Archive for CCME

Packaging is the villain again (sigh)

There is no doubt that some goods are over-packaged and that more can be done to reduce the amount of paper, glass, metal and plastic packaging that ends up in consumers’ homes. But blaming packaging all the time is only part of the story. To put it bluntly, we in the so-called developed world eat, drink and buy far too much stuff.

Consumption is the real issue, not the packaging that delivers it. As consumers, however, we find it difficult to limit what we purchase. It’s so much easier to point the finger at the packaging that’s left behind.

For example, a recent anonymous letter to the editor of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine outlines the increase in convenience packaging of produce (plastic bags for peppers, a bundle of herbs in a plastic case, fresh grapes in a plastic bag with grab-and-go handles). The writer complains that the increased packaging waste from this new convenient shopping trend means higher costs for municipalities dealing with it down the line. A reasonable argument.

It’s when the letter writer rather loosely broadens the attack to packaging in general that we get concerned. “Our waste streams are clogged with unnecessary packaging at every turn,” he/she writes, “and most of it is neither recyclable nor compostable.”

Now hang on a minute there! If you are talking about convenience packaging of fresh produce (the peppers, herbs and grapes above) then you might have a point, although we suspect there will be debate over exactly what “necessary” means.

But when you broaden the issue to all packaging, you are lumping all packaging together in the same boat. Setting aside the argument over what might be deemed necessary or unnecessary, packaging is definitely not “clogging” our waste streams “at every turn.” In the most comprehensive national survey of packaging ever done in Canada, packaging represented only 13% of total solid waste. Significant, but not exactly “clogging.”

Consumption is the issue not the packagingThis survey was conducted by Statistics Canada for the Canadian Council of Ministers for the Environment (CCME) and is admittedly now some 20 years old, but there’s no obvious reason why the percentage would not be hugely different if measured today. Some people (including the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change) claim a higher percentage, but that’s because they change the denominator, they use a much narrower definition of solid waste.

It’s the claim that “most of it is neither recyclable nor compostable” that really gets us going though. Again, if the writer is talking about specific convenience packaging for produce, he/she might have a case. But by far  most packaging used in Canada is able to be recycled (recyclable). And a fair chunk of it (mostly paper-based) is compostable. Whether it is actually being recycled and composted is an issue for another day, and an argument for better and more current national data.


CCME’s false claims perpetuate packaging myths

We were recently invited by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) to comment on various aspects of extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs that have been, or are being introduced across the country. In the course of preparing our response, we re-read CCME’s Canada-Wide Strategy for Sustainable Packaging. While we have no problems with most of this interesting document, we were stunned to discover some factual errors that could help explain why packaging in particular, and industry’s waste management performance in general, continue to be held in such low regard in certain government circles.

In setting the context for this 2009 strategy document, CCME makes two claims: that “Current recovery rates for packaging are very low” and that “Statistics Canada (2006) data indicates the national recycling rate is 22 per cent[1].”  It gives the source for these claims as Statistics Canada’s WMIS survey of 2006[2].


Unfortunately for CCME, neither of these claims was true then, or is true now. Statistics Canada’s WMIS surveys do not break out recovery rates for packaging, and never have, so how could they be “very low”? Nor do WMIS surveys break out national packaging recycling rates. CCME has totally misread what the WMIS surveys say. The supposed 22% national “recycling” rate for packaging that CCME claims is actually the diversion rate for all of the following wastes added together (paper, glass, metals, plastics, electronics, tires, construction renovation and demolition materials, and organics)[3].

We pointed out these factual errors to CCME staff, expecting that they would check to see if we were correct, and then, if we were, amend and/or remove the claims from the document. This after all is an official publication available on the CCME website that is used as a current source of information by researchers and students, among others. As long as these false claims are there, they will continue to damage public perceptions of the packaging industry and its customers, and they will continue to colour government policy and claims on packaging issues.

The CCME staff response to date has been to fob us off, to claim that we have “differing interpretations” of “decade-old data” that was used to provide a portion of the context for CCME’s work on EPR. We disagree. The claims that the CCME is making in this document are either right or wrong. Whatever happened to “fessing up”, making the appropriate corrections, and moving on? This does not look good on the CCME. Canadian public policy should be based on accurate data, not false claims that perpetuate myths[4].


[1]A Canada-Wide Strategy for Sustainable Packaging, CCME, October 29, 2009, page 3.

[2] Statistics Canada, Waste Management Industry Survey: Business and Government Sectors (WMIS 2006). Catalogue no. 16F0023X.

[3] Table 2, WMIS 2006.

[4] Ironically, a survey that CCME commissioned specifically on packaging many years ago would have set a more accurate context for discussion of EPR. The 1996 National Packaging Survey conducted by Statistics Canada did establish recovery rates for packaging (over 70% re-use and recycling); and did establish a national recycling rate (45%). But one gets the distinct impression that CCME prefers not to talk too much about this study, partly because its data is now old, but also because it found that “industry” (bad guy that it is), was performing quite well thank you very much.