Inadequate Paper Recycling Programs in Canada

by Joyce Nelson

The Environmental Paper Network (EPN) has some sobering figures on paper recycling, including this: “After more than 30 years of recycled-paper market development, recycled content has reached the dizzying height of 6 per cent of the overall fibre that goes into printing and writing papers.” And only 3 per cent of that is post-consumer recycled content. In their article for Resource Recycling (June 2009), Pam Blackledge (of EPN) and Susan Kinsella (of Conservatree) write, “Put another way, more than 90 per cent of the printing and office paper available in North America still has no recycled content at all.”

Moreover, they state that across North America in 2009, “nearly half of paper from offices and commercial establishments is still uncollected [for recycling] – despite being the paper grade needed to make recycled printing and writing papers.”

These are mind-boggling figures, given that the typical North American office worker uses 10,000 sheets of paper per year. The EPN estimates that if the US cut its office paper use by 10 per cent, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would fall by nearly 3 million tonnes.

In 2006, Statistics Canada reported that per capita consumption of printing/writing paper in Canada had risen 93.6 per cent from 1983 to 2003, and averaged “about 20,000 pages” per Canadian, totalling 2.8 million tonnes of office paper used in 2003 and rising.

Clearly, the “paperless office” is still a rarity in North America. While newsprint and other commercial papers have taken a huge hit from the Internet, office paper use has steadily gone up, with each North American now using an average of 680 pounds of office paper per year, what with all our internet downloading and computer printouts. The average web user prints 28 pages daily, or 10,220 pages per year.

If we’re not using recycled paper, we’re missing a huge opportunity to cut GHG emissions, among other benefits such as protecting forests and reducing energy and water use at mills. Producing a tonne of virgin paper results in an estimated 4.25 tonnes of GHG emissions, while producing a tonne of 100% recycled paper averages 1.75 tonnes of GHG. Using post-consumer recycled paper takes the GHG savings even further. According to the Green Press Initiative website, “Each pound of post-consumer recycled fiber” used in paper production “prevents the release of 2,100 lbs. of greenhouse gas emissions” in overall life-cycle GHG emissions – a huge reduction. But according to the Reach for Unbleached! Foundation, recycled-content office paper constitutes only about 5-7 per cent of paper use.
Now, one Canadian multinational is taking steps to change.

TD Bank’s Effort

In August, TD Bank announced its participation in US paper manufacturer Boise Inc.’s Closed Loop System, a paper-recycling program that guarantees at least 1,500 tonnes of paper used in TD’s operations in Canada and the US is diverted from landfill and used in the production of recycled office paper. TD then purchases recycled paper for use in all its branches.

TD’s Matthew Cram told me that TD has “1,100 branches in Canada and 1300 branches in the US,” all of which collectively use “about 3,500 tonnes of paper” per year. A portion of that – 1,500 tonnes – will be picked up by Iron Mountain, a confidential paper-shredder with locations across the continent, where it will be shredded, baled, and then sold to Recycle America, a division of North American incineration proponent Waste Management Inc.

TD’s Ian Murray, Senior Manager of Procurement Services, told me, “We don’t know who they [Waste Management] are selling it to. They probably sell it to a variety of vendors. It’s an equivalent credit system and we don’t have a chain-of-custody agreement” regarding what happens to the waste paper after it goes to shredder Iron Mountain. “We do know that the paper that Iron Mountain collects from us, that amount is what we utilize” in the 2,400 TD branches.

TD Bank, while also making efforts to reduce its paper use, has a “business to business” arrangement with Grand & Toy “to provide us with 3,500 tonnes of Boise’s Aspen-30 office paper, which is 30 per cent post-consumer content,” says Murray. “The rest of the content of the paper is from FSC certified forests.”

