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Archive for landfill

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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Canada diverting only 27% of its waste

For those promoting a more circular economy where materials are used again and again rather than made, used and dumped, the latest data from Statistics Canada provides a solid gut check on how far we have to go. Only 27% of our waste is currently being diverted from landfill or incineration. The “good” news is that at least our diversion rate has been steadily improving, up from 22% back in 2002.

The data measures the industrial, commercial, and residential waste streams of paper, plastic, glass, metals, textiles, organics (food), electronics, white goods such as fridges and appliances, and construction, renovation and demolition (CRD) materials like wood, drywall, doors, windows, and wiring. It excludes materials from land clearing and asphalt, concrete, bricks, and clean sand or gravel.

The only “good” news here is that the data, we believe, substantially understates the recycling that is going on in this country because it doesn’t include tonnages from provincial deposit/refund programs or the mostly paper materials that go from a retailer, say, direct to a paper recycling mill, rather than through a waste hauler or local government. Canada’s recycling success story (up 36% since 2002) will be the subject of a future blog.

In the meantime, we get to dwell on the bad news. As noted in our previous blog on this subject, Nova Scotia (and to a lesser extent British Columbia) are way out in front of everyone else. The diversion rates for New Brunswick, Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador have declined over the last 12 years.

Waste Diversion by Province

John Mullinder

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

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We don’t cut down trees just because paper is in the landfill

A slide shown at the Conference on Canadian Stewardship in Banff last week claimed a direct connection between paper ending up in landfill and the need to harvest fresh trees. There is none, as far as paper packaging in Canada is concerned.NoDirectConnection

While it’s true that the overall paper life cycle requires fresh (virgin) fibre to be introduced at some point in the system to keep the whole paper cycle going (we wrote a blog about this some time ago), it is not true that paper products ending up in landfill automatically require the harvesting of fresh trees to supply new feedstock. It is especially not true when applied to paper packaging made in Canada, for two main reasons.

First, most Canadian packaging mills are not built to run using virgin material. So when a containerboard mill, for example, runs short of locally available recycled fibre to make a new corrugated box, it does not seek virgin fibre to make up the difference. Because it is built to run on recycled fibre, it must seek recycled fibre from other sources. Usually this means eating into the millions of tonnes of used packaging already being collected in North America and exported to Asia for recycling there. There’s plenty of it to go around (about nine million tonnes exported from the US in the last year alone).

Second, most of the boxes that end up in Canadian landfills are not made from virgin material in the first place, so you are not replacing virgin boxes, you are replacing mostly recycled material. In fact, given the nature of the fibre cycle itself, that material may very well have been recycled up to nine times already, before becoming too thin and weak for further recycling. As noted in a previous blog, most packaging mills in Canada make a 100% recycled content product. We don’t want any of it to end up in the dump. This is our feedstock and we want to use it again and again, which is why we are lobbying provincial governments to ban it from disposal.

So next time you see this false chainsaw assumption because of what’s in landfill, please challenge it.

John Mullinder

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

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