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Archive for Corrugated boxes

Fact and fiction in the fight to deliver your fruit and veggies

Most consumers don’t see this but there’s an intense battle going on right now in North America for the job of delivering food from the farm to the retailers who sell it to you. An old ding-dong fight between the traditional corrugated box with its colourful graphics showing who grew the produce, and the anonymous reusable plastic crate. Between a system that uses a fresh box every time (minimising the potential for undesirable pathogens and bacteria being carried forward to the consumer) and a crate that must be thoroughly washed and sanitised before it can be used again. An economic and environmental debate between paper and plastic, re-use and recycling.

A recent article in the Globe and Mail newspaper highlighted some of the issues. But it also added to the confusion. Here’s our attempt to sort fact from fiction:

  • Claim (by major crate supplier IFCO) that the scientific studies showing food-safety risks with reusable crates are “flawed” and rely on “faulty methodology.”

FACT:  Several independent studies by reputable food scientists have now been carried out over the last few years in both Canada and the United States, including by the Universities of Guelph, British Columbia, California (Davis) and the University of Arkansas. At least one has been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal. The studies range from a lab simulation that shows biofilms surviving common crate cleaning procedures to in-field tests revealing unacceptably high total aerobic and yeast and mould counts, and the presence of E. coli after the crates had supposedly been washed. In the Globe article, a food science professor at McGill University, Lawrence Goodridge, throws his support behind the latest University of Guelph findings.

FACT: IFCO by comparison has not funded any independent research or presented the results of  any in-house studies for public review; has declined to provide details of the standards it deems to be acceptable; and has responded to the data in the above studies only with general and critical sound bites. If its crates are so clean why is IFCO unwilling to share publicly exactly how it draws those conclusions? And why aren’t retailers like crate promoter, Loblaw, and government inspection agencies, putting more pressure on IFCO to share those testing procedures publicly so that food scientists and consumers can be confident that the crates meet acceptable sanitisation standards?

  • Claim (by the Reusable Packaging Association) that the corrugated industry has funded tests on the safety of its competitor’s products but not its own.

FACT: Not true. The corrugated industry has been very open in commissioning independent food scientists to do the crate studies noted above. It had hoped that IFCO and government bodies might fund some joint research on both crates and boxes, but neither party came to the table. It has also tested its own product’s performance. One independent box study shows that the heat of the process of making the box kills all bacteria. Another study tested 720 corrugated boxes in three different US states, and found that every single one of them met acceptable sanitisation levels.

  • Claim (by Loblaw spokesperson Catherine Thomas) that “each year, by using these reusable crates, we keep millions of wax-corrugate boxes out of landfill.”Corrugated Recycles

FACT: Not true. “Millions” is a gross exaggeration for a start. Waxed boxes represent maybe 3% of all corrugated boxes produced and maybe 10% of boxes used for delivering fresh produce today. The waxes provide a moisture barrier so that ice, for example, can be added to the box to keep produce such as broccoli, fresh in transit. The paper industry has spurred development of alternatives to wax treatments and, in fact, sales of wax alternatives now surpass those of traditional waxes. Wax alternatives are perfectly re-pulpable and recyclable in packaging recycling mills throughout North America.

Loblaw and other grocers should check to see what’s actually happening at the back of their stores. Many grocers today are being asked to separate the waxed boxes from the normal (non-waxed) corrugated boxes they receive. The waxed boxes are then baled and shipped to companies that make fire logs or extract the paraffin from them. Stores that take advantage of this opportunity obviously don’t send any waxed boxes to landfill.

John Mullinder

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

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Fewer newspapers but more boxes in the home

There’s just something about paper! Thirteen years of data on what ends up in Ontario homes tells us that Canadians, or at least those who live in Ontario, cannot or do not want to shuck their paper habit, despite all those urgent exhortations to do so. The paper-less home ain’t happening. Well, not yet anyway.Paper Generation Ontario 2015

Newspapers, corrugated boxes, boxboard cartons, and printing and writing paper are still the major paper items ending up in Ontario households, a PPEC analysis of residential generation since 2003 reveals. Paper materials today represent some 65% of the dry recyclables in the home, the same as they did back in 2003.

While there has been an 11% drop in overall generation of paper products over the period, some of this can be attributed to the light-weighting of paper and boxes (everything being measured by weight). But most of that lost tonnage has been on the newspaper side in losses to digital competition. It’s more than just newspapers, though. Printed papers overall are down by 26% collectively.

The biggest hit by far has been taken by the publisher members of the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Ontario Community Newspaper Association (down 35%), but magazines and catalogues (down 31%) and telephone books especially (down 70%), have been savaged too.

