European countries and their consumer product industries have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few years on programs such as Germany’s Duales System to achieve substantial reductions in the disposal of consumer packaging. Canada’s environment ministers, supported by the National Task Force on Packaging, pretend to have achieved similar goals at almost no cost. Municipalities, faced with as much of a waste disposal problem as ever, have been the big losers.
Despite the claim of environment ministers (e.g., “NaPP Ahead of Schedule,” Solid Waste & Recycling, February/March 1998), there is no real evidence that Canada has exceeded its 50 per cent target for packaging waste reduction four years ahead of schedule. Not only has the work of the National Task Force on Packaging been thwarted, but every real stakeholder-including manufacturers, environmentalists, consumers, municipalities, and the environment itself-has been a loser. Worst of all, Canada has been made to look negligent in international environment and business circles.
In 1989, the Canadian Council of Resource and Environment Ministers (CCREM) (since renamed Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment [CCME]) announced, “Waste management is an urgent and pressing national problem. Some jurisdictions are already running out of landfill space, in part because Canada is one of the most wasteful nations. For this purpose, ministers have instructed the Waste Management Committee of CCREM to develop a packaging policy for Canada within a broad review of
solid waste management opportunities, including government purchasing and recycling policies. It was agreed that targets and schedules for waste minimization be established, including a fifty percent reduction in waste generation by 2000.”
That statement reflects the public opinions of the day: that shortage of landfill space was one of Canada’s most serious environmental problems and that packaging was one of the biggest components of waste. Neither view was true; the country was (and is) far from being short of space for landfill (though landfill-siting had become a socio-environmental problem in some parts of the country) and consumer packaging made up only about 8 per cent of total waste sent to landfill. Nevertheless, based on the CCREM statement, Canada embarked on a substantial exercise to reduce the amount of packaging waste sent to landfill. By 1991, a multi-stakeholder task force, set up by the CCREM, had developed the National Packaging Protocol (NaPP) and adopted the associated Canadian Code of Preferred Packaging Practice.
The release of the code in November 1991 highlighted the scam that was being perpetrated on a misinformed public. The Packaging Association of Canada (PAC) announced that it would follow the code and reduce the amount of packaging going into landfill by 50 per cent or one tonne per family per year. Interestingly, average families have never produced anything close to one tonne of packaging waste. Alan Robinson, executive director of the PAC, was quoted as telling reporters that manufacturers were responding to demands from consumers for packages that could be completely recycled and kept out of landfills. Industry acknowledged that the alternative to a voluntary packaging reduction code would be government regulation of consumer packaging.
It’s impossible to know whether industry seriously intended to keep the
50 per cent commitment or whether the exercise was just another numbers game. The multi-stakeholder National Task Force on Packaging set the stage for a shell game when they agreed to a definition of packaging that included industrial packaging. The public was not concerned about industrial packaging and most of it did not go to municipal landfill. However, it constituted more than 13 per cent of the solid waste stream and, by including it in the protocol, the task force opened the door for relatively easy access to the 50 per cent target. (See chart.) The 1988 baseline year data are notoriously unreliable, 1990 may provide an improved data-set. Even in 1990, industrial packaging was reused and recycled at more than four times the rate of consumer packaging. Increasing this industrial reuse and recycling posed a much smaller challenge than achieving similar gains in consumer packaging.
Not surprisingly, the largest reductions achieved since 1988 have been in industrial packaging, not in the consumer packaging that was the original cause of concern.
John Jackson, coordinator of the Citizens’ Network on Waste Management, claimed in January of this year that, “A walk down virtually any Canadian street on garbage collection day will show that mounds of packaging made from cardboard, paperboard, plastics, glass, and multimaterial resources are still being thrown away. A scan of store aisles will demonstrate that the campaign to do away with excess packaging has not been won.” Industry has reduced its own packaging costs even as consumer packaging has increased.
Apart from the modestly successful Blue Box program and similar recycling programs (available to less than 40 per cent of Canadian households) and some lightweighting of packages, the 50 per cent packaging reduction target–originally intended to address consumer packaging and municipal waste–remains as elusive as ever. The normally very conservative environmental organization Pitch-In Canada, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, suggests that “current gains were primarily made at the front-end by industry which reduced its shipping, manufacturing, and distribution waste while local governments are still holding the bag when it comes to the expense of disposal of consumer packaging.”
It might appear that the packaging and consumer products industries snookered both the environmentalists and the environment ministers. If they’ve done so, it’s been at a heavy cost. The original industry objective–to avoid packaging regulation and taxation and to ensure a level playing field for consumer packaging across Canada–has not been achieved. Some of the most onerous proposals, such as the B.C. proposal for a ban on coloured plastic packaging, have been set aside, but packaging rules still vary from province to province and several of them continue to tighten the screws on levies and deposit schemes.
Although the NaPP states that industry should seek to minimize the overall environmental impact of packaging, this objective has also not been achieved, at least in terms of wasted non-renewable resources. Valerie Thom of Pitch-In points out that “we need to understand that weight is not a very useful tool to examine the impact of packaging on the environment.”
The biggest reductions have been achieved in some of the more environmentally benign forms of packaging: paper, glass, and ferrous metals. By 1996, plastic packaging was only just behind paper as the second most common material in packaging waste sent for disposal. One regional study (of Victoria, B.C.) suggests that discarded plastic packaging may now be one of the largest components by weight of the municipal waste stream, perhaps even exceeding the total amount of household packaging waste that was in the same stream in 1988. Most studies indicate that, by weight, landfilled plastic represents at least twice the amount of wasted resources as landfilled paper. If packaging lifecycles are considered, as they should have been, then eight years of NaPP seem to have achieved little in the way of environmental improvement.
Colin Isaacs is a contributing editor of this magazine and a consultant at Contemporary Information Analysis Ltd., based in Fisherville, Ontario.