As a new year and a new decade begin, it’s an opportune moment to reflect on the state of carton recycling in Canada.
In some respects, it has been a tough fight. The market continues to be challenging and end market opportunities continue to be limited. Globally, while cartons weren’t directly affected by China’s ban on importing waste, the domino effect of this action has in turn decreased the value of the commodity.
On a more local level, recent media coverage has fuelled skepticism about the recycling process and what happens to recyclables after they leave the curb, potentially undermining consumers’ confidence in and commitment to the practice of recycling. Even media “experts” are often misinformed about the recycling of cartons and what can be recycled where.
And yet, despite the challenges, there are many reasons to be optimistic:
- Advances in technology have offered the sector unprecedented opportunities to introduce robotics and improvements like automated sorting to Canadian facilities, optimizing positive carton sorting efforts.
- Cartons offer tremendous value as a recycled commodity. Their fibres are a highly sought-after resource in the manufacturing of new paper-based products and while consumption of sorted office paper (SOP) decreases significantly across North America, cartons are an excellent alternative feedstock.
- There also remains significant interest from end markets to add cartons as a feedstock as they identify their potential to be processed into not only different types of paper or tissue but also green building products, decreasing the strain on natural resources.
In 2019, the Carton Council of Canada set an ambition to see the carton recovery rate grow to 70 per cent by 2025 (from 60 per cent in 2018). Work towards that goal has begun but in 2020 it will require a concerted, collaborative effort by all members of the recycling value chain, including sorting facilities, municipalities, waste management companies and other stakeholders, to continue to work and innovate together.
The Carton Council of Canada is proud of the work it’s done since 2010 to deliver long-term solutions to help increase carton recovery and recycling in Canada – and looks forward to even greater efforts to support Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs), develop end-markets for used cartons, and educate Canadian consumers in the decade to come.
It wouldn’t necessarily take a lot to considerably increase the recycling of beverage and food containers, including cartons, in schools. Every year, elementary and high school students in Canada consume tens of millions of individual milk cartons and drink boxes, as well as huge quantities of other types of containers. Unfortunately, schools often have a poor record of recovering and recycling them. Many don’t realize that these containers can be recycled just like paper. Solutions to this issue need to be found. Happily, a recently completed pilot project in the Québec City area shows us that with a bit of organization and communication, we can make substantial progress on this front.
This pilot project, whose report was submitted last month, took place during the 2018–2019 school year at the initiative of the Communauté métropolitaine de Québec (Québec City metropolitan community), with the support of Recyc-Québec (the province of Québec’s government recycling corporation) and the Carton Council of Canada. The non-profit organization Quebec’ERE and the environmental consulting firm Chamard also contributed their expertise. This project focused on all food and beverage containers, including cartons.
The study was conducted in six elementary and four high schools in the Québec City area. In six of these schools, a passive intervention method was used; a more active method was used in the others. The passive method consisted of installing posters (different posters for elementary and high schools; see the photo) and recycling bins for the containers in strategic locations. The posters clearly stated that it was not necessary to rinse the containers, only to empty them, before placing them in the bins. This belief in the need to wash containers had previously been identified as a disincentive to recycling. In addition to the posters, the active method included presentations and a contest to raise awareness and increase student and staff engagement.
At the end of the pilot project, there was an average increase of 33.7% in the container recovery rate for the active method and 22.9% for the passive method. The same trajectory was seen for cartons, with an overall increase of 33.2%. In addition, there was no significant contamination of the recovered material by beverage or food waste, indicating that the directive that it was necessary only to empty the containers was enough to ensure their recyclability. Although the active method produced better results, the outcome of the less complex passive method was also encouraging.
Interestingly—but not necessarily surprisingly—the elementary schools performed better than the high schools. I attribute this difference to the greater supervision in elementary schools, especially at meal and snack times. This difference could suggest a need for more support at the high school level, possibly through the creation of “green teams” composed of students and faculty members. For those who may be interested, EcoSchools Canada, with which we are also collaborating, has tips for organizing such teams on its website here.
Among the results of this study, I am particularly pleased with the fact that the directive that the containers be completely emptied but not rinsed seems to have encouraged their recovery, while in no way hindering their recycling. Any school that wishes to improve its container recycling performance would certainly benefit from keeping this in mind.
The full report on the pilot project (in French) can be downloaded here.
From left to right: the poster used for the campaign in primary schools, and the one used for secondary schools.
Read the CCC Managing Director’s recent article, “Carton Council of Canada: Strategies to Support Increased Carton Recovery Rates,” in Paper Advance.
Read the CCC’s Blog entitled “Carton Recycling in Canada – How Can We Do Better? featured in Solid Waste & Recycling magazine.
It’s that time of year again – the air is a little bit cooler, the leaves are just starting to change, and kids across the country have headed back to the classroom.
And while math and history and science make up much of the classroom discussion, I am particularly excited by the partnerships and collaborations Carton Council Canada (CCC) has underway with local and national school environmental initiatives.
In October, I have been invited to speak to local educators about carton recycling and waste audits, as part of the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) EcoSchool program kick-off meetings. EcoSchools (part of the Sustainability Office at TDSB) is a long-standing school greening program focused both on environmental education and action, with an opportunity for participating schools to become certified.
This year, the theme of the workshops is Climate Action: Empowering Students to be Agents of Change and I am excited to be part of this timely and dynamic conversation. Schools are a critical element of any recycling awareness strategy, so this is a tremendous opportunity to support and help inform these efforts.
CCC also has an established partnership with EcoSchools Canada (previously Ontario EcoSchools), who works to empower all members of school communities with “the knowledge, skills, and desire to act as environmentally responsible citizens”.
Similar to TDSB’s program, EcoSchools Canada certifies schools who have demonstrated achievements in environmental learning and action. The collaboration will involve broadening EcoSchools Canada’s waste audit template tool to include milk carton and drink boxes categories, as well as collecting relevant data about carton recycling in schools, including identifying barriers to carton recycling and identifying potential solutions.
Last but not least, CCC is pleased to work with Multi-Material Stewardship Manitoba (MMSM) to provide curriculum-based lesson plans focused on carton recycling for Grades 1-3 and 5-6. These lessons use math, science, and language arts to help students learn how they can have a positive impact on the environment.
It’s a tremendous start to the school year and we look forward to continuing to work on projects like these, helping build carton recycling ambassadors across the country.