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Archive for Recycled Content

Articles on the Demand for Corrugated Cardboard Boxes Disregard the Importance of Environmental Sustainability

Over the last few months, there have been several articles about the increased demand for containerboard and corrugated cardboard boxes, due to the surge in online shopping during the pandemic.

There was the Wall Street Journal’s Cardboard Boxes Have Never Been in More Demand—or More Expensive (March 30), FOX Business’ Cardboard box prices skyrocket as COVID-19 pandemic causes spike in online orders (April 8), and Business Insider’s A surge in cardboard demand is causing a supply squeeze for box makers amid the online-shopping boom (May 20), to name a few.

These articles were primarily about the impacts of the increased demand on paperboard manufacturing businesses, including rising prices and shipment delays of raw materials.

And yet they barely mentioned the environmental attributes of containerboard and corrugated boxes, or the critical role that recycling plays in the sustainability of the paper packaging industry. Or even worse, provided misinformed comments about the industry.

It was not until the very end of the Business Insider article that recycling was even mentioned:

Terry Webber, executive director of packaging at the American Forest & Paper Association, said in a statement that “containerboard production in March increased 9% compared to March 2020,” when the pandemic hit the US. The AF&PA also mentioned that boxes are the most recycled packaging in the US, which can help keep the supply chain sustainable for both retailers and customers. 

And while the Wall Street Journal article was accompanied by a link to a 2019 video, Where Your Old E-Commerce Boxes End Up (about cardboard recycling), the focus of the article was about how the production of corrugated product increased 3.4% to 407 billion square feet in the U.S. in 2020, with the price of containerboard increasing by $50 to an average $765/ton, with only one mention related to recycling:

At a recent investor conference, Waste Management Inc. Chief Executive Jim Fish said more e-commerce could boost the waste hauler’s recycling business, which collects cardboard curbside and sells it to be pulped anew for more boxes.

Unfortunately, neither of these articles provided any additional context to explain the importance of why recycling helps keep the supply chain – and the industry – environmentally sustainable.

PPEC is proud of our industry’s circular economy approach to managing paper packaging products, which are continually collected and recycled through residential and business recycling programs across Canada, allowing them to be remade into new paper packaging.

Some key statistics:

  • 94% of Canadians have access to recycling[1]
  • Canada recycles almost 70% of its paper and cardboard, making it among the top paper recycling countries in the world[2]
  • The national recycling rate for corrugated boxes is estimated to be at least 85%[3]
  • Ontario has a 98% recovery rate for corrugated cardboard[4]
  • Most of the paper packaging material made by Canadian mills is 100% recycled content[5]

Not only are these materials recyclable, they are actually being recycled – an important distinction illustrating that Canadians understand their role and do their part by actively recycling. This allows those recycled materials to be remade into new paper packaging, as evidenced by the high amount of recycled content used by mills.

And it’s a similar story in the U.S. where 88.8% of cardboard and 65.7% of paper were recycled in 2020, according to The American Forest & Paper Association, who reported that those rates remained unchanged during the pandemic, calling that “a testament to the resilience of the paper and wood products industry.”

But it was FOX Business’ article that made no mention of the environment, except in a video clip that accompanied the story. In the 3-minute clip, FOX reporter Jeff Flock interviewed Andy Reigh of Welch Packaging, a corrugated box manufacturer located in Elkart, Indiana. Two minutes into the video, Flock makes a comment about “trees,” and then when he throws it back to the FOX newsroom, host Stuart Varney said “I thought all this stuff was recycled,” and you can barely hear Flock say that most of it is recycled.

Not only does recycling not get the airtime it rightly deserves as part of this story, but FOX also makes comments about trees and paper products with no context or facts. If they had the facts, they would know that the sustainable management of forests is a key issue for the paper packaging industry.

Even though most paper packaging made in Canada is high in recycled content, the paper fibres it was originally made from came from a tree. But by law, every hectare of commercial forest that is harvested in Canada must be successfully regenerated. On average, over 1,000 new tree seedlings are planted in Canada every minute. And all PPEC-member mills producing corrugated box material have independent, third-party certification that their paper fibre sources (whether wood chips and sawmill residues or recycled fibres) are responsibly sourced. When you add it up, the Canadian industry hardly uses freshly cut trees to make paper packaging, and the little that is harvested (0.2% in 2018) is successfully regenerated.

