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Archive for Circular Economy

Sustainable Forest Management and Canada’s Paper Packaging Industry 

With today’s International Day of Forests, the Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) would like to explain how sustainable forest management is critical to the circular economy of Canada’s paper packaging industry, and share the latest developments related to how forests can help mitigate climate change.

Environmental sustainability is at the core of PPEC member company operations and the Canadian paper packaging industry, including the sustainable management of Canada’s forests. And yet, misconceptions surrounding forestry and paper packaging persist when it comes to how paper packaging is made.

How Paper Packaging is Made

In Canada, paper packaging is made from virgin, recycled, or blended pulp (a mix of the two); with all paper fibre sources verified to be responsibly sourced by independent, third-party certification bodies.

Most domestic shipments of the three major paper packaging grades made in Canada – containerboard (used to make corrugated boxes), boxboard (used to make boxboard cartons), and kraft paper (used to make paper bags) – are made from recycled content (81.7%).

Mills also use sawmill residues – such as wood chips, shavings and sawdust left over from sawmill operations – and some supplement their pulp with virgin fibres from trees, which represents about 12% of the average paper-based box, carton, or bag.

Canada's Major Paper Packaging Grades Made Primarily from Recycled Content

The mixture of using recycled content – old boxes and other paper materials collected from residential and business recycling programs – along with some new fibres from sustainably managed forests, is an important component to paper packaging’s circular economy.

First, by law, every hectare of commercial forest that is harvested in Canada must be successfully regenerated, so any trees that are harvested are replanted.

And second, through the important act of recycling, paper packaging is continually collected from Canadian residents and businesses, so it can be remade into new paper-based packaging products again and again.

Paper Packaging: One of Canada's Original Circular Economies

And while stats show that paper can be recycled up to seven times, and corrugated box fibres up to ten times, a recent study from Graz University of Technology in Austria found that fibre-based packaging material can be recycled at least 25 times without losing mechanical or structural integrity.

While this new research suggests that paper and board fibres are even more durable than previously thought, we know that over time fibres weaken, which means a small amount of new virgin fibre needs to be introduced now and again, which leads to a second common misconception regarding deforestation.

The Causes of Deforestation and the Role of Regeneration in Sustainable Forest Management

According to Natural Resources Canada’s State of Canada’s Forests 2020 Annual Report, Canada’s 347 million hectares of forest area is stable, with less than half of 1% deforested since 1990.

But there is often a lot of confusion about deforestation, which is when forest land is permanently cleared and converted to make way for new, non-forest land use.

Canada’s annual deforestation rate has been declining since 1990, when it was 64,000 hectares, down to about 34,300 hectares in 2018. During that time, less than half of one per cent of Canada’s total forest area was converted to other land uses.

The major causes of deforestation are due to agriculture, mining, oil and gas projects, new homes, and the development of ski hills and golf courses, which together represent over 90% of deforestation in Canada.

The Major Causes of Deforestation in Canada (2018)

The forestry sector’s (which includes pulp and paper manufacturing and the wood product manufacturing subsectors) share of deforestation represents 1,494 hectares, or approximately 0.0004% of total deforestation in Canada.

And given that the Canadian paper packaging industry doesn’t use much in the way of freshly cut trees, the little that is harvested (0.2% in 2018) must be successfully regenerated (427 million seedlings were planted across Canada in 2018), making packaging’s share of deforestation zero.

Deforestation Facts

The Role of Forests in Mitigating Climate Change

Sustainable management of y managed forests have an important role to play in helping to mitigate climate change, as trees capture and store carbon, acting as carbon sources or carbon sinks: a forest is considered a carbon source if it releases more carbon than it absorbs, and a carbon sink if it absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases.

The Canadian government knows this and has committed to plant two billion additional trees by 2030, which would represent a 40% annual increase in the number of trees already being planted, and would lower emissions by up to 12 megatonnes annually by 2050 by removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Considering the carbon storage by forests is just one of the many recommendations from a new report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Forest Products in the Global Bioeconomy: Enabling substitution by wood-based products and contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals; which speaks to the role renewable forest products have in helping to combat climate change, and explores how wood-based products could help replace fossil-based and GHG-intensive products:

“There is strong evidence at product level that wood products are associated with lower GHG emissions over their entire life cycle when compared to products made from non-renewable or emissions-intensive materials. A review of 488 substitution factors obtained from 64 published studies indicates that the use of wood and wood-based products is generally associated with lower fossil and process-based emissions when compared to non-wood, functionally equivalent products. However, over three-quarters of studies in the literature focus on the construction sector and significantly less information exists for other traditional forest products such as paper for printing, writing, and packaging, or emerging forest products.”

