Not before time. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) is proposing several changes to environmental labelling rules in this country that could impact more than just the plastics industry that it is currently focussed on.

In a recently released consultation paper, the federal department says it is:

  • Committed to introducing labelling rules that prohibit the use of the “chasing arrows” symbol on plastic products unless 80% of Canada’s recycling facilities accept and have reliable end-markets for these products
  • Proposing to prohibit the use of the words “degradable,’’ “biodegradable” or “compostable” unless the products are certified as compostable by a third party.

The devil is always in the details. But the consultation paper does give some clues on the department’s thinking.

  1. Is the “chasing arrows” (Mobius loop) symbol on the way out?

Mobius Loop depicts recyclability

We’ve all seen it. The little symbol of three chasing arrows on a package or product. And if you look really closely, you’ll see the shape of a tree in the middle, which explains why the paper industry long ago adopted the loop to promote both recycled content and paper recovery.

And that’s part of the problem. Because the chasing arrows can currently indicate two different things: percentage of recycled content in the product, and whether it can be recycled by consumers or not. For recycled content, the number is normally placed in the middle. For recyclability, the word Recyclable is usually added at the bottom.

To add to the confusion, some plastic manufacturers have inserted a resin code (01 for PET) within the loop, and it has also been falsely used to claim that something is compostable or degradable.

The use of the Mobius loop (for both recycled content and recyclability) is certainly convenient, but it has always created confusion among consumers and also within the packaging and packaged goods community itself. California has moved to clarify things. It has prohibited the use of the chasing arrows symbol on non-recyclable products and packaging. And now Canada looks like it is following suit.

In its consultation document, ECCC refers only to certain plastics products, but this proposed change will impact more than just the plastics industry. Prohibiting the use of the Mobius loop for recyclability is one thing. The question is: will the universally recognised Mobius loop for recycled content survive without those circling arrows? Or are we talking about a complete redesign here?

  1. The 80% access level

ECCC firmly ties the use of the word recyclable to the consumer’s access to recycling facilities (rather than whether the materials can be technically recycled or not). And it proposes that recyclable cannot be used unless at least 80% of the population in one or more of five regions across Canada has access to public recycling facilities. The regions are Atlantic (Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick), Quebec and Nunavut, Ontario, Prairies and Northwest Territories (encompassing Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Northwest Territories), and Pacific (British Columbia and Yukon). 

The 80% access level (for plastics) is certainly higher than the current 50% level for an unqualified recyclable claim, and may discourage some greenwashing. The paper, glass and metal industries are unlikely to have a problem with the higher access number. Paper access, for example, is already in the 90s.

The 80% access level will not remove the current confusion, though, between being “recyclable” and actually being sent on for recycling. In Ontario’s Blue Box program in 2018, for example, 71% of consumers had access to the recycling of HDPE/LDPE film but less than 10% actually placed it in the Blue Box. Similar for polystyrene foam: it had 63% access but only 4% made it to the box.

  1. Reliable end-markets

ECCC proposes further conditions on recyclable claims: that materials need to be sorted into bales that can attract a reliable positive price on a North American end-market. “End-markets must be situated in North America, as it can be difficult to determine whether plastics exported to another continent are successfully recycled.”

As for “reliable,” ECCC says a “positive market value must be strong enough (i.e., high enough) to offer sustainable revenue streams to both maintain current operations and (to) invest in new technologies and systems to improve recycling outcomes over time.”

  1. Is the government planning to use real recycling rates in the future?

The document notes that only 14% of plastics packaging generated in Canada was successfully reprocessed in 2018 (taking into account a 30% residue loss: 13% in sorting and another 17% in processing). This is welcome clarity and I am all in favour of publicising real recycling rates (as opposed to the much higher so-called recycling rates trotted out by various provinces). BC’s Blue Box recycling rate, for example, is really just a collection rate. It doesn’t count the contamination, processing, and yield losses that occur after the material is collected.

Let’s encourage the feds to be upfront and tell consumers the truth: that there are significant residue and yield losses in recycling materials into new products. No more political greenwashing and grandstanding!

(See also my blog Blue Box Blues: only a third of Ontario Blue Box material makes it into a new product).