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Archive for Paper Recycling

Article Overlooks the Importance of Recycled Content

In the November 28th New York Times Magazine article, Where Does All the Cardboard Come From? I Had to Know, writer Matthew Shaer does a deep dive on what he refers to as the “cardboard economy” – everything from the history of who invented it, how it’s made, and its global marketplace.

Image adapted from The New York Times Magazine

First off, to us at PPEC, while “cardboard” is a commonly used term that we all understand – the box our deliveries come in – the industry terms are a bit different.

A corrugated box is made from strong paper fibres, comprising a top and bottom layer of paper fibre known as linerboard, and a middle layer, called corrugating medium, which is the wavy part that gives the box its strength.

Image of linerboard corrugating medium

While a boxboard or paperboard carton typically only holds a single item – i.e. cereal or shoes – it does not require the same strength properties as a corrugated box, so you won’t see any wavy ripples in those.

But back to the article. While it is mostly focused on the scale and size of the international market for corrugated packaging – which is expected to reach an estimated $205 billion by 2025, according to the article – it does refer to some of the environmental attributes of corrugated packaging, noting that it is “more recyclable than other shipping methods,” and even likens it to a classic fairy tale:

“Corrugated packaging has a Goldilocks quality to it,” says Tim Cooper, a project director for the
market-research and testing firm Smithers. “It’s easy to produce, it’s strong and it’s sustainable,
because unlike plastic, it comes from a renewable resource.”

We agree that it is strong and sustainable, but there is nothing fictional about the environmental sustainability of corrugated packaging. What Goldilocks needs to understand is that not only is it recyclable, it is actually and actively recycled, allowing it to be reused again and again.

Using recycled content is an inherent part of the Canadian paper packaging industry’s operations. PPEC member mills have been using recycled paper fibres for decades. It makes environmental and business sense to recycle and reuse old paper packaging, including Old Corrugated Cardboard, so it can be remade into new paper-based packaging products again and again, keeping valuable raw material out of landfill.

While the New York Times article reports on its high recycling rates in the U.S., it does not discuss the importance of recycled content, making it sound like boxes are made mostly from trees.

In fact, trees are mentioned in the article 16 times, while recycling is mentioned 11 times.

The sustainable management of forests, and what happens after consumers and businesses recycle their boxes is not mentioned, which may perpetuate the myth that paper-based packaging primarily uses trees in the manufacturing process, which is simply untrue.

In Canada, the average recycled content for domestic shipments of containerboard, which is used to make corrugated boxes is 86.5%, and nearly 80% for boxboard, according to PPEC’s Recycled Content Survey.

The remaining materials used in the mix include sawmill residues and some virgin fibres from responsibly sourced forests. But to be clear, the Canadian paper packaging industry doesn’t use much in the way of freshly cut trees, and the little that is harvested must be successfully regenerated by law. In 2019, the total forest harvest (for lumber and all paper grades including packaging) represented 0.2% of Canada’s forest land, according to The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report.

We don’t take issue with the New York Times article itself, it is a well-researched piece on what has become a preferred packaging choice, and we expect there will be a continued shift towards paper-based packaging, especially as governments consider banning some types of materials, similar to Canada’s ban on single-use plastics.

But, articles like this should also talk about the critical role that recycling plays in the sustainability of the paper packaging industry. That must be part of any story about corrugated and paper-based packaging because it is an inherent part of our industry’s story.

When we use and recycle paper-based packaging, we all play a part in protecting and replenishing our renewable resources, contributing to the sustainable management of Canada’s forests, and supporting the circular economy of the paper-based packaging industry through the important act of recycling.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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Statistics Canada’s New Waste Management Survey Results: Paper Represents 35% of Diversion

On November 15, 2022, Statistics Canada released the results of its biennial Waste Management Survey, containing waste diversion data for 2020, broken down by material type and diversion source (residential and non-residential).

The new data shows that Canadian households and businesses diverted 9,903,027 tonnes of waste in 2020, and of the total amount diverted, 3,502,683 tonnes were paper fibres (which includes newsprint, cardboard and boxboard, and mixed paper), representing 35% of the total amount diverted in 2020.

