If there’s one thing that governments could do to enhance paper’s circular economy, it would be to ban used paper and boxes from landfill. And that’s exactly what the paper packaging industry in Canada has been urging provincial governments to do for years.

“There’s no good reason why those boxes should end up in landfill,” says John Mullinder, Executive Director of the Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC). “In landfill, paper gives off carbon dioxide and methane: greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.”

So, get paper out of there! Banning boxes from landfill would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it would also provide a supply of used boxes and paper for the industry’s already existing circular economy.

“It’s not widely appreciated,’’ says Mullinder, “that we hardly use any fresh trees to make packaging in Canada in the first place. People have this mental image that every time we need to make a new box, we just grab a chainsaw and head for the forest.”

It’s not true, he says. Only about 10% of Canadian paper packaging is made directly from trees, and then from independently certified and sustainably managed forests, something that Canada leads the world in. Some is made from what are called “wood residues” (chips, shavings and sawdust left over from logging operations: the lumber being used to make houses, hospitals and schools), but most of it is made from recycled pulp.

If Canadians want a good example of a circular economy already in existence, they should take a closer look at what the paper packaging industry is doing on a daily basis

In fact, says Mullinder, most boxes and cartons made in Canada are 100% recycled content: made from used boxes, cartons and paper collected from the back of factories, supermarkets, office buildings, and from residential Blue Box-type programs. The material is then baled, shipped, and recycled into new packaging that is used to deliver goods to the Canadian or export markets or to ship Canadian products worldwide.

Virtually all Canadians can now recycle paper boxes, bags and cartons. The industry’s environmental council estimates that actual recovery is about 85% nationally, but it’s very hard to get solid numbers. Residential collection systems like the various Blue Box programs across the country have far more detailed information. In Ontario, for example, an amazing 98% of corrugated boxes are collected for recycling. In fact, the Blue Box is really a paper box: 74% of what’s collected is paper in one form or another, and revenues from the sale of that paper ($60 million in 2017) are the single largest financial contribution by any material group.

While the paper packaging industry has a great story to tell on its use of a renewable resource, its high recycled content, and its impressive recovery rates, it has not neglected the design stage upfront to reduce the amount of packaging used in the first place. This has been achieved by light-weighting: designing out flaps, layers, and the airspace between the product and its packaging (called “right-sizing”). At the mill level, several Canadian companies are leading a North American charge to lower basis weights in linerboard.

So, if Canadians want a good example of a circular economy already in existence, they should take a closer look at what the paper packaging industry is doing on a daily basis: minimizing the use of the resource up front, using a renewable resource, and achieving high recycled content and recovery rates. Banning paper and paper boxes from landfill is the next logical — and important environmental — step. But for that, both provincial and municipal governments need to act.