Revisiting Paper Packaging’s Circular Economy as Court Rules on Plastics Ban

A Canadian Federal Court recently announced its ruling in response to the lawsuit brought forward by the Responsible Plastic Use Coalition (RPUC), made up of companies from the plastics industry, who requested a judicial review of the federal government’s decision to add plastic manufactured items (PMIs) to the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).

By classifying PMIs as a toxic substance, the government was able to enact the Single-use Plastics Prohibitions Regulations, which came into effect December 2022, restricting the manufacture, import and sale of certain single-use plastic products.

The Federal Court’s decision in the Responsible Plastic Use Coalition vs. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) case ruled that the government’s order to add certain plastics to CEPA was “unreasonable and unconstitutional.”

According to a brief from McMillan LLP, the court’s decision does not change the legislation currently in effect. Businesses who manufacture, distribute, sell, supply or use the six categories of single-use plastic products that are subject to the Regulations should continue to comply. The Federal Government also announced its intention to appeal the court’s decision.

That said, the Canadian Government is unlikely to withdraw from its efforts to address plastic pollution and its Zero Plastics Waste Agenda. At the end of the day, the federal government is sending a clear message to Canadian consumers and businesses: there is simply too much packaging waste, and too much of that packaging waste is plastic.

PPEC has written about What Reducing Plastics Means for the Canadian Paper Packaging Industry before, and this lawsuit does not change our view. There will continue to be more demand for alternative packaging materials – including recyclable paper-based packaging – in response to growing plastic reduction initiatives, both here in Canada and around the world.

But what it does change is what it means to have a circular economy, which is defined by the Government of Canada as: In a circular economy, nothing is waste. The circular economy retains and recovers as much value as possible…It’s about using valuable resources wisely, thinking about waste as a resource instead of a cost, and finding innovative ways to better the environment and the economy.

The term “circular economy” is everywhere, even though the actual model of using (and reusing) resources wisely is not everywhere. To PPEC and its members, the circular economy is more than just a term, it’s an action inherent and embedded in our industry’s operations.

Canada’s paper packaging circular economy starts with sustainable forest management. And despite misconceptions, the paper packaging industry does not use much in the way of freshly cut trees, and the little that is harvested must be regenerated by law. The mill produces the material used to make packaging, using mostly recycled content, and responsibly sourced wood chips and sawmill residues. It is then formed into rolls of paper and sent to a converter, where it is made into recyclable packaging products. Once used by the customer, it is recycled, and makes its way back to the mill to start the process over so that it can be remade into new paper packaging products. And this happens up to seven times.

This blog is not meant to provide a legal perspective on the court’s ruling, but its purpose is to reinforce the importance of circular economies and to once again show how paper packaging is a shining example of a circular economy successful story.

According to data from ECCC, Canadians throw away over 3 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, of which 9% is recycled; which means that 91% of that plastic waste is not diverted or recovered, representing a lost opportunity of $7.8 billion, according to the Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste.

We know that the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP) is working to create a circular economy in Canada, and they have several targets they are looking to achieve by 2025, including having 50% of plastic packaging recycled or composted, and to achieve 30% recycled content across all plastic packaging. These are laudable goals that, if achieved, could help address the rapid proliferation of plastic waste. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that a circular economy approach could be developed for all forms of plastics.

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The business and environmental case is clear, but what’s less clear is how to approach a material that is so complex. Plastic is a complicated material made from a non-renewable resource, and there are many different types of resins with different properties. Generally speaking, the types of plastics that are recovered and recycled the most are those that have established end markets in place where used plastic can be readily sold so that they can be used in place of virgin materials. Which means that only some forms of plastics can be recycled, as evidenced by that 9% figure above. Which further means that only some types of plastics may be able to develop the necessary conditions needed for a circular economy model.

Most materials can be recycled if given the right conditions, such as access to recycling and active recycling by consumers, minimal contamination, available and effective processing technologies and equipment, and most importantly, the existence of established end markets, which allow recycled materials to be bought and used in place of virgin materials. That doesn’t mean those conditions exist for all materials consistently or at scale. But they do exist for paper packaging, which is one of the most widely recycled materials.

For Canada’s paper packaging industry, treating paper packaging as the valuable resource that it is – a renewable resource that can be used again and again through the act of recycling – is built right into our industry’s DNA.

Recycling is essential to the Canadian paper packaging industry’s long-standing and successful circular economy, and allows raw materials to flow for longer, reducing the need to extract virgin materials. The average recycled content for domestic shipments of containerboard and boxboard – used to make some of the most common forms of paper-based packaging such as corrugated cardboard and paperboard – is just over 80%, according to PPEC’s 2022 Recycled Content Survey Report.

PPEC member companies are good at making recyclable products out of recycled materials. It’s at the core of what they do every day, and in many cases, our members have their own recycling divisions to make sure they have a good supply of recycled paper fibres to use as their primary feedstock.

That approach didn’t just start now, or even a few years ago, it has been an inherent part of our industry’s business models for decades.

We’re not here to pit materials against each other, but when the term “circular economy” is thrown around so much it can dilute the meaning of what it means to truly have a circular economy. And the paper packaging industry truly has an effective and successful circular economy.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)
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