Features Environment Opinion
Can Your Package Really be Recycled or Composted?

February 9, 2015  By Victoria Gaitskell

Nowhere is the environmental impact of packaging more obvious than at a waste and recycling plant. So last fall, when the Regional Municipality of Peel announced an expansion of its Blue Box Recycling Program, I visited the Peel Integrated Waste Management Facility – the largest plant of its kind in Canada, situated on a 16-hectare site in Brampton, Ontario – to clarify which types of packaging have recently become recyclable. I also got the scoop directly from Kevin Mehlenbacher and Karyn Hogan, both professionals at the Waste Management Division of Peel’s Public Works Department, on how printers can know that the packaging they produce is environmentally sustainable.  

The Peel plant serves the Cities of Brampton and Mississauga and the Town of Caledon, comprising a total of some 330,000 households and 80,000 multi-residential units. The plant houses a waste transfer station (to transfer black-bagged garbage from collection trucks onto long-haul trailers destined for a landfill site), a massive organics composting operation (to process kitchen organics collected via curbside Green Bins and yard waste), and a single-stream Material Recovery Facility (MRF, the

recycling part of the operation), with a capacity to process 130,000 tonnes of recyclable material collected from curbside Blue Boxes annually. The term “single stream” means that households mix together in the Blue Boxes all recyclable items, including packaging made of paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum, steel, and plastics; then this mixture is carried by collection trucks to the plant for sorting.


Kevin Mehlenbacher, Specialist, Waste Collection and Processing, explains that, after the collection trucks drop the mixed recyclables off at MRF’s tipping floor, a front-end loader pushes them onto two inclined conveyor belts that transport them through a sequence of machinery and rooms for mechanical and manual sorting. In mechanical sorting, appliances like screens, magnets and air jets are used to sort the recyclables into individual streams, each consisting of one type of material. This process is aided by some 120 temporary workers, divided into two eight-hour shifts, who help sort the recyclables as they speed by on the fast-moving conveyor belts and remove any stray objects that would contaminate the sorted materials. Finally, two balers form each of the sorted materials into bales, which are shipped out to secondary markets via transport trucks.

Newly recyclable items
Mehlenbacher explains Peel has now expanded the list of items that can be recycled via its Blue Box Program to include all mixed rigid plastics, such as:

• Clear clamshell packaging used for fruits, vegetables and bakery products,
• Large clear plastic tubs, lids and trays used for salads, cakes, delicatessen foods and cooked chickens,
• Clear plastic egg cartons,
• Take-out containers and
microwaveable trays,
• Garden nursery pots, cells,
trays and flats,
• Plastic vitamin and prescription
bottles, and
• Thermoform blister packaging.

Other major Canadian cities and municipalities, including Calgary, Durham, Halifax, Halton, Hamilton, London, Niagara, Ottawa, Toronto and York, also recycle these items, which formerly had to be captured from the Peel MRF’s post-recycled waste by reprocessing at another recycling facility. Mehlenbacher says Peel’s waste composition audits indicate that processing these mixed rigid plastics at the MRF will capture an additional 1,600 to 2,100 tonnes of plastic per year – another of the continuous positive steps Peel is making towards its goal of recycling 70 percent of its waste by 2016.

The processing of the additional plastics has cost Peel around $3,107,500 in capital improvements to the MRF’s sorting equipment, plus about an additional $330,000 annually for increased operating costs. Likely Peel will recover half of the capital-improvement costs from the Continuous Improvement Fund, a partnership program of Waste Diversion Ontario, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, the City of Toronto and Stewardship Ontario to improve Ontario’s municipal Blue Box Programs.

Markets for recycled materials
Mehlenbacher says the MRF typically sends out 15 to 20 trailers of recovered materials a day, bound for destinations that vary in distance from a few blocks away to as far as China. “China is a growing economy, so they are looking for raw materials,” he says. “For example, if our local newsprint recycling facility is not able to take the full amount we generate, we send the surplus to Quebec, the States, or overseas.” He reports that the sale of recycled materials earns $10 to $15 million in annual revenues which help offset the MRF’s other waste-management costs.

Karyn Hogan, Specialist, Waste Reduction and Reuse, explains that, besides improving the MRF’s recycling rate, another main reason why Peel has recently added mixed rigid plastics to its Blue Box Program is that staff finally found a secondary market for these materials.  She says access to end-markets often determines which materials a municipality can recycle, and the search is complicated by the fact that municipalities must compete with manufacturers as vendors to the same markets.  

Mehlenbacher adds that these markets lead to the conversion of recycled materials into an almost infinite variety of consumer goods: “For instance, 240 plastic jugs can be remade into one plastic Muskoka chair.  Nine 2-litre pop bottles make one extra-large polyester t-shirt.”

Better-informed consumers
In conjunction with expanding its Blue Box Program, Peel has recently collaborated with the Cities of Toronto and Hamilton and the Regional Municipalities of Durham, Halton, Niagara and York (collectively all forming an area known as The Golden Horseshoe) on a public-awareness campaign called Recycle More. Two-thirds funded by Stewardship Ontario and the Waste Diversion Ontario Continuous Improvement Fund, this $600,000 campaign delivered the message that additional mixed rigid plastic packaging items can now be recycled to nearly
seven million Ontario consumers via print media and radio, internet and billboard advertising launched between September and November 2013.  