As Two Sides North America’s Kathi Rowzie explained in Can Paper Help Save the Planet?:

“The document left open for later study the extent to which paper and paper-based packaging may serve as substitutes for non-wood products in the search for those that contribute to the net reduction of greenhouse gases, but there’s little doubt that any product sourced from materials that are grown and regrown are better for combating climate change than the non-paper alternatives.”

In addition to the FAO’s new report, the Forest Products Association of Canada recently released the documentary, Capturing Carbon, highlighting the role of sustainable forest management and wood products in helping to mitigate climate change; and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development released its Forest Sector Net-Zero Roadmap, about the forest sector’s role in enabling the transition to a net-zero economy. These are just a few of the developments related to forestry’s role in addressing climate change, which PPEC is monitoring.

When we use and recycle paper-based packaging, we all play a part in protecting and replenishing our renewable resources, contributing to the sustainable management of Canada’s forests, and supporting the circular economy of the paper-based packaging industry.

On International Day of Forests, it is important to remember that Canada’s forests are stable and sustainably managed.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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The Latest Ontario Blue Box Recycling Data for Paper-based Packaging

Paper-based packaging continues to be the largest captured material in Ontario’s household Blue Box program, based on new data released by the Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority (RPRA).

Each year, municipalities, recycling associations, and First Nation communities in Ontario report on their residential waste diversion programs to RPRA, through the annual Datacall. The most recent Datacall Report summarizes information generated by the 250 programs participating in the Blue Box Program in 2020, and highlights residential waste management trends.

Overall, the Blue Box recovery rate – the amount of designated packaging and printed materials recovered as a per cent of the amount generated – increased to 59.9% in 2020, up from 57.3% in 2019.

Of interest to the Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPPEC) and its members, is Figure 3 from the report, which shows Marketed Blue Box Materials in tonnes. Paper-based Packaging has the largest component with 271,433 tonnes, representing 35.9% of the total Blue Box marketed tonnage (756,984).

Source: Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority 2020 Datacall Report

Marketed Blue Box tonnes represent the tonnage sorted and processed by a Material Recycling Facility, which are then baled, sold, and used in place of virgin materials.

The second largest material is Printed Paper with 23% of marketed tonnes. However, this category – which includes newsprint, household fine paper, telephone books, and catalogues – continues to decline year over year.

Table 4 of the Datacall Report shows Marketed Blue Box Tonnes from 2015 to 2020, with Printed Papers showing a nearly 62% decline in tonnage over the five-year period.

Meanwhile, paper-based packaging – which includes old corrugated cardboard, old boxboard, and a portion of residential mixed papers and mixed fibres packaging – shows a nearly 73% increase in tonnage over the same period. The most recent year shows a 13.1% increase, which may be attributed to the rise in e-commerce shipments due to the pandemic.

Source: Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority 2020 Datacall Report

RPRA’s Datacall Report states that 99.8% of Ontario households have access to recycling corrugated and boxboard paper-based packaging. And not only do they have access, Ontario households are actively doing their part to recycle these materials.

The Ontario household recovery rate for Corrugated Cardboard is 98%, and 47% for Boxboard, according to Stewardship Ontario’s 2022 Blue Box Fee Calculation Model.

RPRA’s Datacall Report also offers insights into 10-year trends, including declining newsprint and rising program costs. Overall, Blue Box marketed tonnage decreased by 14.7% from 2010 to 2020, largely due to the continued decline of printed paper in Ontario, which has seen a 64% decrease over the last 10 years. Meanwhile, Net Blue Box costs have increased 35.2% from $203 million in 2010, to $349.8 million in 2020, while revenue received by programs is declining.

The Ontario Blue Box program is currently undergoing transition to a full producer responsibility framework, which will see producers take over 100% operational and financial management of the program by December 31, 2025.

