Challenge Question 7.1 :  Is the packaging considered recyclable in Canada?


Background: Why is Considering Packaging Waste Important?

It’s well documented thata low amount of plastic packaging gets recycled (about 15%), with most of the remainder ending up as “managed” waste in landfill.   Recycled is defined as plastic packaging that is reprocessed into products, packaging, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes, excluding energy recovery. The recycling rate is materials recycled as a percentage of materials generated. (ref: CPP Baseline Report)

The majority of a package’s environmental burden (GHGs, water use etc.) is upstream in its life cycle, with a comparatively very small burden linked to end-of-life waste management.  This underscores the importance of adopting a full life-cycle approach when considering sustainable options, including upstream options such as elimination, reduction and reuse.

With this in mind, recyclability (and actual recycling) should certainly still be considered when optimizing package sustainability (single-use or reusable).

Improving the recyclability of certain packaging is important because it improves the potential to capture valuable materials, and recycle them into new products, while not creating unintended environmental consequences. 

We underline “certain”, because important efforts, like the Golden Design Rules [see below], aim to streamline and harmonize preferred packaging materials and compositions.

We underline “potential” because factors beyond recyclability affect the quantity and quality of material that actually gets recycled. Factors such as:

The guides identify promising work in these areas, but focus on design for packaging recyclability – where producers and manufacturers have the most control.

Regional Differences in Recycling

Most plastic packaging is considered recyclable across Canada, and municipal exceptions are gradually disappearing as more provincially-based EPR programs are introduced.  For example, all BC municipalities accept all plastics.

If you are unsure of the recyclability of your packaging in a select region, check with:

  1. Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) – if you have one;
  2. Largest municipality(ies) in your market
  3. Organization with relevant expertise (e.g., Recycling Partnership in US, Provincial Recycling Councils in Canada, PAC Global).
  4. Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) Design Guide which helps package designers measure each aspect of a package design against industry accepted criteria to ensure that it is truly recycling compatible.

Even though a sustainably designed plastic package may have very low recycling rates today, don’t let the lack of current collection, sortation, recycling infrastructure and/or end markets deter you from implementing the package design.  A packaging designed for recyclability increases the likelihood of it eventually being recycled once critical scale is achieved and the collection, sortation and recycling technologies/infrastructure are established.     

Even if your package is considered recyclable, there are likely useful changes you can make to improve the quality and quantity of recycled material.  Assess this by following either the APR Guide and/or one or more of the Golden Design Rules.

Extended Producer Responsibility

Increased adoption, enforcement and harmonization of EPR programs will also drive what is considered recyclable — by increasing access to recycling services for certain packaging types, increasing what municipalities accept, collect and sort, and increasing labelling effectiveness. Understanding and meeting these new regulations is the role of Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs). EPR changes in Canada include Ontario’s Blue Box Transition, and Quebec’s Modernization of Curbside Recycling.   Starting in 2026 in Ontario, and 2027 in Quebec, all plastic packaging will be collected for recycling, without exception.  In Ontario PROs will be expected to meet mandatory recycling rates.   Meeting these targets will require innovation in both mechanical and advanced recycling. For example, work is underway to identify advanced recycling options for plastic films.  [link to section