By Isabelle Faucher, Managing Director, Carton Council of Canada

May 12, 2021

Without a doubt, the last year has been challenging for the carton recycling industry in Canada. Like most industries, we are grappling with the significant and sustained impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated fluctuations in both demand and price. Particularly in Ontario, the decrease in the value of cartons has been slow to rebound.

Nevertheless, there are strategies we can use to help mitigate the challenges and maximize the opportunities ahead of us. This is an excellent time to recommit to best practices like positive sorting, bale quality, and consumer education. In fact, these are important trends that we expect to continue to influence the state of carton recycling in Canada over the next year.

Positive Sorting and Bale Quality

One of Carton Council of Canada (CCC)’s main objectives is to help optimize the carton sorting efforts of Canada’s Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs). CCC advocates for the positive sorting of cartons because:

  1. It provides for the highest environmental benefit as the end-markets that recycle cartons sorted into their own grade achieve the highest fibre yields and it can allow for the recovery of the polyethylene and polyethylene/Aluminum residuals (poly/Al).
  2. It minimizes the impact on other commodity grades (e.g., ONP, mixed paper bales) by realizing the highest potential price for those commodities.
  3. It supports the development of new carton-focused end-markets, a critical component of a thriving carton recycling value chain.

From an operational perspective, cartons are a relatively easy material to sort. They can be hand-picked, optically sorted, or pulled off from the conveyor by a robotic arm using AI. A survey by Éco Entreprises Québec and RECYC-QUÉBEC* recently investigated the materials exiting MRFs in Quebec. The study showed that the carton bales coming from the facilities that positively sort cartons in this province (currently 11 out of 23) on average consist of 96% gable-top and aseptic containers, as well as other generally accepted fibrous materials. With very little contamination, carton bales had the highest purity of all the materials audited.

Creative thinking, the resourceful use of technology and a commitment to positive sorting sets the stage for successfully increasing the quality and, in turn, the value of carton bales. There is no reason to believe that this success is not being/cannot be replicated in other facilities.

End-market situation

Just over a year ago, we were thrilled to announce that Sustana’s mill in Levis, Quebec, had begun accepting cartons for recycling. Although there has been a tangible benefit in terms of tonnages of carton bales sold and average value of used cartons, we are aware that those benefits have not made their way to Ontario, especially those in the southwestern part of the province. We are hopeful that the addition of a new end-market in Connecticut in the near future, plus the existing seven recycling facilities in North America, will improve the situation.

Continued Consumer Education

Another important element of the carton recovery and recycling equation is consumers: what they know about carton recycling, and how much faith they put in the process.

Recently, CCC wrapped up an 8-week social media campaign focused on increasing the public’s awareness about recycling cartons. Consumers in Ontario and Quebec were encouraged to learn more about carton recycling by watching an at-home carton recycling video or by taking a quiz and answering a series of myth-busting questions about recycling.

Consumers seemed eager to engage in the conversation. Engaged recyclers who are advocates for the circular economy shared their enthusiasm while others shared their ongoing concerns about the state of our recycling systems. For example, the often-misunderstood statistic “only 9% of plastics are recycled in Canada” was brought up numerous times by commentators.

The campaign reinforced that arming consumers with resources and demystifying carton recycling remains an important element of recycling success. To support local awareness efforts, CCC has also launched an updated Image and Ad Bank, featuring all the ads from the campaign, in addition to carton images that can be used by partners and stakeholders in their own education efforts.

Final Thought

Carton Council of Canada’s mandate is to deliver long-term solutions to help increase carton recovery and recycling in Canada.

If any facilities are having difficulty moving carton loads, have questions about the process or value of positive carton sorting, would like to engage in more consumer-focused education, or have any questions about carton recycling in Canada, please reach out to CCC’s Managing Director, Isabelle Faucher at:    

We are here to help!

*Document is available in French only