While the media articles mentioned told the story about increased demand for corrugated cardboard boxes, they did not provide the full story of what happens to those boxes after they leave the manufacturing facility; they end up going to a customer, then a recycling bin, and eventually those recycled materials are remade into new paper packaging. And that continuous and sustainable loop deserves to be part of the story, with the facts to back it up, to help inform and educate the public.


[1] Access to Residential Recycling of Paper Packaging Materials in Canada, October 2014. Report prepared for PPEC by CM Consulting.

[2] Two Sides Fact Sheet Corrects Common Environmental Misconceptions About the Canadian Paper and Paper-based Packaging Industry, January 2021.

[3] Where Packaging Ends Up, PPEC.

[4] 2020 Blue Box Pay-In Model, Stewardship Ontario.

[5] Recycled Content Survey, PPEC.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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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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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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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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Canopy makes more embarrassing ‘boo-boos’

Vancouver-based environmental group Canopy continues to make embarrassing boo-boos about paper packaging in Canada. In a blog entitled “What’s in the Box? Canopy answers its own question with a bald-faced lie, giving the impression that paper boxes are mostly made from virgin market pulp.

This is not true. It is certainly not true in Canada. Very little virgin pulp is used by Canadian mills to make boxes in Canada. In fact, most are made from 100% recycled content board that’s been collected from the back of Canadian factories and supermarkets, from offices, or from Blue Boxes and depots. The industry’s environmental council (PPEC) pioneered the further recycling of old boxboard in North America way back in the 1990s. And almost every Canadian (96%) can put paper boxes out for recycling today.

While it is true that some virgin pulp is exported from Canada, it mainly goes into the production of printing and writing, sanitary and specialty papers. Only a small portion of it (15%) ends up in packaging products. So yes, it is both possible, and likely, that some of this exported pulp is shipped back to Canada as packaging with a product inside.

But to imply that virgin pulp represents the prime component of the Canadian industry’s feedstock for boxes, when most of it is 100% recycled content, is a gross distortion of fact.

Canopy also claims that many companies currently don’t know the fibre sources of their paper packaging. There is no excuse for this in Canada. Every single mill member of PPEC has independent third-party chain-of-custody certification of where its original fibre (whether virgin or recycled) comes from. All customers need to do is ask.

John Mullinder

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

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Salmonella survives plastic crate washing test, transfers to fresh cucumber

A scientific study just published in the international peer-review journal, Food Control, poses some serious questions about the sanitation of the re-usable plastic crates (RPCs) sometimes used to distribute fresh produce to retailers.

The study shows how Salmonella can become established on RPCs and survive the typical sanitation cycles that are applied to decontaminate the crates between uses. The surviving Salmonella then transferred to and from fresh produce on the RPC, underscoring the potential for crates to spread the pathogen throughout the supply chain.

SalmonellaSalmonella infection can cause vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration in humans, and can lead to reactive arthritis or even death in susceptible hosts such as the young, old, pregnant or immune-compromised.

Food safety commentators have long suspected that there was a link between ineffective washing and cleaning of crates before their next use, and the transfer of virulent pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria to fresh produce sold at retail. The risk of transferring devastating plant pathogens such as tomato brown rugose fruit virus between farms is also a recognised risk factor for RPCs.

Back in 2013, University of Guelph food scientist, Dr. Keith Warriner, the corresponding author of this latest study, found damaged and visibly dirty crates being re-used in Ontario and Quebec. It was even suggested that some crates were being given a quick hose down and then simply transferred from farm to retailer and then on to another farm, rather than being shipped to the closest wash facility, which is what is meant to happen in a re-use system. A more robust study the following year found worse results, including E. coli on 13% of the crates tested.

Typical industry cleaning procedures didn’t completely sanitize the crates either. Research led by Dr. Steven Ricke at the University of Arkansas showed that Salmonella cells remained on crates after cleaning. Ricke suggested that bacterial biofilms were hiding in the cracks and crevices of the crate’s surface, making it harder for industrial sanitizers to reach them.

Dr’s Siyun Wang (University of British Columbia) and Warriner (University of Guelph) and their associates have now taken this research a step further, sampling more than 160 crates at grower/packer operations in three Canadian provinces (Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia). Laboratory-based trials were undertaken to simulate the conditions under which Salmonella could persist and even grow on residues left by damaged produce.

