Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Packaging and the environment --- Les emballages et l'environnement

Canada, along with its' provinces and territories, is passive when it comes to packaging waste as compared to the efforts undertaken in the European Union. The European Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste aims to harmonize national measures in order to prevent or reduce the impact of packaging and packaging waste on the environment and to ensure the functioning of the Internal Market. It contains provisions on the (1) prevention of packaging waste, on the (2) re-use of packaging and on the (3) recovery and (4) recycling of packaging waste. There are specific provisions for all four elements and quantitative targets. I had participated at some of these past stakeholder consultations, where I represented Tetra Pak Europe and Alcoa Europe, and industry throughout the supply chain was ready and willing to take action. There was not much choice because legislation was forthcoming. We are not talking about "voluntary" guidelines: producers putting packaging on the market had to recycle X% amount per year, every year. And we all had to pitch-in. All packaging placed on the market in the Community and all packaging waste, whether it is used or released at industrial, commercial, office, shop, service, household or any other level, regardless of the material used, was affected.

Recovery organisations were established, reporting guidelines implemented, best practice was shared across the supply chain and in packaging trade associations, communication to consumers was enhanced and new opportunities were created. The objective of the Directive is to decrease the amount of final waste going to landfill. And it's working.

When I mention this objective to my counterparts in North America, particularly in Canada, I usually get one of the following answers: "we have a lot of land in Canada so we can create landfills in remote areas", or "our population density is not comparable to Europe so we don't have the same pressing need to recycle and recover packaging waste", or " the current market for recycled material has collapsed", or my favourite "we recycle all our packaging waste in Quebec as we are the greenest province". Groundwater contamination, litter, sustainable consumption, etc. are never considered.

I invite all readers to take a look at the Recyc-Québec site and to ask some fundamental questions: Where are the targets outlined? How much packaging has been placed on the provincial market? And how much of it has been recycled? Landfilled? The often quoted number is 60% recycled. From what? Compared to what year? The numbers and efforts remain fuzzy.

In early 2006, Coca-Cola bottlers wanted to withdraw the deposit fee on some of their packaging in Quebec. It was barely noticed in the media and the government reached a deal with the company to continue the programme. The deposit fee on most packaging in Quebec is .05 cents. This is very low compared to other jurisdictions and, although it provides some incentives to consumers to return their aluminum can, the credibility and viability of the system is now at stake. In the Montreal area, we have these green open boxes which will be replaced because, due to weather conditions, most of the used packaging winds up on the street. I usually add my empty wine bottles in the bin, including those with a deposit fee (some wine bottles have it, others don't...?) because I know it will be collected by the homeless on the street. I don't think this logic applies to suburban areas. The government-owned liquor store SAQ, which has ceased to distribute plastic bags to consumers since the start of the year, does not have a recycling program in place for its used wine and beer bottles. And this is government owned! Maybe it would be more effective if it were privatized?

The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) is having a stakeholder consultation on packaging (comments can be submitted until 29 May 2009). The Packaging Association of Canada (PAC) does not mention how much packaging waste is recycled in Canada nor in the individual provinces. The environment section on their site does not have one mention of what the impact of packaging waste is on the environment nor how their member companies are working on new packages that are "designed for the environment" nor any mention of LCA or packaging waste studies. The most depressing aspect is that many companies, such as Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Unilever, P&G, Tetra Pak, Heineken, Danone, etc. are undertaking significant efforts as regards packaging waste in Europe but are silent on this side of the Atlantic because of the lack of regulations in Canada. In such a case, how would Corporate Responsibility be measured?

What are our home grown companies, such as Liberté, doing as regards packaging waste? In this case, the biggest environmental impact is the packaging content itself (i.e.: yogurt - dairy production) hence the packaging waste side of the equation should be easy to deal with so why are efforts to recycle and recover more of its packaging not done? One can applaud the efforts being done by Rona as regards its eco/ green products. But they too missed the boat on the recycling and recovery side. Their efforts are applauded when it comes to FSC and other initiatives. The challenge is to put those efforts in numbers, such as via yearly measurable and verifiable targets.

The market potentials are huge and the environment gains are even bigger. It's time to show some leadership.

For more info:

Grace Barrasso

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