Blue Box materials are changing, and have been since 2008 or earlier—on that we all agree. We even have a name for what is going on: The Evolving Tonne. This term refers to the fact that the Blue Box mix has less paper and more plastic than it used to and this changing mix is causing havoc for collection and processing systems, and well as for markets where it is increasingly hard to meet market specifications.
The reasons for The Evolving Tonne? A combination of:
- The Internet/smart/handheld devices
- Our changing lifestyles and demand for convenience
- Millennials, which combine all three.
First, let’s recap on what is happening to Canadian demographics, and how these influence what is in the Blue Box:
Canadians are getting older, living longer, and more are living alone. Over 65s currently account for 11 per cent of the Canadian population and this is expected to double over the next 20 years as Baby Boomers (those born 1945 to 1963) get older. An older person living alone wants convenient packaging, re-sealable packaging, and products in small portion packaging. This leads to higher volumes of smaller packaging in MRFs. Re-sealable packaging is typically in stand-up pouches (SUPs), which are not recyclable. And smaller packages are a nuisance in MRFs. One MRF operator told me he used to get 20,000 rejects an hour. Now he gets 120,000. This means a lot more material he receives ends up in residue rather than as valuable recyclables sent into the market.
Canadian households are smaller for a host of reasons—fewer children, first marriage later, divorce, voluntarily single, more Canadians are living alone or with one other person, 61 per cent of Canadian households are one or two-person households. This means people don’t spend time cooking big family meals (no one there to eat with), so Canadians eat a lot more take-out food and prepared meals than they used to.
Two-worker families. Two-worker families mean no one has time to shop and cook, again leading to an increased demand for take-out food and pre-prepared meals, all of which come in extensive packaging.
Millennials. Millennials are the demographic born between 1980 and 2000, so are 16 to 36 now. We all know lots of them. In fact, we have 9.5 million millennials in Canada alone. Collectively, Millennials are the largest global demographic, and they get a lot of attention from marketers. Millennials love convenience, love their smart devices, and are digital natives. They feel a personal connection to their preferred brands—“what does my brand say about me?”
Millennials live with (sleep with) their smart devices and get their news online, but not from newsprint newspapers. They are snackers (average four snacks per day) and like individualized, individually packaged snacks. They don’t cook. They like mostly good quality take-out food. Predictions are that over time 10 to 30 per cent of meals will be hand-delivered rather than cooked at home. They purchase a lot online (which leads to more packaging). They live with their parents but seek high quality reliable products that speak to their goals for social economic status.
The Internet (has changed everything). We are in the midst of the most fundamental technology change of our time—the Internet, which has effectively changed everything. We can order goods online. They are delivered to our home in cardboard boxes. We can read news online and not buy a paper newspaper. We can order food online and it will be delivered to our home… yes, again, in lots of packaging.
The growth in pouches. The stand-up pouch has been a very successful package that has really taken off in the last few years. It has great barrier properties, is re-sealable, and can display beautiful graphics. It is lighter for transportation and takes up less space than traditional packaging for some products. The growth rate for this package is anticipated to be 4 to 5 per cent per year. The problem is, it is not yet recyclable as it is a multi-layer package that combines different materials.
How the Blue Box mix is changing
When you put all this together – technology change, demographics, lifestyle trends and a demand for convenience – it leads to a world where newsprint newspapers are in decline, although online versions of newspapers survive, convenient single serve or re-sealable packaging use is increasing rapidly, and there is a significant increase in packaging from Internet shopping deliveries. This combination presents significant challenges for MRF operators.
How MRF Operators Adapt to Evolving Tonne
MRF operators have been watching as printed paper declines and multi-layer packaging increases over the last seven or eight years. As each new trend emerges, MRF processing equipment evolves to address the challenge—more optical sorters, screens, and other technologies to separate one material from another and clean up material mixes for market, but there is a lag of a few years between the time material mix changes are noticed and equipment design catches up.
All we know for sure is that the Blue Box mix is changing constantly, and will continue to change, and we need to learn to adapt rapidly to these on-going changes. ●●
Maria Kelleher is principal of Kelleher Environmental, a consulting company based in Toronto Canada. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Samantha Millette is principal of SAMI Environmental based in Timmins, Ontario.