While paper diversion represents the majority of materials diverted from landfill in Canada, paper diversion has been trending slightly downward year over year since 2014, which could be partly attributed to the continued decline of newsprint materials due to the shift from print to digital.

The next leading category of materials diverted in Canada for 2020 was organics with 32% of the total share of diversion.

Digging deeper into the paper diversion data, of the 3.5 million total tonnes diverted in Canada in 2020, about 44% was diverted through residential sources (ie. Blue Box residential municipal recycling programs), while the remaining 56% was diverted through non-residential sources (ie. Industrial Commercial and Institutional (IC&I) collection).

Below is a breakdown of the sources of paper diversion by province, with the two most populous provinces, Ontario and Quebec, diverting the most paper fibre from both residential and non-residential (IC&I) sources.

Of the other 33% of diverted materials, Statistics Canada reported that “diverting plastic waste to avoid its disposal has become a challenge because of the many types of hard-to-recycle plastics being produced for consumption and entering the waste stream.” Of the 9.9 million total tonnes of waste materials diverted in Canada in 2020, 368,343 tonnes of plastics, or about 3.7%, were diverted.

The Government of Canada has been working to address plastic waste as part of its Zero Plastic Waste Agenda. PPEC continues to monitor government and industry activities related to plastics and we recently wrote about how Canada’s new ban on single-use plastics may impact the paper packaging industry. And while the plastics industry is looking to create a circular economy for its materials through various initiatives, including the Canada Plastics Pact, the paper packaging industry has long held a large-scale circular economy for its materials.

Using recycled materials is an inherent part of our members’ operations. For decades PPEC members have used recycled paper materials as its primary feedstock in making the three major paper packaging grades in Canada (containerboard, boxboard, and kraft paper). They use old corrugated cardboard and other paper-based materials, collected from the backs of factories, supermarkets, office buildings, and from residential recycling programs to make new paper-based packaging.

PPEC’s membership represents several different components of our industry’s recycling supply chain, not just as providers of recyclable paper-based packaging, but also as processors of collected paper materials, and as mills who are recycling and reusing the collected materials, which allows them to be remade into new paper packaging products again and again, keeping valuable raw material out of landfill.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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How Does Canada’s Ban on Single-Use Plastics Impact Paper Packaging? 

There have been a lot of recent developments related to Canada’s Zero Plastic Waste Agenda and the federal government’s ban on single-use plastic products, which is why it is a perfect time to share this blog examining some of the latest news, key activities, and the potential impacts on the paper packaging industry.

Ban on single-use plastic

On June 22, the Single-use Plastics Prohibition Regulations were published, which prohibit the manufacture, import, sale, and export of the following single-use plastic items: checkout bags, cutlery, foodservice ware made from or containing problematic plastics, ring carriers, stir sticks and straws.

The ban comes into effect December 2022, with sale of the prohibited items effective December 2023, and the ban on exporting the prohibited plastics by the end of 2025.

There are some exceptions to the ban, which are outlined in this technical guidance document.

Consultations on plastics labelling rules and data collection

On July 25, the federal government launched two consultations related to their work on combating plastics pollution, including the development of labelling rules for recyclability and compostability, and the development of a federal plastics registry.

The government’s news release, Government of Canada takes next steps forward on better plastic recyclability, compostability, and tracking and associated backgrounder, states that “Labels on plastic packaging that claim recyclability or compostability are often inaccurate,” – speaking of which, have you read PPEC’s blog on environmental claims? – and that new rules would prohibit the use of the recycling symbol, and other claims, unless at least 80% of Canadians have access to recycling systems that accept plastic packaging and have end markets for them.

The government also intends to regulate the use of terms such as “compostable,” “degradable,” and “biodegradable” in the labelling of plastic packaging and single-use items; and plans to develop a registry that would require producers to report annually on the quantity of plastic products they place on the Canadian market, and how these products are diverted from landfills after use.