The researchers then simulated a typical industrial sanitation cycle (water rinse followed by a caustic wash and then peracetic acid sanitizer shower) to see if the Salmonella survived that treatment. It did, the authors concluding that “if present at sufficient levels, Salmonella can (both) survive sanitation and (then) contaminate subsequent produce batches when crates are redistributed’’ to a new grower.

“These findings, taken in combination with the relatively poor sanitary status of re-usable crates sampled within packer/grower facilities, highlight the potential food safety risks represented by re-using crates.”

A summary of the peer-reviewed study can be found at Food Control – V110. You can get the entire report here.

Please Note: PPEC, which represents the Canadian corrugated box industry on environmental issues, co-funded this University of Guelph project in the interests of getting all the facts on the table. The traditional corrugated box system for the produce industry provides a fresh box for each delivery. The boxes are recycled several times over the course of their lives and meet rigid process control standards in their remanufacture. In a typical mill recycling process, the temperature of the paper sheet reaches 220-240 degrees Fahrenheit, well above 100 degrees Celsius, the boiling point of water and the temperature required for sterilisation. The converting process also involves high temperatures and other hygiene controls. Having a fresh box every time minimizes the potential for undesirable pathogens and bacteria being carried forward to the consumer. A recent independent study of corrugated produce boxes showed that the corrugation process destroys bacteria.

A 2019 peer-reviewed comparative life cycle analysis conducted by Quantis showed that neither corrugated containers nor reusable plastic containers had an advantage in the environmental impact categories studied. Much depended on the commodity being shipped, transport distances, and other variables.

John Mullinder

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

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Brand owners sucked in by Canopy’s embarrassing boo-boos

Vancouver-based environmental group, Canopy, has launched a global campaign against paper packaging, claiming that three billion trees “disappear into packaging’’ every year leaving “a trail of deforestation, degraded forest systems, threatened species, and an increasingly volatile climate.”

Strong words. But are they true? Not as far as Canada is concerned (and probably the US too).

For a Vancouver-based group, Canopy is alarmingly ignorant of the packaging facts in Canada. Here’s one. Most of the paper packaging material made by Canadian mills is 100% recycled content!  It’s not made (as Canopy claims) with the “habitat of endangered species such as orangutans or caribou.” It’s made from old used boxes collected from the back of Canadian factories and supermarkets; from offices; and from Canadian homes. And has been for years, including in Vancouver. So no, it doesn’t have a “crushing footprint” on the world’s forests, biodiversity and climate.

The tiny amount of virgin fibre that is used to make paper packaging in Canada doesn’t come from “ancient” forests either, in the normal sense of that word. To most people, “ancient” means old, as in very old. In fact, Canada’s forests are relatively young, mostly between 41 and 120. And since Canopy mentions the Canadian boreal, guess what percentage of its trees is over 200 years old? Yep, a mere one (1) per cent. Check out the data from the National Forest Inventory. Branding the Canadian boreal as ‘‘ancient” is misleading and exaggerated.

Canopy talks about trees “disappear(ing) into packaging” but it conveniently fails to mention the other side of the ledger: that new trees are planted to regenerate the forest. This is provincial law in Canada. Logged areas must be successfully regenerated after harvest, either by natural or artificial means (planting and seeding). In Canada, this averages more than a thousand new seedlings a minute, or 615 million a year. It balances what is harvested.

And far from “leaving a trail of deforestation” (as Canopy claims), the paper packaging industry in Canada is not responsible for any of it. The major cause of deforestation in Canada is not forestry, it’s conversion of forest land to agriculture, and has been for years. Canopy knows this, or at least has been told so numerous times.paper packaging

Canopy also leaves the impression that pizza and shipping boxes are simply used once and thrown away. In fact, corrugated box recovery in Canada is estimated to be at least 85 per cent. In one province, Ontario, the residential Blue Box system sends an amazing 98% of the corrugated boxes that end up in the home, on for recycling. This provides a continuous recycling loop that maximizes the use of paper fibre, creating a circular economy.

More forest facts

Here’s some more Canadian forest facts that the ten mostly clothing manufacturers currently supporting Canopy’s campaign need to know:

  • In any given year, some 99.8%  of Canada’s forest lands is not logged at all
  • The 0.2% that is logged is mostly logged for lumber (to build houses and hospitals etc.) with lesser amounts harvested for pulp and paper products. The harvested area is subject not only to provincial sustainable forest management practices that include mandatory regeneration but also to independent third-party certification audits, including those by a certifier whose credentials Canopy regularly promotes
  • Canada leads the world in the amount of forest independently certified as sustainably managed. It is currently home to over 37% of the world’s total certified forests.

