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Archive for Plastics Industry

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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Plastics industry makes false claims for bag study

The Canadian plastics industry is embellishing the credentials of a study it says proves that plastic bags are more “environmentally friendly” than paper bags.

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The industry’s website claims that the ULS Report (2007) “was completed according to ISO standards 14040-14043, and was peer reviewed by North Carolina State University.”  In fact, the ULS study (or more correctly, its updated version of March 2008) was never an original life cycle assessment; never claimed to meet ISO standards; nor does it claim to have been peer reviewed by independent life cycle experts.

While they are correcting that sloppy and embarrassing error, perhaps the plastic folks will address some of the other false and misleading claims on their website. Here’s two for starters:

False Claim 1: “That kraft paper grocery bags have to be made from virgin pulp, not recycled pulp, to be suitably durable for market use.”

FACT: Paper grocery bags can be made from both virgin pulp and recycled pulp or a blend of the two. It all depends on the bag specifications of the customer (for strength, durability, printability and so on). A lot of the retail paper bags used in Canada today are 100% recycled content.

False Claim 2: “That post-consumer recycled paper cannot be used to carry heavy items. It is too weak. This often results in double bagging groceries, which doubles waste.”

FACT: As noted above, a lot of paper retail bags today are made from 100% recycled content material (mostly from old corrugated boxes collected from the back of supermarkets and factories, office buildings or from curbside). Most paper packaging in Canada, in fact, is 100% recycled content and all of it performs to customers’ specifications. As for double bagging, we suggest the plastic folks visit their local store to see firsthand what’s going on with plastic bags. And then maybe check out the local trees, rivers and lakes where some of their products end up.

John Mullinder

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

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