Plastics ban and paper packaging

Going back to the single-use plastics ban, the government’s guidance document for selecting alternatives provides info on how to transition away from the banned items, offering that plastics could be reduced by using other materials including wood, paper, and moulded pulp fibre.

So, what does this mean for paper-based packaging?

Both from a broader perspective, but also with regards to the specific newly banned items, there is a market shift towards using more sustainable and renewal packaging materials. Companies such as P&GCarlsbergAmazonMcDonald’s, and Nestlé, to name a few, have all recently made announcements regarding changes in some of their packaging, with a clear shift towards paper-based packaging.

This ban will likely see that trend continue, and groups like Fisher International believe the Pulp and Paper industry has an opportunity to step in to provide alternatives, which they wrote about in Canada’s New Plastic Ban Could Drive Renewed Interest in the P&P Industry. While their article raises a lot of important questions for the industry to consider – such as impact on future pulp prices, capital investment needs, and the state of sustainably-managed forest supply – it doesn’t speak directly to the environmental attributes of paper-based packaging, so let’s take a minute to talk about that.

The major paper packaging grades made in Canada – corrugate boxes, paperboard boxes, and paper bags – are produced primarily with recycled content. While the paper fibres originally come from trees, hardly any of Canada’s commercial forests are harvested for paper packaging; and by law, every hectare that is harvested in Canada must be successfully regenerated.

A mill produces the material used to make paper packaging, using mainly recycled content, and then a converter turns it into paper packaging. After having used the packaging, the customer recycles it, and the recycled product goes back to the mill, where it is remade into new paper-based packaging. And the cycle repeats itself again and again.

Just how many times is ‘again and again’? Initial research had shown that paper could be recycled up to seven times, and corrugated box fibres up to ten times, but a recent study from the Graz University of Technology in Austria found that fibre-based packaging material can be recycled at least 25 times without losing mechanical or structural integrity.

When it comes to residential recycling programs that accept paper-based packaging, we know that 96% of Canadians have access to recycling for corrugated boxes and paper bags, and 94% for boxboard cartons, determined through an independent third-party study commissioned by PPEC.

For recycling, PPEC has estimated a national recovery rate for corrugated boxes of at least 85%, with recycling even higher in certain provinces, such as Ontario’s residential Blue Box program, which has a 98% recovery rate for corrugated (according to the most recent pay-in-model information previously made available from Stewardship Ontario).

In 2019, it was estimated that Canada generated 1.89 million tonnes of plastic packaging, of which 12% was recycled, according to research from the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP).

While we know efforts are underway to transition to a more circular economy for plastic packaging in Canada by groups like the CPP, PPEC is proud that paper packaging is one of Canada’s original circular economies.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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Government Amends Ontario Blue Box Regulation

The Government of Ontario made amendments to the Blue Box Regulation, which came into effect on April 14, 2022.

The amendments do not change the original intention of the regulation – to transition the existing Ontario Blue Box model from a shared funding model to a full producer responsibility model – and do not impact collection requirements, diversion outcomes, or key dates (transition will still begin July 1, 2023). The amendments were made to clarify the process for creating the province-wide system for collecting Blue Box materials. The key changes include:  

  • Removing the rule creation process, including the allocation table, from the regulation.
  • Allowing producer responsibility organizations PROs to collaborate on a province-wide collection system; and requiring PROs that represent producers that supply more than 66% of Blue Box tonnes to submit an operational plan to RPRA for how they will operate the system by July 1, 2022.
  • Exempting newspaper producers (whose supply accounts for at least 70% of their total Blue Box supply) from collection, management, and promotion and education requirements for two years; newspapers will remain an obligated material under the regulation, and will continue to be collected in the Blue Box system.

RPRA Webinar May 18 

The Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority (RPRA), which is the regulator mandated by the government to enforce the province’s circular economy laws, is hosting a virtual Q&A for stakeholders on May 18 at 11:00am EST to review the amendments; to register click here.

