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.
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.
Minister Yurek announces next steps to transition costs and oversight of the Blue Box Program to industry at Canada Fibers’ Toronto facility
On August 15, I attended an event convened by Environment, Conservation and Parks Minister Jeff Yurek and his colleagues to announce the next steps related to the transition of Ontario’s Blue Box Program to full producer responsibility, from the current model under which municipalities and producers share the costs of the program.
The Carton Council of Canada applauds the Ontario Government’s steps “towards diverting waste, addressing plastic pollution and creating a new recycling economy that everyone can be proud of in Ontario.”[i] Last week’s announcement also provides much-needed certainty in terms of the timing of the transition.
According to the government’s announcement, Ontario will develop and consult on regulations to support the new producer responsibility framework for the Blue Box Program over the next year. Stewardship Ontario, which manages the current Blue Box Program, will submit a plan to the Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority by June 30, 2020. The first batch of municipalities to transition will do so by January 1, 2023, with transition to be completed by the end of 2025.
Carton Council Canada commends the leadership of industry and municipal representatives, whose collaborative approach and dedication to this file have ensured a productive outcome from the series of facilitated meetings and the report authored by Special Advisor David Lindsay, which paved the way for this announcement.
Of course, much work remains ahead, notably with the drafting of the Blue Box regulations, which will define the transition process as well as the parameters and requirements of the new program. But if the past few months are any indication of the future, then I would say we are off to a promising start.
CCC looks forward to continuing its engagement as consultations kick off this fall and as we collectively take this defining next step on the road to transitioning the Blue Box program.
Regina Huda School Grade 5A students Hady Haggui, Zubia Almas, Laiba Khan, and their teacher, Ms. Michelle Sandomirsky.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to participate as a judge in The Great Carton Search, a Carton Council of Canada-sponsored SARCAN initiative to encourage schools in Saskatchewan to share stories about the success of their school’s beverage container recycling program, with a focus on cartons.
According to SARCAN, schools across Saskatchewan do an amazing job recycling beverage containers, helping return 85 per cent of the containers sold in the province! However, only 50 per cent of the cartons sold make it in to a SARCAN depot for recycling.
The great Carton Search encouraged schools in the provinces to go in search of these missing cartons – and win prizes for their school in the process.
As a judge, I was most impressed by the dedication of the participating schools. The winning class from Regina Huda School visited the classrooms in their school every day, and faithfully cleaned and collected their beverage containers. Once a week, their teacher, Michelle Sandomirsky, brought the containers to the local SARCAN depot. Together, they tracked the amount and type of recycling as well as the money they raised throughout the year, now totaling more than $1,700 for their school!
The contest and the responses from participating schools reinforced that through education, a little bit of creativity and a great deal of commitment, we can certainly help increase the rate of carton recycling in our communities.
The students themselves pointed out in their submission what a tremendous impact the project and contest had in their school, in their families and in their broader communities. While 26 students were directly involved, more than 585 students and more than 50 teachers supported the recycling program.
From the winning submission: “Some students are saying that their families are recycling more at home. Many of our class families have come from other countries. Some of these countries do not even separate garbage, so when they came to Canada they had no idea what recycling even meant. This year we have made a difference to the families and community of Regina Huda School, we have started a program that can last forever!!! From now on, more and more people will share their knowledge about the importance of recycling and continue the search for cartons.”
CCC offers its congratulations to SARCAN, the teachers and grade 5A students of Regina Huda School and SARC for their exceptional work to grow the recycling of cartons and all beverage containers and their investments in a more sustainable future.
CCC’s Managing Director stands next to the SamurAI sorting robot unit, which is assigned to pick cartons and HDPE containers, at the Sani-Eco MRF in Granby, Quebec
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to visit the Sani-Eco Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in Granby, Quebec, to see Machinex’s SamurAI sorting robot in action. The first of its kind to be installed in a Canadian facility, it is programmed to pick HDPE and cartons.
Robots are touted as one of the most promising evolutions in sorting technologies. Their high sorting efficiency, as well as their ability to “learn” as they work, are pointed to as key strengths. They also help alleviate some of the significant labour shortage pressures that several MRFs across the country are facing.
When asked why cartons were chosen as one of the two commodities to be sorted by the robot, Julie Gagné, Director of Operations, explains that cartons have a relatively uniform shape across the category and that their volume makes them a good candidate for sorting.
Cartons sorted by the SamurAI robot unit
As we celebrate the accomplishments of technology and the efficiencies that come with them, it is also important to note that what matters most is the positive sorting of cartons, and less so how the sorting is done. Indeed, Carton Council has long advocated for a “positive sort” when it comes to cartons. As Jason Pelz, Vice President of Recycling Projects for Carton Council North America explains, “by being sorted and baled as a separate commodity grade at MRFs, both communities and facilities can maximize the highest value for cartons in end markets, while contributing to the steady market demand for cartons.” Whether done manually, via optical sorter, or through a robot, what is important from our perspective is to increase the volume of cartons recycled and maximize their value.
In the aftermath of China’s recent drastic restrictions on plastic and paper waste imports, the fate of recycling in various countries around the world has been in question. Now, however, is the time to redouble our commitment to producing high quality material, helping ensure our recycled product is appealing to the end-markets.
At Carton Council, we are proud to help facilitate positive, productive and solution-based discussions – and look for collaborative, homegrown solutions to innovative partnerships. This includes playing a matchmaker role between municipalities and other waste management operators looking to move their carton loads with potential buyers. Simply reach out to explore how we can be of help!