When asked where the rest of the fibre (70 per cent) comes from, Murray did not know. But according to Toronto’s Now Magazine (Sept. 6-12, 2007), Grand & Toy’s office paper is made from pulp produced at Abitibi’s Fort Frances (Ontario) mill. When asked if Waste Management might deliver shredded waste paper from Ontario TD branches to the Fort Frances mill, Murray reiterated that TD has “no chain-of-custody agreement.” TD’s press release says only that the shredded paper “is transported by a waste broker (Recycle America/Waste Management) to a manufacturer of recycled content pulp, like Boise,” which has no mills in Canada.

“Dumbed-Down Recycling”

In terms of paper recycling, some critics say that we did a better job back in the days when the paper industry itself organized “paper drives” through church and scouting groups, and then used that collected paper in its mills. As the EPN’s RePaper Project explains: “Shifting to recyclables collected [by municipal programmes] has changed a demand-side feedstock system that could control quantity and quality to a supply-side system that keeps producing, no matter whether the materials are appropriate for production or not. Recycling [across North America] is now a loose collaboration of tens of thousands of independent local government programs and recycling businesses, all focused more on their short-term economic success than on the long-term health of the recycling system….There is no coordination or agreement on the structure or even the long-term goals of the recycling system, nor even that it should serve conservation or environmental goals.”

As Helen Spiegelman of Zero-Waste Vancouver, has put it on her blog, we have “dumbed-down recycling,” which caters to “the laziness that made us become the Throw-Away society in the first place.” Rather than sort our waste, keeping the clean paper away from the other recyclables, most of us now toss them all into one big blue-bin – a system called “single-stream” recycling. While the single-stream model reportedly increases the quantity of materials put out for recycling, it impacts the quality – especially of paper – because of contamination.

A December 2009 report by Clarissa Morawski of CM Consulting for the Container Recycling Institute found that many single-stream Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) “face a situation where their material is worth very little, worthless, or considered garbage” because of contamination. “Bales of paper-based secondary material, for instance, contain more glass, metal and other contaminants, which lower the economic value of the material and can impact recycling operations in terms of extra labour and capital requirements.”

This contamination “can create problems at paper mills, leading to equipment failure, lost productivity and expensive repairs,” causing “cost increases for the processors and recyclers.” The contaminated paper is usually “thrown away by the paper mills.”

The push for single-stream collection is based on a desire for quantity of what’s collected, rather than quality. As Bill Sheehan of the Product Policy Institute told me in a recent phone interview, “If all you’re interested in is landfill diversion, then it [single-stream] looks good” in terms of numbers.

Sheehan told a September web-conference on paper/packaging issues, “If the goal [of EPR programs] is waste prevention, there will be more emphasis on quality of materials collected, on amount of materials actually used in closed loop recycling processes, and on reuse.” But “if the goal of EPR programs is waste diversion, the focus will be on collecting large volumes of mixed materials. When responsibility is assigned to industry, the door is wide open for industry to argue that incineration fulfils its mandate of diverting material from landfill.”

At the November 23-24, 2009 “Waste-Based Energy” conference in Toronto, that’s exactly what the incinerator-industry speakers proposed to argue, if Ontario and other provinces move toward 100 per cent industry responsibility for blue-box programmes.
The promotion of single-stream collection for recycling is arguably a step towards incineration. With its resulting contamination of much of the used feedstock, single-stream turns a potential resource for re-manufacture into garbage fit only for landfill/incineration.

Exporting Used Paper

Many BC readers were likely shocked to read the Vancouver Sun’s July series on recycling, which stated that most of Metro Vancouver’s collected mixed paper and newspaper “is sent out of the country – either across the border to Washington and Oregon or farther afield to China, Thailand, South Korea, and India.” Metro Vancouver annually collects more than 284,000 tonnes of cardboard and mixed paper through its recycling programmes. Since Catalyst Paper shut down its Crofton paper-recycling facilities in January, along with its Coquitlam de-inking facility that fed it, very little used newsprint or paper is processed in BC.

