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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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Nothing is 100% recyclable or 100% compostable

Claims for 100% recyclable and 100% compostable seem to be proliferating. Are they accurate? Are they legal? Or are they just another form of greenwash?

It’s not surprising that North American consumers are confused. Because in common speech, the words “recyclable” and “compostable” can mean three different things:

  • technically recyclable or compostable, meaning that the product can be physically taken apart for recycling or broken down for composting
  • able to be collected, meaning that the municipality or service provider says you can put it out for recycling or composting collection
  • that the product or material is commonly being recycled or composted already.

Each of these meanings is significantly different. But in terms of environmental labelling, which is what we are talking about here, the Competition Bureau Canada will accept only one. And that is whether the consumer can actually send the product or material for recycling or composting. It does not matter whether the product or material is technically capable of being torn apart or composted. It does not matter what the actual recycling or recovery rate of that material might be (that’s a whole other issue). What does matter is how many Canadians have access (“reach” in the US) to the recycling (or composting) of that product or material.

And the Competition Bureau has guidelines on how that access is determined and when you can use the words: “It is recommended that if at least half the population has access to collection facilities, a claim of recyclable (or compostable) may be made without the use of any qualification.” If less than half the population has access, claims must be qualified: “the specific location of the recycling (or composting) programs or facilities should be identified whenever it is possible and practical to do so.” (10.1.3).

Recyclable and compostable claims, then, are based on whether and to what extent consumers have access to recycling or composting facilities. Putting 100% in front of these words, however, Nothing is 100% recyclable or 100% compostabletakes the issue to a whole new level. We are not lawyers, but to us the clear inference consumers would draw from a claim of “100% recyclable” or “100% compostable” is that 100% of Canadians have access to the recycling (or composting) of that product or material. And that is plainly not true.

While most Canadians now live in cities and towns that have access to recycling or composting facilities, there are a small but significant number of people who live in more remote locations who do not, and probably never will have “conveniently available” access to recycling or composting. Therefore, 100% access for Canadians will likely never be achieved. Which is why we in the paper packaging industry say that virtually all Canadians have access to the recycling of paper packaging. The actual number is 96% for corrugated boxes and paper bags, and 94% for boxboard cartons, determined through an independent third-party study.

Anybody putting the 100% in front of recyclable (or compostable) is therefore, in our view, failing to follow the Competition Bureau guidelines for using the words, and is leaving themselves open to prosecution for misleading advertising. They are compounding existing consumer confusion about what recyclable/compostable mean; or worse, deliberately indulging in what amounts to greenwash. Doesn’t labelling a product or material as 100% recyclable or 100% compostable just serve to dilute and undermine the whole access criteria on which the current use of the words is based? Are we wrong on this?

cc: Competition Bureau Canada

John Mullinder

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

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