Newspaper Associations Support Newspaper Exemption

On the news of newspaper producers being exempted from the Ontario Blue Box amended regulations, both the Ontario Community Newspaper Association (OCNA), who represent provincial community newspapers, and News Media Canada, the voice of the print and digital media industry in Canada, expressed their support for the government’s decision.

Alicia McCutcheon, president of the OCNA said: “We do applaud the Ford government for doing this… We’ve never viewed ourselves as the same as the tin can or the plastic wrap people of the world, we’re not packaging,” according to the National Post’s Newspaper lobby group ‘applauds’ exemption from Ontario’s new recycling program.

And Paul Deegan, president of News Media Canada, issued a statement:

Canada’s newspaper publishers applaud the Ontario government’s leadership in recognizing that newspapers are not packaging and should be exempt from extended producer responsibility fees. We hope other provinces will follow Ontario’s lead in eliminating this punitive measure. The unintended consequence of EPR on newspapers is to reduce the number of pages in a newspaper or for the paper to simply close or go online only…. Newsprint has the highest level of collection of all recyclable materials, a stable end market, and high commercial value.” 

Newsprint and the Ontario Blue Box Program

Stewardship Ontario’s 2020 Annual Report states that: “Historically, newspapers have represented a large volume of material in the Blue Box and, because of their high recycling rate, boosted the performance of the Blue Box program overall.”

In 2010, newsprint accounted for over 55% of the total Blue Box marketed tonnes, but it now makes up 23% of tonnage, according to RPRA’s 2020 Datacall.

2020 Marketed Ontario Blue Box Materials (in tonnes,, expressed as a percentage)

Marketed tonnes represent the tonnage sorted and processed by a Material Recycling Facility, which are then baled, sold, and used in place of virgin materials. 

Paper-based Packaging – which includes old corrugated cardboard, old boxboard and a portion of residential mixed papers and mixed fibres packaging – has the largest component of Ontario Blue Box marketed tonnes (271,433 tonnes), representing 35.9% of total Blue Box marketed tonnage (756,984). 

As for the performance of Ontario’s Blue Box program, the 2019 recycling rate was 57.3%, down from 60.2% in 2018, the decline explained by Stewardship Ontario in their 2020 Annual Report:

“The reduction of newsprint, magazines and catalogues and other printed paper materials, along with higher residue rates and higher contamination standards imposed by end markets, are the main reasons for the overall decline in recycled tonnes.”

Table 4 of RPRA’s 2020 Datacall Report shows Marketed Blue Box Tonnes from 2015 to 2020, with Printed Papers – which includes newsprint, household fine paper, telephone books, and catalogues – showing a nearly 62% decline in tonnage over the five-year period; while Paper-based Packaging is up nearly 73% over the same period.

Marketed Ontario Blue Box Tonnes, 2015-2020

PPEC Commentary

It will take some time to understand the implications of the regulatory amendments, and any impacts they may have on the transition to a producer responsibility model for the Ontario Blue Box program. PPEC continues to remain concerned about the feasibility of meeting the paper targets under the new transitioned program, which we have previously written about. We will continue to monitor developments.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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Discussing the Toronto Star’s Ontario Blue Box Article

On March 19, the Toronto Star published The Ford government is overhauling Ontario’s blue box recycling program — and critics say it will be a disaster, by Business Feature Writer Richard Warnica.

The Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) was interviewed for the article on February 4, but our comments about paper-based packaging in Ontario’s Blue Box program, including concerns over the new paper targets and the importance of the consumer role, were not included.

The focus of the detailed article is primarily about the multiple Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) model, and the confusion surrounding the final Blue Box regulation, which was released in June 2021, and sets out the framework to transition to a producer responsibility model.

The new model will transfer the full operational and financial management of the Ontario Blue Box program to producers, with implementation beginning July 2023.

It marks a significant change from the existing shared model, which sees producers pay 50% of municipal Blue Box costs. Producer responsibility for packaging and printed paper is not new, with British Columbia being the first province to implement a full 100% industry funded and controlled program in 2014, run by Recycle BC.

