There are two things that bug us about the recent packaging campaign launched by US-based environmental group, Upstream: its misleading use of data (outlined in an earlier blog) and its superficial and one-sided view of how the paper packaging industries in both Canada and the United States work.
Basically what Upstream claims is that all the recyclable paper packaging thrown in the trash represents x million trees or so many thousand acres of forest land. Hence its tag line of “A Waste of Forests”1. Upstream argues that if we recycled all this paper “instead of using virgin paper,” we could reduce carbon dioxide emissions, take millions of cars off the road, and save energy. It makes for a good sound-bite and is accompanied by the obligatory stark photo of a clear cut. But is it true? Or more appropriately for us, is it true in Canada?
The first point to make is that more than 70% of the consumer paper packaging that unfortunately ends up in Canadian landfills is already recycled content packaging2. It’s been recycled at least once and maybe as many as nine times3. It is not a question of racing into the forest with a chainsaw to find a virgin replacement for it. Mills will simply seek alternative sources of recycled fibre, most likely from among the millions of tonnes of used packaging already being collected in North America and exported to Asia for recycling there4.
The 30% of so-called “virgin” material left in Canadian landfills represents less than 2,500 hectares of forest land, less than the size of Port Coquitlam in British Columbia. How many Port Coquitlam’s would fit into Canada? How about 342,0005! Four times more forest land is lost to oil and gas exploration, seven times more to agriculture, not to mention the real biggies: losses to forest fires (consuming 1.9 million hectares) and insects/bugs (chomping their way through a whopping 9.2 million hectares)6.
And of course, Upstream fails to mention that the harvested forest is regenerated by both the US and Canadian forest industries. That virgin material in landfill is actually replaced, in Canada by a combination of natural regeneration and the planting of over a thousand new seedlings per minute7.
So no, we don’t agree with the way Upstream exaggerates and characterises used consumer packaging as “a waste of forests.” We do agree with Upstream, however, that any paper packaging that ends up in landfill is a waste of resources that could be further recycled or composted. It seems to us that instead of playing the emotional card of the clear cut and laying blame at the feet of the paper industry, that Upstream would be far more effective focusing more closely on why packaging actually ends up in landfill. We don’t want it there either. It’s our feedstock. But we as the paper industry don’t have any control over the relative costs of sending stuff to landfill and recycling. State governments and provinces do. But that’s a subject for a whole other blog.
2It is substantially higher than 70% because we have not factored in imported packaging from countries like China where recycled content is known to be high. In Canada, most corrugated boxes and folding cartons are made from 100% recycled content, from old boxes collected from the back of factories and supermarkets or from curbside. The average recycled content of paper-based packaging as a whole is almost 80 per cent. There are only three packaging mills that actually use 100% virgin material, and these, plus a few that blend virgin fibres with recycled, do not use whole trees as such, they use wood chips and sawmill residues that are left over from logging trees for lumber (to make homes and hospitals). For further information see PPEC press release and document Understanding Recycled Content.
3 Paper fibres can be recycled between four and nine times but progressively become weaker until eventually they wear out and must be replaced with a fresh infusion of longer and stronger virgin fibres (PPEC blog).
4 For example, the US collects almost 9 million tons of old corrugated boxes and exports them for recycling in other countries, principally China.
5 In the absence of national statistics on consumer packaging disposal, we extrapolated Ontario residential disposal data to Canada’s 2012 population, assuming that other Canadians disposed of paper packaging in a similar fashion. From this total of 440,811 tonnes we deducted recycled content tonnes (303,291 or 69%) based on national average recycled content rates (81.1% for corrugated, 70% for boxboard/folding cartons, and assuming 80% for laminants) to get a total of 137,520 tonnes of so-called “virgin” material in landfill. We then converted this total to short tons and used the same tons/acre ratio that Upstream uses (0.04 per acre) to derive a forest use number of 6,063 acres (which is 2,452 hectares when converted back to metric). Port Coquitlam is slightly larger than this at 2,917 hectares.
6 PPEC blog on net deforestation using Environment Canada/Natural Resources Canada data, and The State of Canada’s Forests, Annual Report, 2013, pages 16, 45.