Paper-based packaging is collected for recycling at both the household level, and from the backs of factories, supermarkets, and office buildings (also known as the Industrial, Commercial and Institutional sector). And as recycling plays an important role in the sustainability of Canada’s paper-based packaging industry – allowing PPEC member mills to maintain high levels of recycled content – PPEC closely monitors recycling and waste diversion statistics published by provincial stewardship organizations, Statistics Canada, and other organizations.

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-based packaging products again and again.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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This National Pizza Day Don’t Forget that Pizza Boxes are Recyclable in Canada

It is National Pizza Day on February 9, 2022, and the Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) wants to celebrate by reminding you that pizza boxes are recyclable in Canada! You thought we were going to say eat pizza, right? You can do that, too, but don’t forget to recycle that box once you’re done!

Pizza boxes are normally made from corrugated board, and in Canada, corrugated board is made mostly from recycled content. So, once that empty and clean pizza box is placed in the recycling bin – where it is then collected, sent for processing, baled, and sold – that recycled material then makes its way back to our members’ paper packaging mills, where it will get remade into a new pizza box, or another type of paper-based packaging.

That recycled pizza box represents an important slice of the Canadian paper packaging industry’s circular economy. Recycled content keeps raw materials flowing longer, reducing the need to extract virgin materials. And the average recycled content for domestic shipments of containerboard – which is used to make corrugated board – is close to 87%, based on PPEC’s 2020 Recycled Content Survey.

In general, paper can be recycled up to seven times, while corrugated box fibres can be used up to ten times, to make new boxes and other paper-based packaging products. We already thought those numbers were quite good, but a new study from Graz University of Technology in Austria found that fibre-based packaging material can be recycled at least 25 times, without losing mechanical or structural integrity, suggesting that paper and board fibres are even more durable than previously thought.

Thanks to the important act of recycling, it’s likely that your pizza box has had multiple lives, and we want that to continue. But unfortunately, there has been some confusion over the years when it comes to their recyclability.

National Pizza Day - three images of Pizza boxes Recyclable and Compostable

In the past, it has been suggested that pizza boxes should not be placed in blue box recycling bins because of the grease and cheese scraps. But that’s not true. If you remove the food scraps (eat those crusts!) and any plastic (like that three-pronged pizza saver which is meant to prevent the box top from sagging), that corrugated pizza box is recyclable in Canada.

And when it gets to the recycling mill, the empty pizza box goes into a pulper – which is like a big washing machine – where any non-paper materials are removed through a series of cleaning and screening processes. The paper fibres are then pumped onto a fast-moving screen to form paper or board. The rest of the process involves removing the moisture out of the paper or board so that it can be wound onto big rolls or cut into sheets, which are then shipped to a converter or a box plant, where it is remade into new paper-based packaging.

But what about the greasy residue you sometimes see on a pizza box? Well, in a typical mill’s recycling process, the temperature of the paper sheet reaches up to 240 degrees Fahrenheit – well above 100 degrees Celsius, the boiling point of water and the temperature required for sterilisation – which gets rid of the grease. Though there is not much grease to begin with, as the average grease content of a pizza box found in the recycling stream is approximately 1-2% by weight level, according to WestRock’s Incorporation of Post-Consumer Pizza Boxes in the Recovered Fiber Stream Study.

Paper-packaging is a successful recycling story in Canada and pizza boxes are no exception.

Not only do 96% of Canadians have access to recycling for corrugated boxes, determined through an independent third-party study commissioned by PPEC, but Canadians actively do their part by recycling. PPEC has estimated a national recovery rate for corrugated boxes of at least 85%, with recycling even higher in certain provinces, such as Ontario’s Blue Box program, which has a 98% recovery rate for corrugated.

However, it should be noted that for some Canadian communities, composting paper packaging (including pizza boxes) may be more convenient, such as in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, who are hundreds of kilometres from the nearest packaging recycling mill.

Happy National Pizza Day from PPEC, and don’t forget to recycle your empty pizza boxes so they can be recycled into new pizza boxes!

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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Celebrating Waste Reduction Week and the Circular Economy of Paper-based Packaging

The Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) is pleased to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Waste Reduction Week in Canada, taking place this week.

Waste Reduction Week is an important program focused on the principles of circular economy, resource efficiency, and waste reduction; principles that PPEC and its members strongly support and apply to their daily operations in the production of recyclable paper-based packaging.

Paper is a renewable resource and a highly sustainable material that can be recycled and remade into new paper-based packaging products. In general, paper can be recycled up to seven times, while corrugated box fibres can be used up to ten times to make new shipping boxes and other paper-based packaging products.