But back to the Star article. The general feeling is that the new regulation is confusing.

Jo-Anne St. Godard of the Circular Innovation Council (formerly Recycling Council of Ontario) said: “This is the most bizarre approach to packaging regulation and EPR we’ve seen.”

Denis Goulet of Miller Waste Systems said: It’s confusing to people who’ve been in the industry for 30 years.”

Duncan Bury, a consultant specializing in producer responsibility, said: “What they’ve developed is way more complicated than it needs to be, and I think there’s real worries about how this will actually roll out.”

Warnica writes that the confusion could have consequences, including meeting regulated timelines and potentially higher costs:

“It would force some municipalities to sign expensive contract extensions with existing suppliers…or work out new deals in a tight market already constrained by supply chain backlogs.”

Transition to Full Producer Responsibility Timeline

Multiple PROs…and David vs. Goliath?

Part of the confusion and complexity, some say, have to do with having a multiple PRO model, versus the current single PRO model, which is also the case in British Columbia.

The PROs that have registered to date include: Circular Materials Ontario, a not-for-profit created and governed by producers; Resource Recovery Alliance, owned and operated by GFL Environmental; and Ryse Solutions Inc.

Warnica’s article quotes Patrick Dovigi, CEO of GFL Environmental, who said: “The government at the time decided to go out with multiple PROs because they think it created competition…. All the multiple PROs dynamic does is create inefficiencies where all the costs really are.”

The article speaks to specific concerns regarding GFL. First, that their PRO may create a conflict of interest – ie. having a waste management company operate a PRO who is also contracting out business to waste management companies – and second, that they could have an unfair advantage given their size.

Jo-Anne St. Godard explained it this way: “I think you need to be able to have separate church and state,” going on to say “if you have a monopoly service provider, or one that has a very big dominant position, the buyers of that service may find themselves only having one price-taker effectively.”

In the article, Dovigi refers to himself as David, as in David vs. Goliath, with Goliath being the major producers.

David vs. Goliath and Blue Box recycling bin

Dovigi went on to say: “People are making me out to be the bad guy…and we’re just little GFL from Toronto.”

As the article points out, GFL is the fourth largest waste management company in North America with a market cap of $12.3 billion. GFL also completed 46 acquisitions in 2021, and are planning another 25-30 deals this year, according to Waste Dive.

But back to the issue of competing PROs. According to the article, both the Resource Recovery Alliance and Circular Materials Ontario have requested changes to the regulation, specifically “to reverse the central tenet calling for competing PROs, and to impose a single Producer Responsibility Organization to oversee the entire system.”

Though not everyone agrees with that. The Ontario Waste Management Association (OWMA) reaffirmed its support for the current Blue Box regulation. OWMA wrote a letter to Minister Piccini that they do not support any amendments to the regulation “that would create uncertainty for public and private waste service providers and residential customers.”

PPEC Concerns with Paper Targets and Needing to Recognize the Role of the Consumer

When PPEC spoke to Warnica in February, we talked about our concerns with the feasibility of meeting the new Ontario paper diversion targets (80% for 2026-2029, and 85% for 2030 and beyond). The below graph plots the material composition of the Ontario Blue Box program (stacked bar) and total recycled tonnage (broken line) from 2004 to 2019. Paper is the largest component of the Blue Box (the orange and blue), but the overall composition of the paper category has been changing for years, which impacts diversion. Printed paper makes up much less of the Blue Box than it used to, and paper packaging has doubled, while overall recycled tonnes are on a downward trend.

Ontario Blue Box Material Composition and Total Recycled Tonnes Chart: 2004 to 2019

With less being collected in the Blue Box, such as newspapers, while other categories, such as corrugated boxes already achieving 98% recovery from Ontario households (according to the 2020 Blue Box Pay-In Model), it begs the question of how will the overall paper diversion rate increase to meet the government’s new, higher targets?

