Most paper is recyclable
Most materials made of paper fibres are recyclable. Indeed, according to laboratory testing, (virgin) paper fibres can be recycled as many as nine times. With each recycling, however, the fibres become progressively weaker until eventually they wear out and must be replaced with a fresh supply of longer and stronger virgin fibres. This traditional life cycle flow of paper materials is outlined in the chart below.
The Paper Recycling Flow Chart
The blending of virgin fibre with used paper is necessary to keep the whole paper recycling loop going since the fibres become shorter and weaker the more times they are recycled. The European multiwall bag industry, for example, produces a mostly recycled content product but needs an annual quota of virgin fibre from Canada and other countries to maintain the necessary strength properties of the bags it produces. The flow chart to the left, (click to expand), shows what’s called the traditional paper recycling loop. Used paper and board recovered from factories and supermarkets is shipped back to the recycling mills again and again until the paper fibres wear out. The dotted loop (recovering paper materials from the home) ties into the larger loop and helps keep the whole recycling loop going. While each recycling mill is different, and is built to handle the particular types of recovered paper it requires to make a new paper product, the paper recycling process itself is generally the same for all mills. The recovered paper is dropped into a pulper, which acts like a big washing machine. Non-paper materials such as plastic, glass and metals are removed through a series of cleaning and screening processes. The paper fibres are then pumped onto a fast-moving screen to form paper or board. The rest of the process involves removing the moisture out of the paper or board so that it can be wound onto big rolls or cut into sheets for further conversion into paper products.
Corrugated boxes made in Canada are mostly 100% recycled content already
The Canadian corrugated box industry relies heavily on recycled materials to make the boxes its customers use to deliver their various products. Six of the 10 containerboard mill sites across the country produce 100% recycled content board. The balance use a blend of recycled and virgin materials, reducing the overall industry average to 81% recycled content. This is still a very impressive number. Old boxes are collected from factories and supermarkets, or from homes (the Blue Box). Other used paper fibres are frequently thrown into the mix as well: old printing and writing paper from offices; used boxboard cartons from curbside; and old paper bags from the retail and grocery trade or from the Blue Box.
Almost 100% of Canadians can now recycle corrugated
While the majority of old corrugated boxes are recovered from factories and supermarkets, an increasing percentage is now being collected from Canadian households. The overall national access to corrugated recycling has reached 96%, according to an independent study conducted by CM Consulting (96% of Canadians can now recycle paper boxes and cartons). What the industry wants now, says PPEC, is for Canadians to make sure that they take full advantage of their recycling opportunities. “We need that material to make new boxes. It should not go to waste.”
National corrugated recycling rate estimated at 85%
There are no recent national statistics on the actual recycling of any packaging materials. The last comprehensive survey of packaging generation, re-use, recycling and disposal in both the industrial and residential sectors was done by Statistics Canada in 1996. It showed that over 70% of all packaging consumed in Canada was either re-used or recycled, with corrugated achieving a 76% recycling rate.
Since 1996, Statistics Canada has undertaken bi-annual surveys across a wide range of waste streams. Unfortunately, these do not cover packaging specifically, and have several acknowledged limitations, especially when accounting for industrial recycling. Data on residential recycling is somewhat better because stewardship or Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs have been established for residential printed paper and packaging in various provinces. The residential recovery rate for old corrugated containers or boxes (OCC) in Ontario, for example, was estimated at 85% in 2012. PPEC’s best estimate of a national corrugated recovery number, based on residential data and what it knows of mill recycling tonnages, is 85%, but clearly better data based on credible generation numbers would be very useful.
PPEC calls for landfill ban on old corrugated
In fact, the need to recover even more OCC has driven the industry’s environmental council to call on provinces to ban old corrugated boxes from landfills. Provincial bans, which are legally required to cover both private and publically-owned landfills, would be a win-win for everybody, but mainly for the environment. PPEC estimates that banning OCC from Quebec and Ontario landfills would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 85,000 tonnes or the equivalent of taking 15,000 cars off the road. The life of existing landfills would be extended and operational costs reduced. And the paper industry, which relies heavily on recycled fibre for its feedstock, would get to use the boxes again. The council wants to start with old corrugated boxes but broaden the landfill ban to other perfectly recyclable paper materials such as paper bags and cartons. Nova Scotia banned OCC from landfill several years ago. Quebec indicated it planned to do so in 2014.
Meeting the waxed corrugated challenge
Waxes are applied to only 3% of all corrugated boxes overall, usually so that ice and water can be packed against the product (for example, fish, poultry, meat, and some vegetables) to keep it fresh. The wax may appear as a coating on the inside and/or the outside layer of the box, or be impregnated into the middle layer (or flute) where it is less visible. Wax can also be added through a saturation process called cascading whereby all paper surfaces are treated for maximum protection from ice and water.
Because traditional waxes are not water soluble, however, these particular boxes have proven difficult to recycle. This has not stopped the paper industry from coming up with alternatives. One is to compost waxed corrugated with organic materials (leaf and yard or food waste). PPEC pioneered this option back in the 1990s with McGill University, producing an acceptable compost.
Another option has been to develop waxes that are both recyclable and repulpable in most recycling mills across North America. These are commonly called wax alternatives and there are currently over 40 different brands that have been approved by the industry for commercial use. The Corrugated Packaging Alliance has modified the widely-used Corrugated Recycles logo to indicate that these wax alternative boxes can be successfully recycled. Innovative entrepreneurs have also seized on used waxed corrugated boxes for use as fire logs and fire starters (in place of wood logs).