Canada recycles almost 70% of its paper and cardboard, making it among the top paper recycling countries. And looking at corrugated boxes in particular – which have seen an increase in demand due to the pandemic and a rise in e-commerce – the national recycling rate for corrugated boxes is estimated by PPEC to be at least 85%, while Ontario has a 98% recovery rate for corrugated cardboard.

Keeping these materials in the recycling stream allows PPEC member mills to primarily use recycled fibres in their products. Recycled content is a key component of the Canadian paper-based packaging industry’s circular economy, keeping raw materials flowing for longer, reducing waste, and allowing them to be remade into new paper packaging products by PPEC member mills.

Circular Economy Chart for Waste Reduction Week

PPEC’s 2020 Recycled Content Survey of Canadian mills found that the average recycled content of domestic Canadian shipments of the three major paper packaging grades – containerboard (used to make corrugated boxes), boxboard (used to make boxboard cartons), and kraft paper (used to make paper bags) – is collectively 81.7%, up from 73.5% in 2018, and up from up from 47% back in 1990 when PPEC first began collecting this data.

And consumers play a critical role in the paper-based packaging industry’s circular economy through their important act of recycling. The majority of Canadians (94%) have access to recycling programs – and not only do they have access – they actively and regularly recycle their paper-based packaging, allowing those recycled fibres to make their way back to the mill to be remade into new paper packaging products again and again.

Waste Reduction Week - paper-based packaging materials are recyclable

And while most paper-based packaging made in Canada is made with recycled content, the paper fibres it was originally made from came from a tree. That’s why resource protection and sustainable forest management is critical to the operations of PPEC members and the Canadian paper-based packaging industry. All PPEC-member mills have independent, third-party certification that verifies that their paper fibre sources – recycled fibre, wood chips, and sawmill residues – are responsibly sourced. And while less than half of one per cent of Canadian commercial forests are harvested for paper-based packaging, every hectare that is harvested must be successfully regenerated; in 2018, at least 427 million seedlings were planted across Canada. When you add it up, the Canadian paper-based packaging industry hardly uses any freshly cut trees to make paper packaging, and the little that is harvested, 0.2% in 2018, is successfully regenerated.

When we use paper-based packaging, we all play a part in the circular economy of the paper-based packaging industry. Learn more the environmental sustainability of paper-based packaging by visiting PPEC’s website and follow us on social media on Twitter and LinkedIn. And to learn more about Waste Reduction Week visit https://wrwcanada.com/en.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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Sustainable Forest Management is Essential to the Canadian Paper-Based Packaging Industry

Sustainable forest management is a fundamental pillar for PPEC and its members and is essential to the Canadian paper-based packaging industry. And what better time to talk about that then during National Forest Week, which is taking place this week.

While most paper packaging made in Canada is made with recycled content, the paper fibres it was originally made from came from a tree. However, less than half of one per cent of Canadian commercial forests are harvested for paper-based packaging, and every hectare that is harvested must be successfully regenerated. According to Natural Resources Canada’s (NRCan) most recent State of Canada’s Forests annual report, at least 427 million seedlings were planted across Canada in 2018 – that’s 48,744 seedlings planted every hour.

In addition, all PPEC-member mills have independent, third-party certification that verifies that their paper fibre sources – which include recycled fibres, wood chips, and sawmill residues – are responsibly sourced. Each mill member has independent chain-of-custody certification for their operations in Canada by one of the three federally-recognised forest certification systems: the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI); the CSA and SFI systems are endorsed by the international umbrella organization called the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC).

These third-party forest management certification organizations assess forestry operations against standards for sustainable forest management, which includes ensuring the conservation of biodiversity (the wide array of ecosystems, ecological processes, and different species of plants and animals), and complements Canada’s rigorous forest management laws and regulations.

When you add it up, the Canadian paper-based packaging industry hardly uses any freshly cut trees to make paper packaging, and the little that is harvested, 0.2% in 2018 according to NRCan, is successfully regenerated.

So how are paper-based packaging products made in Canada? Primarily from recycled content! According to PPEC’s most recent Recycled Content Survey, the average recycled content of the three major paper packaging grades made by Canadian mills – containerboard (used to make corrugated boxes), boxboard (used to make boxboard cartons), and kraft paper (used to make paper bags) – is collectively 81.7%. The remaining 18% is made up of wood chips, shavings, or sawmill residue left over from lumber operations, and trees.