Confusion over targets - person with question mark with "80%" and "85%" thought bubbles

PPEC commissioned a study, conducted by Dan Lantz at Crow’s Nest Environmental, to examine Blue Box diversion data to help determine if the government’s proposed diversion targets could be achieved. The study found that the proposed targets could not be met:

“A 90% target is unreachable. This would effectively require 95% of the population capturing and putting out for recycling 97% of their paper and making sure it is not contaminated at all. And then the recycling facility would have to capture 98% of all that paper (including paper that’s shredded) and send it on to the end-market.”

Diversion targets lowered but still out of reach

We also spoke about how the new model could help achieve harmonization through a more standardized system. There are 444 municipalities in Ontario, with 250 programs participating in the Blue Box program. That’s 250 separate programs, with different collection lists, and different approaches to educating their residents, aka the consumer.

And the role of the consumer is paramount to the success of any recycling program, including Ontario’s Blue Box program. At the end of the day, it is the consumer who makes the decision of how to dispose of their waste and recyclables. The more aware and educated they are, the more likely consumers are to clean and empty their recyclables, and separate them from waste and organics. Standardization may help deliver a more uniform educational message to Ontarians, which could help increase diversion and reduce contamination (the higher the contamination, the harder it is to achieve better recovery rates).

The latest Ontario Blue Box data shows that the recovery rate increased slightly in 2020 to 59.9%, which means that a little over 40% of what is placed in the Blue Box ends up in landfill.

It goes without saying that it is in everyone’s best interest to ensure that programs run efficiently, are able to capture the value of materials, prevent recyclables from ending up in landfill, and ensure consumers understand their role.

PPEC will continue to monitor the developments related to Ontario’s Blue Box regulation, and the transition to the new producer responsibility model.

Rachel Kagan

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)

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Ontario Blue Box recovery rate slips, but paper steady

Draft Blue Box Recovery Rates 2016

The reported recovery rate of Ontario’s residential Blue Box system has fallen to its lowest level since 2005. The draft recovery rates, to be finalised by Stewardship Ontario in December, show a 2016 recovery rate of 62.4%, down 2% on the previous year. This will make the recent “request” by Ontario’s minister of environment and climate change for a new Blue Box recovery rate of 75% rather interesting.

Some 75% of what’s currently being recovered is paper of one kind or another, the same as it was back in 2003. Printed paper (newspapers, magazines and catalogues, telephone books and printing and writing paper) has the highest recovery rate overall (81%), followed by glass packaging (70%), paper packaging (67%) and steel packaging (63%).

Paper packaging is the only material grouping whose recovery rate has either stayed at the same level or improved in every category (boxboard up 9%), with corrugated boxes again the recovery leader overall at a hard-to-believe 98 per cent.

The glass recovery rate has dropped significantly from 2015 but the Blue Box laggards continue to be aluminum and plastics packaging at 38% and 29% recovery respectively. Plastics packaging recovery has gone down in almost every category and now represents 43% of what ends up going to disposal (on a weight basis). It’s also by far the most expensive material to recover (the net cost of recovering plastic film, for example, is listed at $2,646 a tonne).

Here are the latest (draft) numbers for 2016 with a comparison to 2015 and way back to 2003.

Estimated Recovery Rates 2016

Circular Economy or spinning our wheels?

The Circular Economy (CE to some) has become something of a buzzword of late, just like sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) before it. Good intentions, but a lot of public relations too. Perhaps we’re being too cynical, but the issue is a bit like climate change. We know it’s coming (most of us) or is already here. But we really don’t want to have fewer children, abandon our cars, or go vegetarian: three actions a research scientist recently claimed would have more direct impact on slowing climate change than anything else we can do. We would add planting trees to that list.

Circular Economy or Spinning Our Wheels?The Circular Economy is really about the same thing as climate change: reducing our consumption of the earth’s various resources by using less of them, in a smarter way. But to do that we need to incent “good” behaviour and to penalise “bad,” which is generally taken to mean removing or reducing fossil fuel subsidies and encouraging the use of renewable resources.

