When the world is rapidly moving to reduce its reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels, the corrugated produce box, not the plastic crate, is the logical choice for growers and retailers.
The corrugated box originally derives from a renewable resource: trees. Canada has an enormous supply, with about one-tenth of the world’s forest area. Less than 0.5 per cent of Canada’s commercial forest was harvested in the latest data year with only two-thirds of what the provinces set as the sustainable limit actually cut.
By law, those trees have to be successfully regenerated. And they are. Almost 1,000 new tree seedlings are planted every minute somewhere in Canada. Our country also leads the world in third-party certification of sustainably managed forests and chain-of custody certification.
Compare this sterling record with the extraction of non-renewable fossil fuels such as the crude oil and natural gas feedstock used to make plastic products, and you’ll see where we are coming from. Those fossil fuel deposits are being rapidly depleted worldwide and their continued extraction, processing, and usage is regarded by many as a cause of global warming and climate change.
Unlike the forest sector, the oil and gas industry does not have an equivalent independent third-party certification of crude oil or natural gas extraction, nor any equivalent chain-of-custody certification for its products, as far as we are aware. Wouldn’t you think that Canadian produce retailers promoting plastic crates would be insisting upon this, as they do for paper goods?
There’s more. Oil and gas extraction is responsible for almost three times as much net deforestation in Canada than the whole forest industry! Check it out for yourself on page 23 of Natural Resources Canada’s annual 2015 report The State of Canada’s Forests.
The paper industry is a major user of renewable energy, with more than 60 per cent of its mills using carbon-neutral biomass or hydro to power their plants. Fossil fuel production has a much more difficult journey to reach carbon-neutrality.
Corrugated has other environmental attributes as well. Most of the corrugated boxes made in Canada, in fact, are 100 per cent recycled (in many cases made from the very same corrugated boxes that produce retailers bale up at the back of their stores and send for recycling). We estimate that retailers received about $50 million for this material last year. It’s our feedstock for new boxes.
And virtually all Canadians can recycle them (96 per cent according to an independent study). The actual recovery rates for old corrugated are very high (an estimated 85 per cent nationally, and an amazing 98 per cent in Ontario’s Blue Box system). Unlike plastic crates and most other plastics, paper materials are also compostable.
The choice between corrugated boxes and plastic crates really boils down to an economic decision in our view, although the debate is often clouded by sometimes dubious environmental claims and misinformation. Get your facts out on the table for everybody to see and be able to back them up.
The Canadian corrugated industry is justifiably proud of its environmental record and performance. The corrugated box is the renewable, sustainable option.
John Mullinder is executive director, Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council.