Recycled content is a critical component to the paper-based packaging industry’s circular economy. As Canadians actively recycle their paper-based packaging, that recycled content makes its way back to the mill, and is remade into new paper packaging products again and again.

And yet while we know that the paper-based packaging made by PPEC members is made primarily from recycled paper fibres, there is some confusion about our industry and deforestation (when forest land is permanently cleared to make way for a new, non-forest land use).

The most recent data available from NRCan reports that 34,257 hectares of Canada’s total forest area (346,964,664) was permanently converted to other land uses, representing a less than 0.01% deforestation rate.

Deforestation Facts

The forestry sector’s (which includes pulp and paper manufacturing and the wood product manufacturing subsectors) share of deforestation represents 1,494 hectares, or approximately 0.0004% of total deforestation in Canada.

And given that our industry doesn’t use much in the way of freshly cut trees, the little that is harvested – that 0.2% – must be successfully regenerated, making packaging’s share of deforestation zero.

The main causes of deforestation are by the Mining, oil and gas, Agriculture, and Built-up (industrial, institutional or commercial developments, municipal urban development, recreation, and transportation) sectors, who together represent 94% of Canada’s deforestation rate.

But we know it’s important to monitor deforestation, as forest loss affects biodiversity, soil, air and water quality, and wildlife habitat. And forests are a vital part of the carbon cycle, storing and releasing carbon during the process growth, decay, disturbance and renewal: “Over the past four decades, forests have moderated climate change by absorbing about one-quarter of the carbon emitted by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and the changing of land uses,” according to NRCan.

Sustainable forest management practices can help sequester carbon (the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide) with forests acting as either carbon sources or carbon sinks: a forest is considered to be a carbon source if it releases more carbon than it absorbs, which can result from old age, fire, or insects; or it’s considered to be a carbon sink if it absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases through photosynthesis.

According to NRCan, Canada’s managed forests have primarily been a carbon sink, but recently there has been a shift and they have become carbon sources, releasing more carbon than storing it, due in large part to wildfires and insect outbreaks, a likely result of a changing climate.

This year’s National Forest Week’s theme is “Our forests – continually giving,” and the Canadian Institute of Forestry has a number of resources to learn more about the value of forests and the importance of protecting and conserving them.

PPEC is pleased to celebrate National Forest Week this week, but it’s important to recognize that every day our members are continually working with recycled fibres, continually replanting and regenerating the little that is harvested, and continually adhering to sustainable forest management practices in their operations.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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Survey Says: Recycled Content a Key Component to Paper Packaging’s Circular Economy

Most boxes and cartons manufactured in Canada are made of recycled content – from old boxes and other used paper material collected from the back of factories, supermarkets, office buildings, and residential Blue Box recycling programs.

And there has been a significant increase in average recycled content for paper-based packaging over the years, up from 47% back in 1990, to over 80% today, according to the latest results from PPEC’s recently released Recycled Content Survey.

PPEC’s 2020 survey of Canadian mills that makes packaging grades found that the average recycled content of domestic Canadian shipments of the three major paper packaging grades – containerboard (used to make corrugated boxes), boxboard (used to make boxboard cartons), and kraft paper (used to make paper bags) – is collectively 81.7%, up from 73.5% in 2018.

Chart of recycled content

The survey results reinforce that recycled content is a key component of the Canadian paper packaging industry’s circular economy.

Mills produce the raw material used to make paper-based packaging – and the majority use 100% recycled content – which is sent to a converter, where it is made into packaging products. Once used by the customer, it is recycled – keeping raw materials flowing for longer – making its way back to the mill to be remade into new paper packaging products.

The majority of Canadians – 94% to be specific – have access to recycling programs; and not only do they have access, they actively and regularly recycle their paper-based packaging, with the national recycling rate for corrugated boxes estimated to be 85%.

This important act of recycling allows mills to continue to maintain their high levels of using recycled content in Canadian made paper packaging.