There’s a lesson here for brand owners everywhere. We commend you for committing to environmental causes. But please, please do not allow yourselves to be publicly embarrassed by lending your names and credibility to the false and misleading claims such as Canopy makes above. Facts do matter.

Please share this widely.

John Mullinder

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

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Press Release – Most Canadian packaging board now 100% recycled content

Most of the paper packaging material made by Canadian mills today is 100% recycled content. Old corrugated boxes and cartons are collected from the back of factories and supermarkets; used paper from offices; and a wide range of paper material gathered and sorted from residential (Blue Box) programs across the country.

It wasn’t always the case, says John Mullinder, executive director of the Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC), which has been tracking and promoting the industry’s performance since 1990.

The increase in recycled content has paralleled the move of Canadians into towns and cities, offering the mills better opportunities to harvest the nearby ‘urban forest’ of used paper and board. Initially the mills focussed on recycling old corrugated (shipping) boxes and printing and writing paper from offices, then broadened their interest to residential (Blue Box) sources as those programs developed. In 1990, for example, most Canadian cereal and shoe boxes (although made with 100% recycled content) ended up in landfill. PPEC and its customers led North America in pioneering the further recycling of this material so that today some 94% of Canadians can recycle it.

100% Recycled content boardPackaging Mills

Most packaging mills in Canada now produce a 100% recycled content board. That’s the way the mills were built. A handful of mills blend recycled material with sawmill residues (wood chips, shavings, and sawdust left over from lumber operations); or when sawmill residues are in short supply, freshly cut trees.

“But when you add all the numbers up,” says Mullinder, “the Canadian industry hardly uses any freshly cut trees to make paper packaging at all. The notion that every time we want to make a new box or carton, we just grab a chainsaw and head for the forest, is totally false.’’

According to PPEC’s latest survey of the industry, 2.1 million tonnes of recycled board was shipped by Canadian mills to domestic and export markets in 2018.  Some 87% of that was from mills making a 100% recycled content product (linerboard, corrugating medium, or boxboard).

For more information on recycled content (how it’s defined, how it’s measured, what averages mean, the difference between pre and post-consumer recycled, how the packaging grades differ, the need for virgin material, and the problem with regulating minimum recycled content levels) see the latest version of PPEC’s backgrounder Understanding Recycled Content or go to the PPEC website www.ppec-paper.com

Summary from PPEC’s 2018 Recycled Content Survey

Canadian Mill Shipments (including kraft paper):

3.37 million tonnes

Recycled Content Shipments:

2.11 million tonnes (62.7%)

Recycled Content from 100% Recycled Mills:

1.83 million tonnes (86.7%)

John Mullinder

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

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Most Canadian boxes, cartons now 100% recycled content

Most boxes and cartons manufactured in Canada are now 100% recycled content, made completely from old boxes and other used paper material collected from the back of factories, supermarkets, office buildings, or from residential Blue Box programs.

Some 13 mills across Canada produce nothing but 100% recycled content board, according to PPEC’s latest Recycled Content Survey. The industry’s environmental council completes a survey every two years, and has been tracking recycled content since 1990.

Recycled content blurb

There has been a significant increase in average recycled content over the years, from 47% back in 1990 to almost 80% today. Most Canadian packaging mills, though, now make a 100% recycled content product, that’s the way they were built. A few mills blend recycled material with wood residues (chips, shavings and sawdust left over from lumber operations), and three mills use wood residues or freshly-cut trees. When you add it up, the Canadian industry hardly uses any freshly-cut trees to make paper packaging at all. The notion that the industry reaches for a chainsaw every time it needs to make a new box or carton is a complete fabrication.

Any fresh trees that do get harvested for packaging purposes all come from commercial forests that have been independently certified as sustainably managed. Under provincial law, these forest areas must  be successfully regenerated either through tree planting and direct seeding, or naturally. The harvest and regrowth of Canada’s commercial forest is currently in balance, according to Natural Resources Canada.

For more information on how recycled content is defined and measured, how it differs between packaging types, and its relationship to virgin material, see PPEC’s  background report Understanding Recycled Content.

John Mullinder

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

More Posts - Website