Solid Waste & Recycling


An Inconvenient Truth

Misrepresentation #1: That packaging is a huge chunk of the waste stream.Misrepresentation #2: Canada is doing abysmally compared to the Europeans.Misrepresentation #3: "Industry" is doing a lousy job in diverting packaging waste compared...

Misrepresentation #1: That packaging is a huge chunk of the waste stream.

Misrepresentation #2: Canada is doing abysmally compared to the Europeans.

Misrepresentation #3: “Industry” is doing a lousy job in diverting packaging waste compared to municipalities.

John Mullinder represented the paper packaging industry on Canada’s National Packaging Task Force for 10 years as Executive Director of PPEC, and is currently President and CEO of Paper Packaging Canada. PPEC’s full report, with all references and footnotes, is available at John can be contacted at ppec@ppec-paper.comWhat bugs the packaging industry more than anything else in the continual debate over the role of packaging in society is the virtual lack of recognition of packaging’s overall purpose (to safely and efficiently deliver product) and the fact that most (but not all of it) is perfectly recyclable and/or compostable. What we get instead from the critics is how many tonnes of it (pick a number) are in the waste stream.

Weight is certainly a useful measuring stick for disposal and recycling, but it does not actually measure environmental performance. It measures weight. It was the re-use of wooden pallets and the recycling of corrugated boxes (both heavier materials) that largely determined that Canada’s national packaging diversion target of 50 per cent was met.

In the absence of more credible and recent data, that 1996 Statistics Canada national packaging survey remains the best packaging snapshot we have. It provided a reasonable picture of packaging consumption, re-use, recycling and disposal over a wide range of industry sectors, and Canadian households. Unfortunately, we don’t have any more national packaging statistics because the funds set aside for a subsequent survey were swiped by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) for other purposes. Instead, we have biennial waste surveys commonly called WMIS (Waste Management Industry Survey: Business and Government Sectors) conducted by Statistics Canada.

What’s wrong with WMIS? Well, number one is that it doesn’t cover “packaging” per se, so it’s hard to conclude anything credible about packaging. Rather it covers broad groups of wastes such as organics, tires, construction, renovation and demolition debris, electronics, white goods, mixed paper and newsprint, and a bunch of recyclable streams some of which do include packaging materials (corrugated and boxboard, glass, plastics, ferrous metals, mixed metals, and copper and aluminum). But it’s not clear how much of the glass, metals, aluminum or plastics is actually packaging and how much is non-packaging.

And if we were hoping to make reasonable conclusions about packaging’s overall diversion performance, there is a significant omission: wooden pallets, boxes and crates. The WMIS survey forms do ask for information about wood but no specific results are given in the statistical tables published. Wooden pallets were the single-largest packaging material consumed in 1996 (at 2.5 million tonnes) and had the highest re-use rate (69 per cent). Indeed, the WMIS data virtually excludes the second of the three Rs (re-use) entirely. There’s no recognition of the re-use of wooden pallets or glass beer and beverage bottles collected through Canada’s many deposit/return systems.

Nor can we conclude from the WMIS results how much packaging is actually consumed by Canadians in the first place, how much is re-used, or sent to landfill. The only information we get is an estimated breakout of a limited number of (perhaps) packaging materials that are “prepared for recycling” and an estimate of how much of these materials (in total) came from industrial versus residential sources.

Statistics Canada freely acknowledges other methodological limitations in the WMIS surveys.

Unlike the national packaging survey of 1996, the WMIS surveys go to haulers in the waste management industry rather than to the actual industry generators of potential waste packaging materials (such as a factory or a supermarket, for example). Statistics Canada recognized way back in 1996 that as a consequence, “much of the recycling that is performed by the industrial sector is underestimated.” And as WMIS notes in its latest survey: “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 firm or local government involved in waste management activities.”

The Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) has demonstrated how enormously significant that missing data can be. The council claims that just one large Ontario supermarket chain sends over half a million tonnes of old corrugated containers (OCC) through a paper processor direct to a recycling mill every year. Half a million tonnes was four times more OCC than all Ontario municipalities combined sent for recycling in 2006. But this tonnage is not counted in the WMIS surveys. And this is just one supermarket chain, in one province.

While the quality of residential packaging data has improved immensely in some provinces over the years, the absence of credible and comprehensive national and provincial packaging data (from the IC&I sector, in particular) has given rise to several common misrepresentations about packaging waste in Canada, of which three stand out.

The National Packaging Task Force noted approvingly in its Final Report to CCME that packaging represented only 13 per cent of solid waste in 1996. But here we have Ontario Minister of the Environment, John Gerretsen, claiming publicly on at least two recent occasions that “one-third” of what Ontarians send to landfill is packaging.

