There is general agreement that there are three key elements to sustainability: environmental, social, and economic. To make this relevant to packaging, an international alliance of major retailers and consumer goods companies recently developed a Global Protocol on Packaging Sustainability. This outlines 42 different metrics (or ways of measuring) sustainability that companies should take into account when thinking about the packaging that delivers their products.
We focus on some of these metrics here (mostly the environmental ones) to demonstrate the sustainability of paper packaging made in Canada. The information below covers paper packaging generally (all grades). If you want specific environmental information on corrugated boxes, boxboard cartons or paper bags, check out our grade-specific websites: www.corrugatedboxescanada.org; www.paperbagscanada.org; and www.paperboxescanada.org
- Made from a Renewable Resource
Even though most paper packaging made in Canada is high in recycled content, the paper fibres it was originally made from came from a tree somewhere. Trees are a renewable resource. By law, every hectare of commercial forest that’s harvested in Canada must be successfully regenerated, either through direct seeding or naturally. Currently the harvest and re-growth of Canada’s forests is in balance, with an average of over 1,000 new seedlings planted every minute. Canada also leads the world in the amount of forest land that’s independently certified as being sustainably managed.
PPEC-member companies have gone one step further by achieving a significant sustainability milestone: what’s called third-party “chain-of-custody” certification. This provides independent proof that the companies receive their raw materials (whether recycled or virgin) from responsible sources.
- Made from Renewable Energy (Biomass, Hydro)
The two Canadian mills that produce kraft paper to make paper bags and sacks are major users of renewable energy (biomass). What can’t be used to make quality paper is converted into energy to power the mills’ boilers. Virtually nothing is wasted. The US Environmental Protection Agency recently recognized that biomass from sustainably managed forests is carbon-neutral. This substantially reduces these mills’ environmental footprint. Many other Canadian mills use another form of renewable energy (hydro) to power their plants.
- High in Recycled Content
Most boxes and cartons made in Canada are 100% recycled content because that’s what Canada’s packaging mills are built to produce. They use old packaging and printed paper collected from the back of factories, supermarkets, office buildings, and from residential (Blue Box) programs. While recycled content varies by packaging grade (boxes, bags, cartons), the overall industry average is still an impressive 76 per cent.
Virtually 100% of Canadians can recycle paper packaging in Canada. A recent independent survey found that some 96% of Canadians had access to the recycling of corrugated boxes and paper bags and sacks. Some 94% had access to the recycling of boxboard cartons.
Most paper packaging materials are compostable in Canada. In fact, in two provinces more old boxboard cartons are sent for composting than sent for recycling.
- Packaging Re-Use
While numbers are difficult to estimate, it is clear that some paper packaging is widely re-used. There is a significant trade in using old corrugated boxes for storage purposes and for moving into new homes or offices, for example.
- Packaging Recycling
Paper packaging is widely recycled in Canada. PPEC estimates a national recovery rate for corrugated boxes of at least 85 per cent. It is harder to estimate specific recycling rates for old boxboard and paper bags because they are frequently mixed in with other grades of paper. There is better data on residential (Blue Box) recycling rates in some provinces. The recycling rates for Ontario’s Blue Box program in 2014, for example, were 98% for corrugated boxes and 46% for old boxboard.
- Design for the Environment
Paper packaging designers are constantly redesigning their packaging: removing layers; introducing strong but lighter “high performance” board; reducing the size of box flaps; and lessening the air space between the product and its packaging. The following PPEC initiatives have had industry-wide impact. In the early 1990s, PPEC persuaded the Railways Association to allow the use of “high performance” board in shipping by rail (slashing the amount of corrugated needed by up to 10%). And more recently, the council persuaded the LCBO to allow an alternative testing procedure that effectively allows more recycled board to be used in wine and liquor packaging.
Sustainable packaging must be economically viable. So packagers are continually monitoring their production costs (raw materials, energy, labour, transport) to ensure they become more efficient and stay in business. The Canadian paper packaging industry produces some three million tonnes of packaging material a year, most of it (60%) for the domestic market, with the balance primarily going to the US. Price, quality, and freight distance are key factors. The industry employs some 15,000 Canadians directly in both mills and converting facilities across the country, and thousands indirectly through the supply chain.
The packaging mills and converters are part of the communities in which they reside: providing jobs, paying taxes, giving back through voluntary contributions and sponsorships, and investing in community projects. They meet federal and provincial laws on employment (working hours, workplace practices, child labour, remuneration, discrimination, and freedom of association and collective bargaining). They meet occupational health and safety performance standards, and have introduced environmental management systems and energy audits and reviews.