Let’s get the facts straight on Ontario’s Blue Box

What’s being collected through Ontario’s Blue Box. - Source: Stewardship Ontario (2018 data)

John Mullinder
Typography

The current debate over what to do about Ontario’s Blue Box frequently confuses at least four distinct but interrelated issues: waste management in general; the recycling option; the relative roles of industry and householders; and the nature of the Blue Box program itself.

First, the broader context. The Blue Box program is just one waste collection system, among many. Others include the deposit/return systems for beverage containers run by the Beer Store and the province itself through the Liquor Control Board of Ontario; some industry stewardship programs; private sector recycling efforts; and numerous return-to-retail options.

The Blue Box program does not, and was never intended to, address the almost 13 million tonnes of waste that Ontario generates every year.[1] To suggest, as some critics have, that the Blue Box is somehow failing because it focuses on only about 10% of Ontario’s generated waste, totally ignores its objective and scope. The province has talked a lot but done little.

What are these critics suggesting? That we should load up our Blue Boxes with meat scraps and leaves, rusty fridges and stoves, and old planks of plywood? These are best handled in other ways (used tires, laptops and cellphones, for example, already have separate, industry-led stewardship programs).

But the province does need to act more urgently on this front because it will run out of landfill space within 12 years. Typically, it takes between five to 10 years of consultations and reviews just to get all the approvals in place to site a new one.[2] Remember NIMBY and NIMTOO (not in my backyard and not in my term of office)? The clock is ticking on this one.

Disposal bans and landfill surcharges have been adopted in other provinces and regions, with varying degrees of success. For its part, the paper packaging industry has for seven years now lobbied successive Ontario ministers of the environment to introduce disposal bans, specifically on organics and paper (which give off greenhouse gases when left to rot in landfill). The province has talked a lot but done little.

Blue Box is a residential system

Second, the Blue Box program is a residential waste collection system. It focuses on what is in Ontario homes. It was never intended to collect materials from factories or supermarkets, offices or hospitals. And for good reason. The wastes from these operations are quite different in both nature and percentage composition. A Blue Box for wire strapping, chemicals, steel drums, and wooden pallets, as well as for paper, plastic, glass and metal? It doesn’t make sense. And who would do the collection? Municipalities?

These wastes are best left to ‘industry’ to manage. Sure, existing regulations need to be tightened and broadened, and here again, disposal bans and higher landfill fees, would be useful. At the moment it’s far cheaper to dump stuff than to recycle it. Industry needs an economic incentive to do the right thing. Again, the province holds most of the cards here but has done little.

False claims

Third, it would be remiss of me not to address some of the false claims being made about the relative contributions of residential and industrial waste. It is not true, for example, that “two-thirds of Ontario’s waste is generated in the industrial, commercial and institutional (IC and I) sector.” In fact, the consumption blame is pretty evenly spread. According to Statistics Canada (2016 data), almost half (46%) of Ontario’s waste was generated by the residential sector, with 54% coming from industrial (or IC and I) sources.[3]  Industry may be doing a far poorer job of diverting this material from landfill (extensive data is lacking), but overall, it is not consuming a huge amount more than householders. And it is our collective excessive consumption habits that are causing the waste problem in the first place.

Nor is it true that packaging is likely a major component of this industrial waste, as some critics have charged. Packaging represented only 13% of total solid waste according to Statistics Canada’s last national packaging survey way back in 1996. Over 70% of all packaging consumed in Canada was re-used or recycled, it found. And industry, not householders, was responsible for almost 75% of the packaging that was recycled.[4]  While there has certainly been an increase in residential recycling of packaging over the years, we seriously doubt that industry has stopped doing what it was doing before. Bring on some credible data!

Blue Box is a recycling program

Fourth, Ontario’s Blue Box is a recycling program. It is not a reduction program, although materials have been light-weighted over the years, more likely to save on costs than to avoid Blue Box fees. Nor is it a re-use program, although some of the materials do get re-used in one shape or another. And while the recyclability of a material is clearly a good thing, it is not the only factor to be considered when analysing a material’s overall environmental impact.

