Celebrating International Women’s Day with Candice Ruggero from Cascades Recovery+

International Women’s Day is not just a celebration of women’s achievements but also a reminder of the importance of gender equality and inclusivity. In Canada’s paper packaging industry, women play an integral role in driving sustainability forward. From leadership positions to frontline roles, women contribute their expertise, knowledge, insights, and experience in advancing the circularity and environmental attributes of paper-based packaging.

On this International Women’s Day, the Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) wants to recognize and celebrate the contributions of women in the paper packaging industry. PPEC sat down with Candice Ruggero, Corporate Sustainability Manager at Cascades Recovery+, to learn about her experience in the industry. We talk about everything from designing for circularity, Earth Day, the importance of education and data, the need to reduce contamination, EPR, polycoated materials, and advice for women looking to work in the paper packaging industry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Q. What does an average day as Corporate Sustainability Manager look like for you?

No two days look alike, nor are they average! I lead a team of 8 people in Cascades Recovery+ (CR+) that represent 18 recovery facilities across Canada and New York State markets. Our focus is to monitor the inbound quality of recyclable materials coming into our plants by working with our customers through education, training, and reporting.

On any given day you can find us either presenting waste data, doing training on recycling programs, or knee deep in cardboard and other recyclables doing audits. I feel the best way to learn is to be IN IT. Literally. If you want to know how successful a recovery program is – get in the plant and dig through it.

I also work closely with our Sustainable Development Group at Cascades Inc. to ensure that our own internal sustainability initiatives are communicated to CR+ and our customers, and I provide expertise to Cascades on recovery processing and “recyclability” discussions of our own packaging. 

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Candice leading a meeting on sustainability

Q. How has the industry changed in the nearly 15 years you have been with Cascades?

There have been great technological advancements when it comes to separating different types of plastics using optical sorting technology, but when it comes to paper, we still recommend what we had been recommending 15 years ago – the quality is better if all the grades are kept separated at the source.

The availability of paper grades has changed with high grade white papers and newsprint diminishing, as less and less people print or use paper, which poses some challenges for mills as they need to shift their recipes for making packaging from recycled paper.

We do our best to educate customers on market trends, but overall we recommend to keep these grades separate, if possible, which results in higher revenue and makes it easier for recovery centres to create a mix that will match end markets demands.

Single stream recycling created a challenge in the market in the 1980s with higher rates of contamination. Dual stream (paper collected separately from other materials) results in better quality of recyclable materials. Even where Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) have the ability to separate materials, it’s still important to keep the materials as clean as possible before it gets there, which equates to more efficient processing and increases the likelihood of materials being recycled.

Another important change is that packaging manufacturers are looking to design for circularity. We are now being consulted on in terms of “will this package be effectively recycled?” meaning it goes through all the steps for recycling (collection, processing, separation, baling, end markets, new product). To quote a newly inducted paper and packaging hall of famer, Al Metauro: “Whatever is produced by the industry is later consumed by the industry.” A package isn’t truly recycled until it is consumed again to make a new package or product. These are conversations that weren’t happening 15 years ago.

Q. Your LinkedIn post on Earth Day resonated for me. We know there are no “silver bullets” to addressing sustainability, but what needs to be done to embed the values of Earth Day along the entire value chain?

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Candice tree planting

My feelings towards Earth Day have changed drastically since I was kid. My love of the environment led me to a degree in Biological Science and working in a hazardous waste lab. From there I moved into solid non-hazardous waste and so began my downfall of Earth Day. I was responsible for educating office workers on how to properly recycle, which was eye-opening. Trying to educate thousands of people on how to recycle led to me ask why the majority of people don’t recycle properly? Most of it is lack of education, confusion of what goes where, or confusion about the packaging itself (too many materials mixed together), while others just don’t seem to care.

Earth Day is one day out of 365 where we try and pay homage to our planet, which feels kind of counterproductive. Have we lost touch with our planet the other 364 days of the year? Do we fully understand our impact? And why don’t we care? It’s just not popular, or maybe people don’t think they have enough of an impact (which reminds me of a meme I saw that said “I wish Taylor Swift was dating a Climate Scientist”). Whatever the reason – if I was having trouble getting 2,000 people to stop putting garbage in the recycling bin – how is one day going to make a difference.

Earth Day is every day. We need to start understanding that our impact is not immediate and not in our own backyard. It starts with education, incentivizing alternatives to fossil fuels, combating food waste, and finding ways to increase biodiversity.