Norampac Inc. manufactures cardboard boxes at its Burnaby and Richmond plants, while Langley-based CKF Inc. turns newspapers, cardboard, and mixed paper into egg cartons and drink holders. But because the collected paper can be sold across the border or overseas, these companies have to compete for the used feedstock.

As Mairi Welman, spokeswoman for the Recycling Council of BC, puts it, “The whole [recycling] industry is getting to the point where it needs to take another lead, where processing takes place here.” That would certainly create green jobs, and save on GHG emissions from exporting our recyclables to locations sometimes thousands of miles away.
Critics such as Ken Rasmussen, of Metro Waste Paper Recycling, feel that BC should be offering tax incentives, or using the carbon tax, to help local re-manufacturers. Such an effort would have helped Catalyst Paper, he has told the press.

But the problem is nationwide.

Signs of the Times

According to 2006 figures from the Paper Recycling Association (listing members such as Cascades, Domtar, Kruger, Norampac, and Tembec), in that year the Canadian industry, in “more than 41 mills” across the country, transformed “4.8 million tonnes of old newspapers, magazines, corrugated containers, communication papers, boxboard (cereal/shoe boxes, etc.), and other grades of paper into new newsprint, containerboard, boxboard, communication papers, kraft and sanitary papers, as well as construction papers and board.” A mere 59 per cent (2.8 million tonnes) of that used feedstock came from Canadian sources – a fraction of the paper products Canadians throw away or put out in recycling bins. The rest (1.2 million tonnes) was imported, primarily from the US.

When I called the Paper Recycling Association in September to update those figures, I instead reached the Pulp & Paper Products Council, which informed me that “there is no recycling department anymore,” and redirected me to the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), the national trade association. The FPAC website includes no information about recycled pulp/paper content, but sports the headline “Feel Good About Canadian Pulp, Paper and Wood” and claims that “Canada’s rate of deforestation is virtually zero.”

In June 2009, the Harper government announced its “green transformation program” of $1 billion in federal aid to the pulp and paper industry, to increase energy efficiency and counter the US “black liquor” pulp-mill subsidies. [See “Greed and Black Liquor Fuel Pulp Trade Wars.” Millwatch, Watershed Sentinel, November 2009]
According to the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP), only 24 mills across Canada qualify for the subsidies, and those are kraft pulp-based mills, “putting operations with mechanical pulping and recycled content at a severe competitive disadvantage.” As the CEP June 2009 Briefing Notes state, “Non-integrated paper mills, recycled paper/paperboard mills and groundwood paper mills all lack recovery boilers and don’t produce internally-generated energy,” and therefore don’t qualify for the federal help.

Similarly, the Feds’ recently announced $100 million Investments in Forest Industry Transformation proggramme is primarily geared to development of “advanced clean energy technologies in the forestry sector,” rather than transforming our pulp and paper mills into less chemically-polluting producers.

Re-Manufacturing Challenge

The EPN’s RePaper Project sees the process of transitioning to a strong recycled paper industry as “similar to ‘a virtual three-legged stool.’ The first leg requires a vast supply of recovered fibre in order to support the second leg, the industrial capacity to manufacture recycled paper. Both must be balanced by the third leg, the steady and growing demand for recycled content paper. All legs must be strong, equal, and stable, in order to succeed for the long-term.”

While Canada will never be able to provide a “vast” supply of used paper to its mills, it certainly could provide some, including that 284,000 tonnes of used paper collected annually just by Metro Vancouver. Mill workers say that locally collected cardboard from small Canadian towns could easily be added to the local pulper, rather than being transported elsewhere.
The provinces could mandate that all used paper be collected in a separate stream (to prevent contamination) and be returned to the closest mill retrofitted with de-inking facilities. If this were done across the country, not only would the carbon footprint of transporting used paper be reduced, but the recycled content of all paper production in Canada would increase. As it is, the Canadian industry and our governments are cutting the first two legs off that virtual three-legged stool and soon there won’t be a leg to stand on.


Joyce Nelson is a freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.

[From WS November/December 2010]

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