The Blue Box cannot achieve all of these very desirable outcomes by itself, and it should not be expected to. It is a recycling program, focussed on gathering dry recyclables (paper, plastic, glass and metal) from residential households and sending them on to end-markets to be made into new products and packaging. Its current universe is some 1.3 million tonnes of waste (10% of Ontario’s total generated waste) and while recovery has flatlined a little bit recently, the Blue Box is still sending just over 60% of Ontario’s dry household waste on for recycling. It is responsible for 25% of Ontario’s total recycling effort (not 7% as some critics recently claimed).[5]

Paper the key

And key to understanding the Blue Box recycling program is that 73% of it is paper. Paper is the success story of Ontario’s Blue Box. More than 70% of all the paper that Ontario households generate is recovered through Old Blue. Several paper materials (corrugated boxes, magazines and catalogues, and newspapers) have recycling rates in the high 80s and 90s. And while the revenues for paper grades fluctuate and are currently somewhat subdued, they totalled some $43.7 million in 2018 or 51% of total Blue Box revenues.[6]

Most of this recovered paper is supplied to Ontario packaging mills that use it to produce new, 100% recycled content, boxes and cartons. Ontario thus already has a home-grown circular economy where used paper is recycled over and over again. It is in nobody’s interests to destabilise this situation by penalising the local paper industry, even inadvertently.

The materials that are not doing very well in Ontario’s Blue Box system are widely known (mostly plastics) and are the target of much of the bad press about the Blue Box. But we have to be very careful when coming up with solutions to the plastics’ problem that we don’t imperil the Blue Box itself. One solution is for companies to get out of plastics entirely. Another is to launch re-use programs. A third is to introduce deposit-refund schemes that have far higher material recovery rates than Ontario’s current broader-based multi-material approach. Then there are return-to-retail options, landfill bans and surcharges, minimum recycled content requirements, diversion targets, and EPR fees. But these options, my friends, deserve a whole new blog by itself. Stay tuned.


[1] Statistics Canada, Disposal of waste, by source (Table 38-10-0032-01) and Materials diverted, by source (Table 38-10-0033-01). Ontario generated 12,785,183 tonnes of waste in 2016 (comprising disposal of 9,475472 tonnes and diversion of 3,309,711 tonnes. Ontario’s overall waste diversion rate was therefore 26% (not 7% as recently claimed).

[2] Ontario Waste Management Association, Ontario Needs New Landfills, July 10, 2020

[3] Statistics Canada, ibid. Generation equals what was disposed plus what was diverted. In 2016, Ontario residences disposed of 3.7 million tonnes and diverted 2.1 million tonnes for a total waste generation of 5.8 million tonnes. In the same year, ‘industry’ disposed of 5.7 million tonnes and diverted 1.2 million tonnes for a total waste generation of 6.9 million tonnes. Ontario’s total waste generation was therefore 12.7 million tonnes, with residences contributing 46% and ‘industry’ 54%.

[4] This Statistics Canada monitoring exercise over 10 years, and its final result, while now very dated, covered 31 separate industry sectors of the economy and 32 different packaging material types, using surveys as well as information derived from Statistics Canada’s international trade   merchandise data and a national study of household packaging recycling. Some 10,000 surveys representing a total survey frame of almost 400,000 businesses were sent out, with the 61% response rate regarded by Statistics Canada as “consistent with other similar surveys.’’ (Milestone Report, Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, CCME, pages 6-7). Two significant findings of the National Packaging Monitoring System (NPMS) were that over 70% of all packaging consumed in Canada was re-used or recycled, and that industrial recycling of packaging (mostly corrugated boxes) accounted for almost 75% of all packaging recycling (Tables 1 and 29).

[5] Stewardship Ontario, Blue Box data. Table 1: Generation and Recovery (2016 and 2018). Ontario’s waste generation in 2016, according to Statistics Canada, ibid., was 12,785,183 tonnes. The Blue Box in that year sent 836,227 tonnes for recycling. Therefore, the Blue Box was responsible not for 7% of Ontario’s recycling diversion (as claimed recently) but rather 25% of it (836,227 divided by the 3,309,711 tonnes that Ontario recycled).

[6] Stewardship Ontario Blue Box data (2018). Table 1: Generation and Recovery and Table 2: Gross and Net Costs.


John Mullinder
Executive Director
The Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)