PPEC New Infographic 2021 - circular economy and recycled content

2020 PPEC Recycled Content Survey Key Findings:

Key findings from Recycled Content Survey
  • Total Canadian mill shipments: 3.37 million tonnes
  • Total recycled content shipments to domestic and export markets: 2.35 million tonnes
  • Average recycled content of domestic shipments for all three major packaging grades: 81.7%
  • Average recycled content for domestic shipments of boxboard, which is used to make cereal or shoe boxes: 79.8%.
  • Average recycled content for domestic shipments of containerboard, which is used to make corrugated shipping boxes: 86.5%

For more information on PPEC’s 2020 Recycled Content Survey please see our Press Release and Backgrounder.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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Providing Clarity on The Ottawa Citizen’s Cardboard Recycling Article

Last week, The Ottawa Citizen’s Kelly Egan wrote an article about cardboard recycling in Canada. In Thinking inside the box — pandemic creates crush of new cardboard, Egan provides some stats about paper packaging recycling and the consumption of trees — some of which are correct, and some of which are confusing.

Egan reached out to the Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) for some information on paper recycling, and while he used some of the data we provided, PPEC was not mentioned in the article.

With regards to recycling, Egan wrote:

“Paper and cardboard are considered the success stories in the recycling world. Two main reasons: as much as 98 per cent (depends who’s counting) of corrugated cardboard is recycled and any “new” cardboard uses very high content of recycled fibre.”

Yes, paper and cardboard are indeed success stories, and PPEC and the Canadian paper packaging industry is proud of that. As for who’s counting, it is Stewardship Ontario (who operates the Blue Box program under the authority of the The Waste-Free Ontario Act, 2016) who is doing the counting. Ontario’s 98% recovery rate for corrugated cardboard, the most recent available data, is from the 2020 Blue Box Pay-In Model.

As for recycled content, most of the paper packaging material made by Canadian mills today is 100% recycled content, according to PPEC’s most recent Recycled Content Survey. Old corrugated boxes and cartons are collected through residential Blue Box recycling programs across the country, as well as from the factories and supermarkets, and used to create recycled content product.

Cardboard Recycling chart of the circular economy

Egan goes on to write about tree consumption:

While this is considered a shining example of the so-called circular economy, paper and cardboard production does gobble up a lot of trees, as per this snippet from a recent Washington Post story: “Global consumption of trees reaches roughly 15 billion each year, including three billion for paper packaging, according to the Environmental Paper Network. The industry relies on recycling virgin fibre — the basis of cardboard boxes — five to seven times, saving trees and improving the bottom line.”

The Washington Post story Egan is quoting from is How Big Cardboard is handling the 2020 box boom (December 30, 2020). But using a global figure about tree consumption, in an article about paper packaging in Ottawa, could lead to some unnecessary confusion.

When it comes to Canada’s trees, less than half of one per cent of our forests are harvested for pulp, paper and lumber uses each year. In 2018, the harvested area represented 0.2% of the total area of forest land, according to Natural Resources Canada. And by law, all forests harvested on crown land (over 90% of Canada’s forest land is publicly-owned) must be successfully regenerated.

Not that we use of lot of trees to make paper packaging to begin with. On average, the recycled content of paper packaging shipped domestically is 71 per cent; and the balance of Canadian paper packaging comes from wood residues – wood chips, shavings and sawdust left over from lumber operations – with only 11% coming directly from trees (roundwood pulp), according to PPEC’s The Truth About Trees members only Fact Sheet.

According to the Washington Post article Egan quoted from, virgin fibre is recycled five and seven times; but according to our information, paper fibres can be recycled between four and nine times in Canada.

And while Egan refers to the “so-called circular economy,” PPEC truly believes that we do have a circular economy for paper packaging. Our Paper Packaging Flow Chart shows the cycle of how our material is collected, sorted, and sent to recycling mills to make new packaging; illustrating the circularity in the manufacture and use of paper, a renewable, sustainable and recyclable resource.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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How about a different approach to recycled content and the circular economy?

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Recycled content is the key component in the creation of a circular economy. It keeps raw materials flowing within the economy longer, reduces the pressure to extract more virgin materials from the earth, and delays their eventual disposal as waste. Recovering more materials for further use also creates jobs. A circular economy is something that companies and governments say they want to encourage.

Recycled content and the circular economy
Re

Voluntary and Mandatory Approaches

The strategies to encourage recycled content range from voluntary approaches through to government mandated minimums and the threat of banning product sales if those minimums are not met.