This is fine at the academic level but how exactly is this going to translate in practical terms to say, the Blue Box system? Where consumers face a spur of the moment choice to recycle or dump? How do we penalise the “non-circular” products and packaging, while encouraging the “circular”? Through differentiated Blue Box fees? And who gets to decide those?

Now for the plug! PPEC will be holding a seminar on this very subject on October 3 in Etobicoke, Ontario. The speakers include Chris Lindberg (Ontario Circular Economy Innovation Lab), Glenda Gies (Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority), Andrew Telfer (Walmart Canada), Renee Dello (City of Toronto) and Al Metauro (Cascades Recovery). For details and registration click here. This is a limited space event and we always fill up quickly.

China doesn’t want the world’s garbage any more

And who can blame them? For years, the world has been shipping all sorts of waste to China for it to be sorted, made into new products, and shipped back to us. Low labour rates and lax environmental enforcement have benefitted all parties to this commercial deal (even perhaps the Chinese workers, a job being better than no job).

One of the first warning signs of impending change occurred in 2013 when China launched “Operation Green Fence” to limit imports of scrap materials. Unscrupulous people were sending more garbage than resources. This was followed by the more recent “National Sword” crackdown on smuggling operations. Then last week, China shocked the global recycling industry with the announcement of a scrap import ban effective the end of this year.

“To protect China’s environmental interests and the people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted” read China’s filing of intent with the World Trade Organisation. Details were scarce beyond general statements about multiple plastics, mixed paper, textiles, and other materials. But the impact of the announcement itself has been significant.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) called the new move potentially “devastating” and “catastrophic” for the US recycling industry. The Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) labelled the new policy as “serious” and wants more time before it comes into effect.

For Canadians involved in the international recovered paper trade, the challenge is that no one yet fully understands exactly what will be banned. The wording that is being used is “unsorted paper” and “mixed plastics.” If this is taken literally then most of the Canadian paper fibre currently being exported to China will not be impacted. The Green by Nature consortium that handles British Columbia’s Blue Box materials, for example, sorts all residential paper and does not ship single stream (or mixed) unsorted material to the republic.

“If this is not acceptable,” says consortium partner Al Metauro, CEO of Cascades Recovery, “then we will have a challenge. The challenge will not be on the curbside fibre but rather on the demand for old corrugated containers (OCC). The Chinese mills rely on imports and with no curbside fibre they will need an alternative. On the other hand, the Chinese government could also ban imports of OCC considering some of the poor quality being shipped.”

Metauro says a ban on “mixed plastics” will impact material recovery facility (MRF) operators that are not sorting their plastic, glass and metal recyclables (the container stream). This will be a bigger challenge in the US, he says, where many program operators are currently shipping commingled single stream material direct to China. In British Columbia, by contrast, all residential plastics are sorted and consumed locally.

Paper recycling and organics collection represent almost 70% of Canada’s waste diversion efforts

Paper recycling continues to dominate Canada’s waste diversion efforts, representing almost 40% of total material diversion in 2014, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada. Organics followed at 30 per cent. The next largest categories, on a weight basis, were metals and construction, renovation, and demolition materials.

The biggest change in tonnage terms since 2002 has been the big increase in organic tonnes diverted (up 41%), as provinces and municipalities have turned their attention to getting food scraps out of landfill. And while electronic goods are a tiny proportion of what’s being diverted overall (1% by weight), they have registered by far the most impressive percentage increase in recovered tonnes over the same period (up 634%).

We’ll be taking a closer look at the major diversion category (paper) in our next blog. For background on this series, see: Prince Edward Islanders and British Columbians are Canada’s “best recyclers” (May 23); Canada diverting only 27% of its waste (April 27); and Canadians are dumping more, and less, at the same time! (April 19).

Chart for organics collection and paper recycling

Paper, paper, everywhere, and not a scrap to waste

Every Tuesday night I come face-to-face with the twin issues of consumption and “sustainable materials management” or the latest buzzword favoured by governments, the “circular economy.” For Tuesday night is Recycling Night.

