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Archive for paper

Suzuki dead wrong on paper’s circular economy

As a long-time admirer of Canadian broadcaster and author David Suzuki’s pungent style, it’s tough to have to point out three major errors in his latest opinion piece. I do so because his claim that paper does not represent a circular let alone a sustainable economy is dead wrong and based on patently false information.

David Suzuki
Suzuki: three major errors

FALSE CLAIM # 1: That vast amounts of boreal forest (are) pulped for toilet paper.’’

This is a gross, Trumpian-like exaggeration. To claim that “vast amounts’’ of boreal forest are pulped for anything, let alone toilet paper, is absurd. According to Canadian Forest Service estimates, a mere 0.16% of Canada’s boreal is harvested in any one year. Yes, 0.16%. Now I will readily admit my math was not great in high school, but I do not think that 0.16% comes anywhere close to qualifying as a “vast amount.”  Seriously? 0.16 per cent?[i]

And that harvest is mostly for lumber: to build houses, hospitals, schools, and so on. What’s left over (wood chips, shavings, and sawdust) is certainly used for other purposes (to supply energy to a mill and to the local community, and to make paper products) but the prime purpose of that harvest is for the lumber, not paper products. That’s why when people are not building houses (for example, in a recession) that overall harvest numbers go way down.[ii]

Calculating the portion of boreal harvest that goes specifically to make toilet paper is rather tricky because the sawmill residues that are used are later converted to paper both inside and outside Canada, and into other products as well (printing and writing paper, towelling, and even some packaging grades). However, assuming that other countries use pulp in a similar way to Canada, the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) estimates that less than 5% of Canadian-produced wood pulp, and less than 1% of total harvested wood (not just from the boreal), ends up in toilet paper each year.[iii]

So, this hugely exaggerated claim about ‘’vast amounts’’ of the boreal being “pulped for toilet paper’’ is basically, well, crap. And let’s not forget that it’s the law in Canada for any harvested area to be successfully regenerated after harvest, either naturally or artificially through tree planting or seeding. Canada does this by planting over a thousand new seedlings a minute. Sounds pretty circular to me.

FALSE CLAIM # 2: Cutting down forests that have never been logged to produce more toilet paper, packaging and other paper products we barely recycle can never be circular let alone sustainable.”

Suzuki, like Vancouver-based environmental group Canopy before him, is obviously sadly misinformed about the extensive use of sawmill residues and recycled paper in Canada.[iv]  I readily agree that most toilet paper is not recycled after use (for obvious reasons) but Canada, in fact, has a pretty decent record in recycling used paper products. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, North America’s overall paper recovery rate is almost 70%, one of the highest in the world.[v]  In Statistics Canada’s bi-annual surveys of waste diversion, paper leads all other materials, representing almost 40% of Canada’s total recycling effort.[vi]  And on the packaging front, Suzuki is obviously ignorant of the fact that most Canadian packaging is not made from virgin trees at all. Most of it is 100% recycled content, the very embodiment of a circular economy. The recovery rate of old corrugated boxes in Ontario’s Blue Box, for example, has been an amazing 98%, four years running. Please get your facts straight before you make such inaccurate claims.

FALSE CLAIM # 3: “A 2020 draft forest sector strategy for Ontario projects a 35 percent increase in tissue production and a 25 percent increase in packaging.”

Sorry David, it does not. You screwed up. The draft forest sector strategy you refer to mentions global demand for pulp over the next decade, not Ontario demand. Ontario may be large to us, but it’s piddly on the world stage.[vii]  Besides, if packaging production were to increase by that much in Ontario, it would be 100% recycled content packaging anyway. Sorry, but you goofed big time here.

Put all these facts together and Suzuki’s flimsy argument totally collapses. In fact, of any industry in Canada the paper guys probably have the best case to make for being sustainable and circular. Unlike most other resources, the one paper uses, is renewable. Canada is also far and away the world leader in forests certified as being sustainably managed. Most Canadian mills have independent third-party chain-of-custody (responsible sourcing) certification; and the industry (especially the packaging sector) is high in recycled content and paper recovery. Combined, these factors arguably make the industry one of the largest and most successful examples of a circular economy in Canada today. Next time please get your facts straight before you splurge into print.


[i] Canada’s total forest lands comprise some 12 distinct terrestrial ecozones with the rate of harvesting in each varying but averaging about 0.22% overall (The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report, 2019). The boreal forest is found in seven of these ecozones (the Taiga Plains, Taiga Shield, Boreal Shield, Boreal Plains, Taiga Cordillera, Boreal Cordillera and the Hudson Plains). While the boreal makes up a large area of the total forest (82%), it accounts for only three-fifths of the area harvested, according to a Canadian Forest Service analysis covering the years 2000 to 2015. The numbers are 453,600 hectares harvested out of 285 million hectares of boreal forest (or 0.16%).