With a voluntary strategy, the government adopts a hands-off approach, allowing the marketplace to determine what happens. In the Canadian province of Ontario, the paper packaging industry has gone from below 50% recycled content to all but one mill today producing 100% recycled content boxes and cartons. This is presumably the type of ‘’circular economy” that Ontario wants. The ‘problem’ is that the approach is slow. It took some 25 years to get there.

The mandatory approach, on the other hand, is where the government regulates or legislates a framework of minimum recycled content targets, with fines or penalties or sales bans for non-achievement.

One of the problems with government mandates, however, is that they apply only to that government’s jurisdiction. For example, an Ontario mandate would not apply to other provinces. There may also be international trade implications for material being shipped into Ontario. Another complication is that most design decisions on recycled content are not made in Ontario but rather at company head office (in the US or Europe) with packaging design undertaken at global not local (Ontario) scale.

Also, the last thing industry wants is provinces or states leapfrogging over themselves to set successively higher (and perhaps public relations inspired) targets for industry to achieve in different jurisdictions. A federal mandate would be preferable, but that would mean getting all provinces/states to agree (which may prove difficult and time-consuming). 

Mixed Approaches

Some governments have chosen to mix voluntary and mandatory approaches to increasing recycled content. They have done this by including incentives within regulated programs. The choice is voluntary and at a company’s own pace.

An example of this is the current suggestion by the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) where companies are offered discounts on Blue Box diversion targets when they can prove use of Ontario Blue Box recycled content.

This approach does have several benefits. It gets the government out of the role of playing policeman and sorting out the technical issues of how to actually set specific recycled content targets for different materials that are sensible and fair. It also means the province does not need to enforce the achievement of these targets because they are voluntary. The onus is on the brand owner/retailer/publisher to prove the claim, with the added expense of mandatory auditing of company reports.

Administratively challenging

The current Ontario proposal, however, is administratively challenging at best, and impossible at worst.

Let’s follow the path of some recovered Ontario Blue Box paper. First it goes from a municipality or a service provider to either a broker or a MRF (processor). That first step is relatively easy to track. Then it gets complicated. Because the broker and the processor have other clients, other suppliers of recovered paper fibre. It could be Blue Box fibre from Quebec or Manitoba; it could be used boxes and office paper recovered from industrial, commercial and institutional (IC & I) sources within Ontario or maybe shipped in from Manitoba or Quebec or the United States. It could be pre-consumer clippings and cuttings from those same disparate sources (Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, the US).

The same diversity of sources applies at the mill level when the recovered fibre gets there from the processor. The mill is interested in the quality of the different fibres it uses to make its product, not in placing a special watch-out for the fibres coming in specifically from Ontario’s Blue Box program.

From all those different fibres, the mill (which may or may not be located in Ontario) makes board or paper that is shipped to converters who then turn it into the end-product (a newspaper, printing and writing paper, corrugated boxes, boxboard cartons and so on). These converters could be in Ontario or the US and they have other mills supplying them with other recovered fibre feedstock as well, making it very difficult to single out only those fibres coming from Ontario’s Blue Box.

More Complicated

It gets more complicated. A corrugated box comprises two parts (linerboard and corrugating medium). Each of these can be made from recycled content but each could come from different mills and be blended at the same or different converting plants. So, the medium of the box could have a portion of Ontario Blue Box fibres in it but the linerboard none. However, it’s all blended into one box for the customer. How do you keep track of that? And the customer (the brand owner/retailer) could be located in Canada, the US, Asia, Africa or Europe. And can ship the box anywhere in the world.

Tracing specific fibres such as from Ontario’s Blue Box once they enter the regional and international fibre recovery streams is thus extremely problematic. And what about corrugated boxes shipped into Ontario from China? They might have recycled content in them (which is a good thing) but not Ontario-processed recycled content.  What about old corrugated boxes that are collected through the Blue Box in Ontario but shipped across the border to the US for recycling there? There is no credit for the use of that Ontario-derived recycled content.

There are possible ways around some of these complications. If a mill can create a paper trail linking say 25% of its annual feedstock to Ontario’s Blue Box, then could 25% of its annual output be considered to be Ontario Blue-Box sourced? Could that 25% be pro-rated across all its customers? Or 25% allocated to those customers who are placing paper into the residential Ontario marketplace and therefore obligated under the Blue Box regulations?

Complete accuracy is not possible under the current proposal. And, as one insider has noted, it leaves lots of opportunity for fraud and gaming the system. Is there another way of looking at the problem?

