There’s something fishy about Ontario’s packaging numbers


There’s a pie-chart in the Ontario Ministry of Environment’s Waste Reduction Strategy document that’s been bugging us for several months now, and although we’ve tried to get an explanation from the MOE both verbally and in writing, we have received nothing to date[1].


Packaging Generation MOE vs PPEC1



The pie-chart is titled “Ontario’s Waste Stream” and claims that packaging is a  whopping 25% of it. No specific source is given for this claim, although there are various references in the text to the 2008 Waste Management Industry Survey (WMIS) undertaken by Statistics Canada. The problem is that the WMIS surveys do not break out “packaging” specifically[2].  Nor do they cover all sources of waste generation (the packaging used in deposit/return systems such as the Beer Store, for example, or the used packaging that’s shipped directly from retailers back to paper recycling mills)[3].

Unless they are buried in the “Other” category, significant waste streams also seem to be missing from the MOE’s pie-chart (asphalt, concrete, bricks, clean sand and gravel). These wastes still exist. Excluding them would obviously inflate the packaging percentage[4].

There are other valid reasons to question the 25% claim. The MOE’s generation estimate is one million tonnes higher than what one could expect from the per capita generation rates reported by the National Packaging Survey that was commissioned by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) several years ago. It would also imply that the weight of packaging has increased by 72% over a period when industry has been light-weighting materials, and in some cases, switching from heavier glass to lighter plastics[5].  In short, we find the 25% claim not to be credible[6].

We are also very concerned at the misleading impression this pie-chart leaves. Using the words “Waste Stream” to describe overall generation is fine among people who know that generation means adding two numbers together: the amount of packaging sold to consumers (and later diverted from waste), and the amount of packaging sent to landfill. We would argue, however, that most people don’t bother with such technical distinctions and would assume that “waste stream” simply means waste, or what ends up in the dump[7].

BlogMarch10 1

Ontario households, for example, recycled almost 156,000 tonnes of old corrugated boxes in 2008 and sent another 14,000 tonnes to landfill for an overall generation of 170,000 tonnes. While labelling this 170,000 tonnes as the residential corrugated “waste stream” would be technically accurate, to the general public it implies that all of this “waste” (170,000 tonnes) went to the dump. In fact, in this case, 92% was recycled and only 8% was sent to landfill[8].  The MOE’s mysterious pie-chart together with its ambiguous title suggests quite the opposite, and adds to the widespread ignorance of just how much packaging is actually being re-used and recycled. But that deserves a blog all by itself.



[1] Waste Reduction Strategy, Ontario Ministry of Environment, June 2013, page 8.

[2] Several categories in the WMIS questionnaire do not distinguish between packaging and non-packaging uses of the material (for example, “glass”, “mixed fibre/boxboard”, “all other plastics” includes pipes and furniture). There is no category specifically for wooden pallets, one of the most widely used (and re-used) of packaging materials in the industrial sector.

[3] “These data do not include those materials transported by the generator directly to secondary processors, such as pulp and paper mills while bypassing entirely any form of local government involved in waste management activities.” (WMIS 2008, Note at bottom of Table 3). “It is acknowledged that data from a large portion of the “re-use” category are not included in these tables … Deposit-return materials, such as beer bottles, are considered to be re-use and are not included in these tables unless they have been processed at a materials recovery facility” (p. 33). Also see discussion of this issue in The Inconvenient Truth about Packaging Waste in Canada, PPEC Special Report, July, 2010.

[4] The WMIS 2008 survey excludes materials from land clearing on areas not previously developed as well as materials that include asphalt, concrete, bricks and clean sand or gravel (Notes to Table 1-2). It’s not clear whether the MOE factored these wastes into its “Ontario’s Waste Stream” pie-chart. What’s included or excluded clearly makes a difference to the size of packaging’s “contribution”.  Also apparently excluded from “Ontario’s Waste Stream” are farm manure, market garden waste, mine tailings, liquid effluents, landfill cover, and contaminated soil (page 15).

[5] Overall packaging generation in Ontario households, for example, remained relatively unchanged between 2003 and 2012 (plus 0.6%), according to Stewardship Ontario Blue Box data for those years. Plastic packaging’s tonnage, however, is up 32% and glass packaging tonnage down 49 per cent. Glass’s share of household packaging generation by weight has gone from 23% in 2003 down to 12% in 2012.

[6] According to the National Packaging Survey of 1996, per capita generation was 0.161 kilograms/person. Assuming that Ontarions generated packaging in a similar fashion to other Canadians, Ontario’s share of Canada’s generation back then would have been about 1.8 million tonnes. By 2008, assuming no changes in packaging usage and an increase in Ontario’s population to 12.9 million people, packaging generation could have been expected to increase to 2.1 million tonnes. The MOE claims, however, that packaging generation was a full million tonnes higher in 2008 (3.1 million tonnes or 25% of Ontario’s waste stream of 12.4 million tonnes, WMIS, 2008).

[7] A more accurate and publicly understandable title would be “What We Use” or “What Ontarions Use.”

[8] Table 1: Generation and Recovery, Stewardship Ontario Blue Box, 2008 data.

Posted in

John Mullinder

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)
Scroll to Top