News Flash! Over 70% of packaging is being re-used or recycled, most of it by industry

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You hear it all the time from provincial and municipal politicians. “Industry” is dragging the chain on waste diversion, lagging way behind municipal efforts. This politically charged claim may be true for some waste streams, we don’t know. But there’s strong evidence that it’s certainly not true when it comes to packaging.

Packaging is one of those things that people love to hate, and it’s a soft political target, which is why it’s been the subject of various surveys, studies and task forces. Canada created a National Task Force on Packaging in the 1990s. It was disbanded after a 50% diversion of packaging waste from landfill was achieved, four years ahead of time.

It is useful today to revisit the findings of the last National Packaging Survey (NPS) that was undertaken, for the broad snapshot it reveals of packaging consumption, re-use, recycling and disposal. The survey was comprehensive, covering 31 separate industry sectors of the economy and 32 different packaging material types, using surveys as well as information derived from Statistics Canada’s international trade merchandise data and a national study of residential recycling. While this 1996 survey is now obviously dated, the NPS still remains the most comprehensive data on packaging this country has[1].

What did it find? It found that over 70% of the packaging consumed in Canada was being re-used or recycled[2].  “Industry” was responsible for 91% of this: all of the packaging re-use (mainly wooden pallets and glass bottles) and 74% of the packaging recycling (principally corrugated boxes)[3].

Has anything substantially changed since 1996? We would argue that little has changed on the re-use front: that wooden pallets and glass bottles remain the major packaging materials re-used. Nor has much changed on the recycling side: with corrugated boxes still being the most recycled of all packaging materials. There has been a significant increase in the recycling of packaging by municipalities.

Given that we don’t have better and more recent data, PPEC has used the NPS as a benchmark to develop a “what we could expect” picture of Ontario in 2012. There are statistical cautions in doing so, of course. The NPS was a national survey without provincial breakdowns, and covered both industrial and residential waste streams. The data is also now old with per capita consumption, re-use, generation, recycling and disposal rates reflecting conditions in 1996. They therefore do not take into account changes in the packaging marketplace such as the light-weighting of materials, for example the switch from heavier glass to lighter plastics. The data also excludes paper packaging materials sent for composting. PPEC’s use and extrapolation of the NPS numbers do recognise, however, that packaging consumption generally rises (or falls) in line with population numbers.

It is possible, while recognising these limitations, to apply the NPS per capita rates to current populations to get a snapshot view, supplementing this data with more recent information from residential recycling programs such as Ontario’s Blue Box.

The graphics show what we could expect Ontario’s packaging usage to have looked like in 2012 (based on the NPS rates)[4]. Overall consumption would have been about 4 million tonnes with 1.8 million tonnes re-used (mainly wooden pallets and glass bottles); 1.0 million tonnes recycled (mostly corrugated boxes); and 1.2 million tonnes sent to landfill. Packaging generation would have therefore been about 2.2 million tonnes (consumption minus re-use, or diversion plus disposal).

This would mean that over 70% of the packaging used in Ontario in 2012 would have been either re-used or recycled[5].  Not quite the opinion that various politicians are advancing! And it would also mean that much maligned “industry” would have done most of the work (85% of it)[6].  Tell that to your local city councillors.

Our estimates may be just that (estimates), but at least they are based on reasonably credible numbers from the most comprehensive data on packaging that Canada currently has. What we really need today are more facts on packaging issues, and a lot less fiction.


[1]Some 10,000 surveys representing a total survey frame of almost 400,000 businesses were sent out, with the 61% response rate regarded by Statistics Canada as “consistent with other similar surveys.” (Milestone Report, CCME, pages 6-7). Subsequent surveys unfortunately do not break out packaging specifically by consumption, re-use, generation, recycling or disposal. See earlier blog: There’s something fishy about Ontario’s packaging numbersand PPEC’s July 2010 Report:The inconvenient truth about packaging waste in Canada.

[2]“Over 70% of all packaging consumed in Canada was re-used or recycled” (Table 1, NPS). Consumption was reported as 8.9 million tonnes; re-use and recycling as 6.3 million tonnes (therefore 70%).

[3]Industry was responsible for 91% of this.” The re-use tonnes (4.1 million) were allocated to industry as were 1.6 million tonnes of recycling. Industry was therefore responsible for 5.7 million tonnes of the 6.27 million tonnes re-used or recycled (91%).  “Industry was responsible for 74% of the packaging recycling.” 1.64 million tonnes of a total 2.2 million tonnes recycled (Table 29).

[4] The expected 2012 packaging generation in Ontario (2.2 million tonnes) was derived by multiplying Ontario’s 2012 population (13,412,000) by the NPS packaging generation rate (0 .161 kilograms/person). The re-use and disposal rates were calculated in a similar fashion using the NPS re-use and disposal rates of 0.136 kgs/capita and 0.088 kgs/capita respectively. The NPS recycling rate of 0.073 kgs/capita was also used with the industrial recycling number derived by backing out the 2012 residential recycling total of 0.4 million tonnes (Stewardship Ontario, Blue Box data, 2012).

[5]1.8 million tonnes re-use plus 1.0 million tonnes recycled divided by 4.0 million tonnes consumed (70%)

[6]Industry re-use (1.8 million tonnes) plus industry recycling (0.6 million tonnes) as a percentage of total packaging diversion (re-use plus recycling or 2.8 million tonnes) equals 85 per cent.


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John Mullinder

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)
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