Clarifying some of the confusion over “recyclability”


Here’s our shot at trying to clarify some of the evident confusion about recyclability.

Technically Recyclable:

The great majority of printed paper and packaging ending up in Canadian homes is perfectly recyclable.  A small minority of materials do cause some technical and cost problems at the processing stage, however. Sometimes this is because of ignorance at the design end; sometimes there are no single-material packaging alternatives (leading to the use of composite materials); sometimes the overall life cycle benefit (design-for-the-environment) is considered more important than design-for-recycling. But most materials are recyclable.


Access to Recycling:

Being technically recyclable is one thing. The next step is for consumers to be able to recycle it. In both Canada and the US, claims for “recyclability” – to be able to put the word or the recyclable logo on a product or package – hinges not on whether the package is technically recyclable or not, but on the access or reach question, on whether the consumer has reasonable access to recycling that material through curbside, depot, deposit or whatever. For example, virtually all Canadians now have access to the convenient recycling of corrugated boxes and boxboard or paperboard cartons (95% of Canadians can recycle paper boxes and cartons). We knew access was high (our own study back in 2009 indicated this) but to have it independently confirmed at a higher rate than we had found, is gratifying.

Actually being Recycled:

Of course, having high access and being legally able to call something “recyclable” doesn’t necessarily mean it is widely recycled. It may be. But some materials are not, at least currently. And it is this disconnect between a high access rate and low actual recovery that has led some to cry greenwash. How do you make it very clear to consumers that recyclability means access only, not actual recycling?

PPEC will be among some major North American industry, government and environmental representatives wrestling with these issues at a meeting next month. Hopefully we will come up with some workable solutions. Stay tuned.

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John Mullinder

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)
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