existing regulations need to be tightened and broadened, and here again, disposal bans and higher landfill fees, would be useful. At the moment it’s far cheaper to dump stuff than to recycle it. Industry needs an economic incentive to do the right thing. Again, the province holds most of the cards here but has done little.

False claims

Third, it would be remiss of me not to address some of the false claims being made about the relative contributions of residential and industrial waste. It is not true, for example, that “two-thirds of Ontario’s waste is generated in the industrial, commercial and institutional (IC and I) sector.” In fact, the consumption blame is pretty evenly spread. According to Statistics Canada (2016 data), almost half (46%) of Ontario’s waste was generated by the residential sector, with 54% coming from industrial (or IC and I) sources.[3]  Industry may be doing a far poorer job of diverting this material from landfill (extensive data is lacking), but overall, it is not consuming a huge amount more than householders. And it is our collective excessive consumption habits that are causing the waste problem in the first place.

Nor is it true that packaging is likely a major component of this industrial waste, as some critics have charged. Packaging represented only 13% of total solid waste according to Statistics Canada’s last national packaging survey way back in 1996. Over 70% of all packaging consumed in Canada was re-used or recycled, it found. And industry, not householders, was responsible for almost 75% of the packaging that was recycled.[4]  While there has certainly been an increase in residential recycling of packaging over the years, we seriously doubt that industry has stopped doing what it was doing before. Bring on some credible data!

Blue Box is a recycling program

Fourth, Ontario’s Blue Box is a recycling program. It is not a reduction program, although materials have been light-weighted over the years, more likely to save on costs than to avoid Blue Box fees. Nor is it a re-use program, although some of the materials do get re-used in one shape or another. And while the recyclability of a material is clearly a good thing, it is not the only factor to be considered when analysing a material’s overall environmental impact.

The Blue Box cannot achieve all of these very desirable outcomes by itself, and it should not be expected to. It is a recycling program, focussed on gathering dry recyclables (paper, plastic, glass and metal) from residential households and sending them on to end-markets to be made into new products and packaging. Its current universe is some 1.3 million tonnes of waste (10% of Ontario’s total generated waste) and while recovery has flatlined a little bit recently, the Blue Box is still sending just over 60% of Ontario’s dry household waste on for recycling. It is responsible for 25% of Ontario’s total recycling effort (not 7% as some critics recently claimed).[5]

Paper the key

And key to understanding the Blue Box recycling program is that 73% of it is paper. Paper is the success story of Ontario’s Blue Box. More than 70% of all the paper that Ontario households generate is recovered through Old Blue. Several paper materials (corrugated boxes, magazines and catalogues, and newspapers) have recycling rates in the high 80s and 90s. And while the revenues for paper grades fluctuate and are currently somewhat subdued, they totalled some $43.7 million in 2018 or 51% of total Blue Box revenues.[6]

What's being collected through Ontario's Blue Box
What’s being collected through Ontario’s Blue Box
Source: Stewardship Ontario (2018 data)

Most of this recovered paper is supplied to Ontario packaging mills that use it to produce new, 100% recycled content, boxes and cartons. Ontario thus already has a home-grown circular economy where used paper is recycled over and over again. It is in nobody’s interests to destabilise this situation by penalising the local paper industry, even inadvertently.

The materials that are not doing very well in Ontario’s Blue Box system are widely known (mostly plastics) and are the target of much of the bad press about the Blue Box. But we have to be very careful when coming up with solutions to the plastics’ problem that we don’t imperil the Blue Box itself. One solution is for companies to get out of plastics entirely. Another is to launch re-use programs. A third is to introduce deposit-refund schemes that have far higher material recovery rates than Ontario’s current broader-based multi-material approach. Then there are return-to-retail options, landfill bans and surcharges, minimum recycled content requirements, diversion targets, and EPR fees. But these options, my friends, deserve a whole new blog by itself. Stay tuned.


[1] Statistics Canada, Disposal of waste, by source (Table 38-10-0032-01) and Materials diverted, by source (Table 38-10-0033-01). Ontario generated 12,785,183 tonnes of waste in 2016 (comprising disposal of 9,475472 tonnes and diversion of 3,309,711 tonnes. Ontario’s overall waste diversion rate was therefore 26% (not 7% as recently claimed).

[2] Ontario Waste Management Association, Ontario Needs New Landfills, July 10, 2020

[3] Statistics Canada, ibid. Generation equals what was disposed plus what was diverted. In 2016, Ontario residences disposed of 3.7 million tonnes and diverted 2.1 million tonnes for a total waste generation of 5.8 million tonnes. In the same year, ‘industry’ disposed of 5.7 million tonnes and diverted 1.2 million tonnes for a total waste generation of 6.9 million tonnes. Ontario’s total waste generation was therefore 12.7 million tonnes, with residences contributing 46% and ‘industry’ 54%.

[4] This Statistics Canada monitoring exercise over 10 years, and its final result, while now very dated, covered 31 separate industry sectors of the economy and 32 different packaging material types, using surveys as well as information derived from Statistics Canada’s international trade   merchandise data and a national study of household packaging recycling. Some 10,000 surveys representing a total survey frame of almost 400,000 businesses were sent out, with the 61% response rate regarded by Statistics Canada as “consistent with other similar surveys.’’ (Milestone Report, Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, CCME, pages 6-7). Two significant findings of the National Packaging Monitoring System (NPMS) were that over 70% of all packaging consumed in Canada was re-used or recycled, and that industrial recycling of packaging (mostly corrugated boxes) accounted for almost 75% of all packaging recycling (Tables 1 and 29).

[5] Stewardship Ontario, Blue Box data. Table 1: Generation and Recovery (2016 and 2018). Ontario’s waste generation in 2016, according to Statistics Canada, ibid., was 12,785,183 tonnes. The Blue Box in that year sent 836,227 tonnes for recycling. Therefore, the Blue Box was responsible not for 7% of Ontario’s recycling diversion (as claimed recently) but rather 25% of it (836,227 divided by the 3,309,711 tonnes that Ontario recycled).

[6] Stewardship Ontario Blue Box data (2018). Table 1: Generation and Recovery and Table 2: Gross and Net Costs.

John Mullinder

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

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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

More Posts - Website