The minister, or the staff who prepared his speech, have no basis in fact for concluding any such thing. The 2006 WMIS survey, upon which the minister appears to be basing other parts of his statement, does not even break out disposal by broad material group, let alone packaging. And if you follow the tonnage trail, the minister’s claim would mean that Ontario by itself sent 30 per cent more packaging to waste in 2006 than the whole of Canada did ten years earlier. Further, if you back out the 2006 Blue Box packaging tonnages sent for disposal, then packaging alone, according to the minister, would represent almost 45 per cent of all the industrial wastes sent for disposal in Ontario that year (including organics, printing and writing paper, white goods, electronics, tires, and construction and renovation debris). Sorry, that’s not credible.

In the absence of good data, a more acceptable approach might be to assume the same national disposal rate for packaging that Statistics Canada determined back in 1996, and then apply it to Ontario’s 2006 population. This would yield Ontario packaging disposal in 2006 as just over one million tonnes, a far cry from the minister’s 3.4 million tonnes. And if that one million tonnes of packaging disposal is a reasonable “guesstimate” we can further estimate that packaging may have represented just over 10 per cent of all wastes disposed by Ontario in 2006. That 10 per cent is not too far from the 13 per cent of solid waste that packaging represented nationally back in 1996, and it’s certainly far more credible than the minister’s mystery 33 per cent claim.

Canadians are suitably impressed when they hear European packaging “recovery” rates of 70, 80 or even 90 per cent. What they frequently don’t realize is that the high “recovery” numbers from Europe usually include packaging materials sent to waste-to-energy plants as well. But the countries of the European Commission (EU) also have separate “recycling” data, which while not sometimes comparable among its member states, is more appropriate for comparing Canada’s relative recycling performance.

In 1997, the closest we can get to comparable Canadian data, the average packaging recycling rate for the 15

countries of the European Commission (EU 15) was 46 per cent. Canada’s recycling rate from a year earlier was basically the same (45 per cent).

The EU has continued to collect and analyze packaging data since 1997, and while there are various disclaimers about its quality, recycling rates have steadily improved. By 2006, the average packaging recycling rate for the EU 15 had risen to 58 per cent. However, if you take all of the countries of the expanded EU into account (EU 27), the 2006 average was 49 per cent.

Unfortunately, Canada, or more precisely CCME, has chosen not to collect packaging data since 1996 so we have no national data on the generation or recycling of Canadian packaging that we could use to determine progress or even comparisons. There are bits and pieces of data but they are either not packaging per se, not national, or cover residential packaging only.

So there’s no proof that we are doing “abysmally” compared to the Europeans (whichever Europeans we choose to compare ourselves to) and no proof that we might, in fact, be doing better.

The genesis for this claim or implication is again suspect interpretation of the WMIS data. According to the WMIS 2006 survey, Ontarians, for example, diverted only 19 per cent of the wastes they generated (industry achieving a diversion rate of 12 per cent and municipalities 29 per cent). But, of course, this is all wastes, not packaging wastes. And we have already pointed out the flaws and limitations of the WMIS surveys as far as packaging goes. So to claim or imply, as some municipal representatives have, that industry is diverting only 12 per cent of its packaging waste is clearly false and misleading. Besides: 12 per cent of what? WMIS doesn’t tell you how much packaging is used in the first place.

In fact, according to the national packaging survey, over 70 per cent of all packaging consumed in Canada in 1996 was either re-used or recycled. “Industry” was responsible for 91 per cent of this: all of the packaging re-use (mainly wooden pallets and glass bottles) and 74 per cent of the packaging recycling (principally corrugated boxes).

It’s somewhat hypocritical to discount the re-use tonnes when there was so much pressure from government and environmental groups to include them as a means of “forcing industry to move up the 3Rs hierarchy.” But even if we exclude re-use, “industry” had a good story to tell about packaging recycling back in 1996.

We suspect, but we do not know, that “industry” had an even better story to tell in 2006 (and does so today, just as municipalities should be proud of the more recent surge in residential recycling), but the absence of current Canadian data on packaging consumption, re-use, recycling and disposal (both IC&I and residential) is a major (and frustrating) handicap. Until we get a comprehensive national database that includes data on packaging, the debate will go on and packaging in general will continue to be bad-mouthed by the ill-informed.

Finding taxpayers’ money for establishing such a database is clearly not a problem when we can spend $1.2 billion on security for the three-day G8/20 summits; $1.9 million for a “fake lake” media centre so that foreign journalists can experience Ontario cottage country from Toronto; $1.2 million to keep the delegates sandwiches safe; and a provincially-run casino and lottery monopoly (Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.) can splurge over half a million dollars by sending 250 of its senior staff to a gaming conference. No, we have the money, just not the right priorities.

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