Where Packaging Ends Up

The good news is that over 70% of all packaging used in Canada was re-used or recycled, according to the last national packaging survey, most of it by industry.  Paper packaging was a particularly good performer.

The bad news is that the data behind those findings is now over 20 years old! This is why there are no current national recycling rates for packaging in Canada. There have been various waste surveys since 1996, of course, but they have generally been of households only (not industry), limited to individual provinces, or have not covered packaging specifically or included everywhere it’s used or recycled. The bi-annual surveys conducted by Statistics Canada, for example, do not break out packaging as a specific category of waste, nor do they count the packaging used in deposit/return systems, or the used packaging that’s shipped directly from a retailer back to a paper recycling mill.

This lack of comprehensive and more recent data on packaging, led PPEC to create a likely scenario of packaging usage in one province (Ontario) in 2012. We did this by using the same consumption, re-use, recycling and disposal rates that Canadians demonstrated in the 1996 National Packaging Survey, but we applied them to Ontario’s 2012 population, at the same time incorporating more recent household generation and recycling numbers from the province’s Blue Box system.  While there are statistical cautions to bear in mind when using this approach, we think that what emerges is a reasonable snapshot.

Our snapshot estimates that the total packaging used in Ontario in 2012 would have been about four million tonnes with 1.8 million tonnes of this re-used (mainly wooden pallets and glass bottles); one million tonnes recycled (mostly old corrugated boxes); and the balance (1.2 million tonnes) sent to landfill. Over 70% of Ontario’s overall packaging, therefore, would have been either re-used or recycled, most of it (85%) by industry.

Have there been any major changes in packaging usage since 1996? In big picture terms, we would say no. We would expect that wooden pallets and glass bottles remain the major packaging materials being re-used today. Nor do we expect that much has changed on the recycling front, with corrugated boxes still being the most widely recycled of all packaging materials. We have incorporated into our snapshot the more recent increase in the recycling of packaging by municipalities.

So what happens to paper packaging after it has been used?

The answer to that question depends on what type of packaging it was in the first place. Was it designed for a short-life (a fast-food carton or a cereal box) or for a longer life span?  Despite the advent of the “paperless office,” many office buildings still place company documents in boxboard filing folders or inside corrugated “bankers” or storage boxes. At home, people do the same thing. How many old corrugated boxes do you have in your garage or basement that you now use to store something completely different from what the box first delivered?

There is a significant commercial trade in used boxes where the original printed label and markings don’t matter to the second or third time user, or can be easily covered up or written over. Some companies have developed specialised re-use boxes for people moving house or moving office. The beauty of it is that after they are a little roughed up, the boxes can simply be put out for recycling.

Most paper packaging in Canada is both recyclable and actually recycled

Virtually all Canadians can now recycle corrugated boxes, boxboard or paperboard cartons, and paper bags and sacks. And most of them do. Back in 1996, the national recycling rate for corrugated boxes was 76 per cent. We estimate that this has risen to at least 85 per cent. Boxboard and paper bag recycling rates are harder to estimate because they tend to be collected and baled together with other paper materials (usually corrugated or mixed paper). While recycling data from industrial sources, where the majority of paper packaging is used, has proven hard to collate, there is now a considerable body of good data from residential programs. For example,   See this blog on Ontario’s Blue Box program.

What does the paper packaging get recycled into?

Old corrugated boxes are primarily used to make new corrugated boxes. But they can also be used to make new boxboard or paperboard cartons. For its part, old boxboard is frequently mixed in with old corrugated boxes or printing and writing paper. Paper bags tend to be mixed in with old corrugated for recycling. The key factor for the papermakers at the recycling mill is the length and strength properties of the paper fibres they are purchasing, and making sure that the new package material has the right combination of fibres to allow it to perform its primary purpose, to contain and deliver the product safely and efficiently.

Canada is part of the global trade in used paper and board

While the old packaging collected from industry and households in Canada is mostly used to make new packaging in Canada, some of it is exported to countries like China that need more recycled fibre in the boxes they use to ship their manufactured goods worldwide (including to Canada). Canada also imports used boxes for further recycling from the United States. Price, quality, and freight distance usually determine the nature of this trade.

PPEC would like to ban old boxes from landfill

Although the national recycling rate for old corrugated boxes is high (an estimated 85%), that still means too many old boxes end up in Canadian or even US landfills (waste haulers truck the material across the border to take advantage of lower tipping fees).  When tip fees are lower than the cost to recycle, recycling suffers, and the boxes end up in landfill. PPEC would like to change this situation by persuading Canadian provinces to ban old corrugated boxes (and potentially other used paper packaging) from landfill. Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have already done this. Quebec is considering it.

Where recycling is not an option, consider composting

Soiled paper and packaging have long been known to degrade along with food scraps. This is because one provides a source of carbon (the paper) and the other nitrogen (organics). Get the recipe right and you have good compost.

PPEC realised way back in the early 1990s that recycling was not a realistic option for parts of the country that were far from recycling mills. It did not make sense (environmental or economic) to truck used packaging hundreds of kilometres to the nearest mill that could use the material. So the council pioneered some composting trials with McGill University in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que., focussing on old boxboard and waxed corrugated. The trials produced acceptable compost. In Nova Scotia and PEI today, more old boxboard packaging is actually sent for composting than sent for recycling.