Q. How does CR+ achieve high recycling rates and what are some of the best practices of effective IC&I sector recycling that could be applied to improve residential recycling rates?

We have a heavy focus on educating customers on how materials move through the system. We educate them on the recycling industry and offer our expertise and consultation on packaging. We also monitor all the recycling that comes into our facilities, and then we communicate back to our customers on the success of their efforts – we celebrate the wins and offer support when adjustments need to be made.

If we could find a way to do that with curbside recycling, a lot more people would care, and would choose packaging that they know is easier to recycle. But with residential, it can be confusing, sometimes it’s because a package is labelled “recyclable” but it’s not accepted in your residential recycling bin, like polystyrene, which is recyclable, but there’s no end market and it’s difficult to transport because it breaks apart so easily, and processing is difficult on sort line due to light weight and breakability. Or placing something that is not accepted in the bin, like a food container with residue, which contaminates the bin, and a large portion of the trucks’ contents will also get contaminated and then not recycled.

High recycling rates start with reducing contamination – once it hits the plant floor – sorters, forklift drivers, production supervisors, truck drivers, and plant managers all play a part in making sure those materials are processed efficiently and do everything they can to maximize recovery rates. Technology is a huge part – but it’s run by people, hard working, and dedicated people that care.

Bales of Old Corrugated Cardboard (OCC), collected from commercial sources and processed at the Cascades Recovery+ facility in Scarborough, Ontario, are ready to be sent to a mill, where they will be recycled so they can be remade into new paper-based packaging. Photo taken by PPEC on April 14, 2023.

Q. How do you see the move towards more Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) models impacting residential packaging recycling programs across Canada?

EPR should make recycling easier and provide an incentive to produce a package that is more easily recycled. It should also expand access to recycling centres in less urban areas, help fund infrastructure improvements to make it easier to sort, and expand access to (and hopefully create) more end markets.

Paper packaging in theory should be much easier to recycle, but size, print, and additives all have an impact on recyclability. Cardboard boxes are easy, there is demand, local end market availability, and it’s made of just…cardboard. When you start adding a plastic wrap on your paper package, or different grades of paper within your one package – it becomes difficult to find an end market that can use it, so it’s important to design for circularity.

Candice in MRF
Candice in action checking materials at the Cascades Recovery+ facility in Lachine

Q. What are the opportunities and challenges in addressing polycoated paper materials (e.g., coffee paper cups, takeout containers) at scale in Canada?

Can these materials be recycled in theory? Yes. They can be collected but separation is a challenge due to its 3D shape. MRF’s are designed to separate 3D shapes from 2D shapes (paper from containers) as a first step in the process. So, containers and cups end up in the container stream – not the paper stream.

In the container stream we then separate based on plastic type, glass, metal. The cups will end up in one of those streams or as a residual at the end of the line with garbage. We would need something added to those lines to capture these somehow.

The challenge would be to educate people on placing these cups – which must be empty and clean – in the paper stream; if the food is not removed, the paper will be contaminated.

The second challenge is finding a mill that will accept them. The challenge is the poly lining or wax lining, which creates “stickies” that will remain on paper sheets they are manufacturing, and the plastic lining needs to be removed as well. Its not usually an issue when mixed with other high grades of paper (solution to pollution is dilution, haha) but if you have entire bales of coffee cups – this might affect the integrity of the product the mill is manufacturing as well as impact the manufacturing of the paper itself. Removing plastic from the pulping process causes slow downs and a lot of maintenance.

Next challenge is the colour. For mills that don’t use bleach, large amounts of coloured coffee cups will change the colour of the pulp. If we can all align and decide to make shades of white or brown colour cups that’s a start.

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Q. What advice would you give to women looking to enter or elevate themselves in the paper packaging industry, and specifically in the area of sustainability?

Times have changed since I first started. But the paper packaging industry, and the waste industry specifically, is male dominated and is still learning about equality. It’s easy to be intimidated and can be difficult to find allies. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t still a challenge, and I continue to find that I have to speak louder and force myself to be more outgoing than is comfortable, just to be heard.

But when it comes to sustainability, I have been lucky to be surrounded by women at Cascades. Our Director is a woman and leads a team of all women, and in Recovery, our Sustainability Team is women dominant as well.

My advice is to find a company that has strong core values that align with empowering women and giving them equal opportunity. Actions speak louder than words and no one should stay in a position where they are not being taken seriously. There is a lot of opportunity in this growing field and there are places that will treat you equally and more importantly – respect you especially in times when you need it most.  

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)
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