How about a tax rebate or credit?

The current Ontario approach to recycled content seems unnecessarily complicated in a Blue Box program that is already highly complex. Recent research also indicates that EPR fees or adjustments for things like recycled content provide little incentive to brand owners to change packaging design or to influence consumer behaviour in purchasing.[i]

So why not look at an alternative approach (a tax rebate or credit) that focusses on supporting Ontario recycling businesses, on creating Ontario jobs, on companies that use Ontario Blue Box material as feedstock? Encourage them to enhance Ontario’s circular economy. Think globally but act locally.

The advantages are these:

  • The credit/rebate focusses on one thing only: increasing the use of recycled content in Ontario. It does not get cluttered or distracted by other waste management objectives (see the quotation from the Eunomia report to the EU commission in the footnote).
  • It can apply beyond the Blue Box (bringing in the IC & I sector) so it is broader in scope and in line with the province’s overall goal of a comprehensive waste management (and circular economy) policy.
  • It retains a voluntary approach with incentives for companies to act.
  • It applies to Ontario specifically but is transferable to other provinces (so could become national).
  • It doesn’t have to be in the current Blue Box regulation (greatly simplifying it).
  • Depending on how the credit/rebate is structured, the people who are actually building the recycling infrastructure in Ontario could benefit (the paper, plastic, glass and metal plants) rather than a brand owner head office in the US or Europe. It would make local (Ontario) businesses more competitive in what are global markets for recycled materials.
  • The credits could go to companies located in Ontario only (unless expanded across Canada). The system could therefore help keep existing industries in Ontario (meaning green jobs). For example, one paper packaging mill in Ontario (using 100% recycled content) recently closed.
  • It will create jobs (by encouraging recyclers to stay in Ontario and to invest in recycling infrastructure here).
  • It could have declining levels of tax credit (higher for sourcing from Ontario’s Blue Box, lower for feedstock imported from other jurisdictions).
  • It could be a joint governmental effort (Environment, Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, Finance). Make Ontario the recycling hub of Canada or go for a national approach. A federal climate change project? We need to look beyond a narrow environmental approach, beyond our own provincial borders on this one. The idea needs work and it needs champions.

[i] From the Eunomia report for the Director General Environment for the European Commission: “It is better to focus a policy instrument on doing one thing well, than on seeking to achieve multiple objectives. A tension can be created within an EPR scheme if it is seeking to do too many things. A focus on seeking to meet recycling targets in a way that is cost-effective and fair to different packaging formats gives a clear steer to the way in which an EPR scheme should use fee modulation. However, to also introduce an incentive for recycled content can disrupt the efficient operation of the price signals.” (Study to Support Preparation of the Commission’s Guidance for EPR Schemes).

Almost 80,000 more tonnes of plastic in Ontario homes than 10 years ago

An analysis of the last 10 years of data on Blue Box-type materials generated by Ontario households shows a 34% increase in the amount of plastic packaging ending up in the home. And most of it (70%) did not get sent on for recycling.

The major increase is in the catch-all category of “other” plastics, things like yoghurt containers, hand cream tubes, margarine tubs and lids, blister packaging for toys and batteries, egg cartons, and laundry detergent pails. The amount of “other” plastics in the home increased by 67% between 2010 and 2019. There have also been big increases in the tonnages of PET drink bottles (up 54%) and mostly non-recycled plastic laminants (up 30%). Other materials to register significant increases over the period are aseptic cartons (up 46%), boxboard cartons (up 29%) and coloured glass (up 25%).

Increase in plastic packaging

What is missing from Ontario homes compared to 10 years ago is a lot of paper, almost 200,000 tonnes of it. Most of this is newspapers no longer being published (generation is down 35%), but telephone directories, magazines and catalogues, and printing and writing paper have also taken a big hit (down 87%, 51%, and 23% respectively).

These changes in what Blue Box materials end up in the home impact how much is recovered for recycling (Ontario’s Blue Box recovery rate has dipped below the provincial target of 60% for the first time since 2005); and how much the recycling system costs. For example, most paper packaging is recyclable and relatively cheap to recover. Plastics packaging, on the other hand, is currently not widely recycled at all (only 31% in 2019 compared to paper’s 68%) and is two and a half times more expensive to recycle. But that subject deserves a blog all by itself!

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.