From the bathroom and bedroom, I gather toilet rolls and tissue, envelopes and writing paper. From the kitchen and dining room, I grab the box of recyclables holding newspapers, cartons, cans, jars, and bottles; the special food scraps bag (made of compostable paper, of course) that’s stored under the sink; and the small “garbage” bag of other stuff. Then I head for the big carts parked in the garage before wheeling the appropriate ones (this week, recycling and organics) out to the curb for the morning pick-up. All told, it takes me maybe five or ten minutes. And I feel good about it, doing my little bit for the circular economy.

What I have learned from this exercise is that education and convenience are key. It is very true, as someone has said, that waste diversion is all about a flick of the wrist, that crucial moment when the householder decides whether something goes into the recycling or into the garbage. If garbage is easier, that’s where it goes, and generally, that’s where it stays.

I have a special interest in enhancing the recovery of paper, and Ontario’s Blue Box system is doing very well in this regard with almost three-quarters of it being sent on for recycling. But far too much paper is still slipping through the cracks: mainly old boxboard (such as cereal and shoe boxes) and printing and writing paper.

If most (say 85%) of that perfectly recyclable but dumped paper were instead captured and sent for recycling, provincial Blue Box paper recovery would jump to an amazing 96%, and the Ontario Blue Box overall from its current 64% to a very impressive 78 per cent. Folks, this is actually achievable, if only we set our minds to it!

It’s not as if there are no steady markets for the various paper materials. There are. In fact, the packaging mills of Southern Ontario led North America in pioneering the recovery of old boxboard back in the 1990s. We have gone from boxboard not being collected at all to virtually all Canadians (94%) being able to recycle it in the space of 20 years. An impressive achievement.

No, the issue is not markets, as some government people will tell you, it is capture. We are not physically getting enough paper material out of the home because it’s too easy for householders to flick the wrist. So how do we get them to flick in the right direction?

Education is key. We drool over British Columbia’s new Blue Box program where there is a standard list of materials accepted province-wide. Imagine that! One consistent recycling message across the whole province. Wouldn’t that be great! Remove the confusion. Save money on promotion. Increase the capture rate.

But we also need to engineer the Blue Box system for greater convenience. Municipalities and their service providers have been very creative in this respect: encouraging recycling by charging for garbage bags or bins and by limiting the number of garbage bags allowed at the curb and/or the frequency of garbage pick-up. Restrict the “garbage opportunity” and encourage recycling. Great stuff. And we do recognize that multi-residential apartments represent a special problem. It’s a lot easier to dump something down a garbage chute than to separate the recyclables and carry them in the elevator to a downstairs recycling bin.

But somehow we have to educate Canadians that most paper materials are perfectly recyclable; that there are long-standing and sustainable markets for them; that most boxes and cartons made in Canada, for example, are already 100% recycled content, and that the industry needs this household paper as feedstock to make new packaging; that this ongoing recycling activity provides local jobs and taxes; and that paper recovery is a great example of the circular economy and the goal of zero waste that we all hopefully aspire to, and is in our collective best interests.

Provincial governments have a key role to play too, in getting more paper out of the waste stream. For years, governments have been telling the packaging industry to reduce, re-use, and recycle. And it’s been doing that. But guess what, the provinces can do something too, something that industry can’t. They can introduce disposal bans on materials headed to landfill.

How about it? It’s not as if it hasn’t been done before. Nova Scotia and PEI have had disposal bans on paper materials for years. Wouldn’t a disposal ban send a great message to everyone that paper doesn’t belong in landfill; that it’s a valuable feedstock; that banning it from the dump would reduce the greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere and mitigate climate change? Isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be doing?

The English novelist Charles Dickens once described politics as the art of scurrying nowhere in a violent hurry. We wish some governments (OK, Ontario in particular) would scurry somewhere fast (hint: disposal bans) in more of a hurry! At the moment the province is not even considering disposal bans on paper until “2019 and beyond.” Which just happens to be safely past the next scheduled elections. Shame on them! Hurry hard!

 

Household paper that shouldn’t be in the garbage

(the 26% that doesn’t make it to the Blue Box)