On the paper packaging side, however, everything except laminated paper is on the up. Corrugated boxes, likely buoyed by the development of e-commerce, and boxboard cartons are both up between 20 and 22%, and the minor grades, gable top and aseptic cartons, have made significant gains too.

Generation Specific Household Paper Types

The tables outline the generation changes over the 13-year period. The good news, of course, is that most of that paper packaging is made from 100% recycled content material that is widely recycled back into new packaging, an already existing local circular economy. But that’s the subject of a future blog.

John Mullinder

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

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Plastic lobby tells a big whopper, continues to smear paper bags

As whoppers go, this is a big one. The plastics lobby wants you to believe that only 7% of plastic shopping bags are thrown away in Montreal: “ZERO WASTE – CLOSE TO IT,” it proudly claims. Zero Waste - NoWhat a stretch! 

The claim is blatantly misleading and dishonest. What the plastics lobby has done is combine a re-use estimate with a recycling estimate to come up with an impressive 93% total. The problem is that almost two-thirds of that total is bags re-used for household garbage or pet waste. Yes, bags that will shortly be in the dump or roaming the streets as litter.

To claim that “only 7% of the bags (in Montreal) are thrown away” and that “bag waste management is very close to zero waste” when in fact almost 70% of them end up in landfill, is blatantly misleading. This claim shifts all of the environmental burden off of shopping bags and onto garbage bags.

It is also false accounting. Think of all those used corrugated boxes in your garage or basement holding stuff they didn’t deliver in the first place. Are we going to count them as “re-use” now, as the plastics folks are doing, so that we can claim that virtually no corrugated boxes go to landfill? In fact, if we did what the plastics people are doing for bags and added the re-use number for corrugated to the recycling number for corrugated in Ontario households (98%), poof, we’d be over 100% easily! Yeah baby, we’re even better than zero waste!

The recycled percentage is also questionable. It’s for plastic bags collected, not actually recycled. Ask the operator of a material recovery facility (MRF) how many plastic bags have to be removed from their machinery and sent to landfill, or a paper recycling mill how much plastic film ends up as residue and has to be dumped at their expense, and you’ll start to get more accurate numbers.

And, of course, facing bans on bags in various cities, the plastics industry can’t resist having a go at plastic alternatives such as reusable bags and paper bags. It’s been doing this for a while, mainly through a website that’s rather ironically called “all about bags.” Well, not quite all about bags. Its special section on litter somehow neglects to mention the fact that bags end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans.

majorholesAnd it gives an entirely false impression of paper bag production and environmental performance in Canada. We have previously pointed out one dirty lie and several factual errors on this site. There are also some major holes in the waste management comparison it tries to make. For starters, a typical paper bag carries more goods than a plastic bag (a fact recognised by life cycle experts). So you can’t crunch numbers based on the assumption that one paper bag will replace just one plastic bag. It’s more than that. And this, of course, changes any calculations of greenhouse gas impact.

Nor can you assume that all banned plastic bags will be replaced by paper bags. In reality, bans on plastic bags seem to achieve major reductions in plastic bag usage (straight reduction) and a significant increase in reusable bags. We don’t see new paper bag mills springing up everywhere!

In the same vein, the net cost of recycling plastic film in the recycling system is more than six times the cost of recycling paper bags in a corrugated bale. So there are huge avoided costs (savings) that have to be taken into account when plastic bags are replaced.

And then there’s the so-called life cycle studies (LCAs) that the plastics industry loves to promote. As we have pointed out before, most of these are old; of varying quality and relevance; and perhaps most significantly, incorporate no actual data on paper and plastic bag production in Canada. Assumptions and conclusions based on studies of how French, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Malaysian, and Chinese paper and plastic bags were made up to 20 years ago, are of little value to us in Canada today!

The high amount of sawmill residues and renewable energy (carbon-neutral biomass) that are used to make bag material in Canada are not taken into account in the life cycle studies being promoted by the plastic folks. So making claims that solid waste management costs in Montreal and elsewhere will skyrocket and greenhouse gas emissions soar if plastic bags are replaced by paper bags, are spurious, to say the least.

Until these key paper production issues (the use of sawmill residues and renewable energy) and the impact of marine litter are factored into LCAs, we are not, however, going to claim that paper bags are “environmentally friendlier” (a phrase the Competitions Bureau cautions against using anyway). But we will continue to point out the false claims, the misrepresentations, and yes the big whoppers made by our less principled competitors.

 

John Mullinder

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

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