Because for decades most major Canadian municipalities have operated recycling programs and published their own marketing collateral, including Websites with intricate instructions on how to dispose of various types of waste, the environmental issues associated with packaging have been public concerns for a long time in Canada. But Recycle More and the continued efforts of municipalities and other environmental groups are helping to make today’s consumers even more environmentally knowledgeable than they were in the past. So in an effort to keep up with ever increasing public expectations, environmental sustainability continues to be a bigger driver of innovation than ever before in packaging design.

Consumers have also learned recently that a compostable label or symbol on a product is not necessarily a true indicator of environmental friendliness: Last year in widely publicized incidents, food giants Frito Lay (a division of PepsiCo) and Kraft Canada introduced experimental compostable packages, then pulled them off the shelves of Canadian retail outlets. Frito Lay’s was a bag made mainly from polylactic acid for SunChips and Kraft’s was an “Earth Pack” bottle made of tapioca starch and bamboo for Dentyne, Trident, and
Clorets gum.  The main reason for these recalls was that, despite the compostability claim advertised on the packages, based solely on laboratory testing, the packages failed to break down in Canadian municipal composting facilities. (Consumers also complained that the chips bag was too noisy.)

The composting limitations of these packages meant they would end up contaminating not only Green Bin but also Blue Box Programs since, as Hogan explains, plant-based packaging materials are currently not recyclable because secondary markets are not interested in buying them. She suggests that a better outcome might occur if packaging producers would consult municipalities and markets to determine the parameters of their waste handling and reprocessing facilities before bringing a new package to market. This precaution would be a better alternative than being publicly embarrassed after the fact and could save a lot of wasted time and resources, says Hogan.

Like municipally untested compostability claims, another potentially misleading message for consumers comes from the recycling symbol with a number inside found on many plastic items that are not actually recyclable.  In fact, the number is only used to identify what type of plastic resin the item is made of, and does not necessarily mean the item is recyclable in municipal Blue Box Programs.

Size also matters: Hogan says certain items, such as plastic drinking straws and coffee pods for use with single-serving coffee makers like Keurig, Nespresso, and Tassimo are too small to be sorted because they fall through the MRF’s sorting screens. She reports that Peel’s composting facility is currently testing the compostability claim of a plant-based coffee pod that has recently been put on the market. “One of the hardest things about my job is trying to keep up with all the changing material types, since every day manufacturers make something new. Usually we’re the last to learn about these new packaging products,” says Hogan.

Mixed resin challenges
Another factor that thwarts recycling is the combination of many different types of plastic resins in a single package. For instance, because take-out coffee and soft-drink cups typically contain layers of plastic and paper fibre, they cannot be either composted or recycled and must go in the garbage in Peel. Increasingly, Hogan notes, traditional glass bottles, metal cans and paperboard cartons are being replaced by flexible pouches composed of several layers of different plastic resins which are neither recyclable nor reusable. By contrast, she says traditional cartons and glass jars can usually be recycled and reused indefinitely.

Despite these practical realities, the trend to convert from rigid to flexible packaging continues to grow. One presentation during the February 2013 International Converting Exhibition, ICE USA 2013, estimated that the global flexible packaging market, valued at $71 billion in 2011, will grow by around five percent a year, reaching $90 billion in 2016.  It also predicted that North America will be one of the world’s two top regional markets with 25 percent share. (The other is Central/East Asia with 24 percent share.)  

Reasons for this forecasted growth include the myriad of new plastic films and closure mechanisms for flexible packaging that are being introduced into the market.  The combination of laminated plastic layers used in most flexible pouches and bags is also popular because it can be custom designed to suit specific products and retailers.

Generally, flexible packaging also allows more of the entire surface area to be printed than rigid packaging, allowing more space for product promotion. Some flexible packaging also demonstrates superior resistance to damage or defacement during handling, resulting in fewer customer complaints and product returns, and less staff time spent cleaning up broken packages. Additionally, flexible packaging weighs less and takes up less room than rigid packaging, resulting in reduced shelf and storage space, as well as lower transportation costs.

Package life cycle assessment
Ironically, environmental arguments are regularly used to persuade packagers to convert to flexible packaging, since it sometimes takes considerably less energy to produce in contrast to some types of rigid packaging. Additionally, flexible packaging’s relative compactness, which allows for more product per shipment, creates a proportional reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that makes the package environmentally friendly in a different way from the ability to compost or recycle it. Many environmental packaging experts suggest that a complete life cycle assessment, taking into account each aspect of how the package is designed, produced, shipped and disposed of by the consumer, is needed to determine to what extent any package is environmentally sustainable.

Nevertheless, since the end of a package’s life cycle is Hogan’s specialty, she would like to see legislation place more responsibility on packagers to design for both recyclability and compostability. When Peel staff lead waste-plant tours or in-school presentations to students from packaging courses at colleges and universities or industry associations, they urge their audiences to think more about both outcomes when creating their designs. “Find out if municipalities can compost it. Or find out not only if their MRFs can sort it, but also if an end market for it exists.

“We’ve already invested a huge amount of taxpayers’ money to purchase the infrastructure and equipment to process waste. New packaging needs to work with the existing system, or else the only way we will be able to recycle or compost it is to spend a lot more money to expand the facility again with expensive new equipment.”

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