[ii] “If the lumber market takes a downturn as it did during the recession of 2008-2009, then there is no point in harvesting trees. In fact, the harvest on provincial land in the recession year of 2009 was the lowest since 1990.” (Quotation from Deforestation in Canada and Other Fake News by John Mullinder, based on National Forest Inventory data, Table 6-2).

[iii] FPAC estimates, FPAC Environment Survey. Also note that about 60% of toilet paper in Canada comes from recycled paper.

[iv] More than 90% of the raw materials used by the Canadian pulp and paper industry are sawmill residues and recycled paper: Rotherham and Burrows (2014) Improvement in efficiency of fibre utilization by the Canadian forest products industry 1970-2010. Forestry Chronicle 90 (66).

[v] World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Facts & Trends: Fresh & Recycled Fiber Complementarity (2015).

[vi]  Statistics Canada, Materials diverted, by type, Table 38-10-0034-01. 

[vii] Total Expected Growth in Global Forest Products Demand in Next Decade, Duncan Brack, UN Forum on Forests, April 2018.

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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What BC’s new “Blue Box” Program Plan should look like

The province of British Columbia has asked industry “stewards” (brandowners and retailers) to design an industry-funded program for the collection, processing and marketing of residential printed paper and packaging. This is what the Program Plan should look like:

1. It should include all printed paper and packaging

There should be no exceptions. No Ontario/Quebec/Manitoba-type systems where maybe 80% of the materials are collected with the rest to come at some distant time in the future. Why? Because that’s what the BC Ministry of Environment is asking for, for one. The BC regulation clearly says “all printed paper and packaging”. It does not say “the materials for which there are currently markets.”  It says all. Having all materials in the program is a game-changer.

It means several things, in addition to meeting the stewards’ legal obligations. It means that all stewards will have the opportunity to actually have their materials collected (and not be paying for a program that doesn’t collect their particular items). It means a level playing field between materials (instead of funding formulas that are over-weighted toward the cost of recycling materials rather than penalising those that aren’t). It promotes a consistent, harmonised, one-message to consumers across the province on what is collected (all paper and packaging, no exceptions). And it places an increasing emphasis on design for recycling or end-of-life (something the BC ministry also wants).

2. If all materials are in, then clearly both collection and processing are going to be much different than what exists today.

Collection: The collection program is going to have to be able to handle a wide range of printed paper and packaging materials (some 115 different types, according to a list compiled by Dan Lantz of Cascades Recovery). The current program cannot do that, and is inefficient partly because collection is based on individual municipal borders and jurisdictions. This is no fault of the municipalities, they have inherited the situation. But collection is more efficient when it is based on collection zones that make geographic and demographic sense, rather than when one municipal border runs up against another.

Collection of over 100 different materials also means collection methods need to be unified and consistent. Given that BC’s proposed recovery program is predominantly a paper one (80%), it would seem to make sense to collect in two different streams (paper fibres, and glass, plastic and metal containers). Two-stream collection has proven to be lower cost (important to the stewards funding it); to maximize the quality and value of the materials collected; and to offer more flexibility in program design.

Processing: Processing over 100 different materials also requires new design formats upfront. A strong processing industry (including PPEC members) already exists in BC, and is prepared to invest in new material recovery facility (MRF) design once the stewards/province agree that the program covers all printed paper and packaging (not just materials that are widely recycled now). It is far more cost-efficient to design upfront rather than add on pieces later at considerable steward expense.

To make those investments, the processors have to raise capital, and they can only do that if they have in their hands some strong guarantees that the materials they are designing their plants around will actually arrive in the quantities and qualities expected. It also makes sense for processors to use these same plants for industrial, commercial and institutional (IC & I) materials being recycled. There are proven economies of scale in working this way, and lower steward costs (for the residential sector materials) as a result.

3. Municipalities will clearly be involved in the transition and beyond

The BC government wants to move from a municipal controlled and taxpayer funded program to one that is industry-controlled and industry-funded. That means that the current collection infrastructure (mostly contracted out to the private sector on a municipal border basis) needs to be closely scrutinised for improved efficiencies. There is no reason, however, why a municipality should not bid for a collection or processing contract in the future along with private sector bidders. And because municipalities are responsible for managing the collection of other material streams from BC households (organics, garbage etc.), they will continue to interface with the new industry-run printed paper and packaging program anyway. This is the time for the province and the stewards to grasp the opportunity to deliver something very special in BC, not for emotion and turf protection and politics to get in the way.

John Mullinder

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

More Posts - Website