Future Shock

How the changing mix of packaging materials will impact curbside recycling programs

By: Maria Kelleher
Solid Waste Magazine 2011-06-01

The City of Toronto hired Kelleher Environmental (in association with Robins Environmental and Love Environment) to carry out a high-level study of lifestyle and packaging design change impacts on blue box material composition, and how this might be expected to change over the next ten years.

The Toronto Future Blue Bin Study was completed in 2010 and included research on future lifestyles and packaging trends that might impact the packaging material mix and amount generated as recyclables per household. It also carried out “packaging audits” to develop a snapshot in time of the packaging used in typical purchases, and developed projections of blue box tonnages and composition by material.

Future lifestyles

Predicting the future is challenging. Ten years ago, who would have imagined the impact and ubiquity of things like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, with everyone using laptops and smart phones. All we can say with certainty these days is that life is changing, and will continue to change. The future is not just faster computers, high-tech cars, smarter homes and more TV channels; it will be different in ways we cannot imagine. A large body of work by futurists was reviewed for the study, and some trends were identified that could be worked with.

The first and very significant impact on lifestyles related to the internet and how it has changed what we buy and how we buy it, what we read and how we get news, etc.

One impact from this will be the consumption of less newsprint in the future. The younger demographic eschews traditional hard copy broadsheet newspapers and gets most of its news online. The declining demand for newsprint in North America will continue. This may be somewhat offset by increasing demand for newsprint in overseas markets, particularly in India and China. Nonetheless, the impact on curbside recycling programs is that there will be less old newspaper (ONP).

This presents challenges on a number of fronts.

Newsprint: As the newsprint portion in the paper fibre stream decreases it becomes harder to clean up the newsprint stream to a quality that mills find acceptable. (One source interviewed for the study quoted the paper fibre stream as shifting from 55 per cent newsprint and 45 per cent other fibre, to 45 per cent newsprint and 55 per cent other fibre). While most of the quality challenges are blamed on the arrival of single-stream recycling systems, even two-stream systems face challenges in meeting newsprint quality standards.

Directories: Another internet impact is lower printed telephone directory distribution. Many people find telephone numbers on the internet or via their smart phones, so use of the white and yellow pages has decreased. This has lead to the elimination of annual distribution of telephone directories in Toronto, reducing fibre in the blue box by over 3,000 tonnes per year.

Printers: With more people working from home, and every home having at least one printer (which was not the case a few years ago), the amounts of fine paper in the blue box or bin should increase. Impacts have not been recorded yet, but some MRF operators report increases in shredded paper which is a problem at their MRFs.

Shopping: Increased internet shopping will lead to more delivery of products (e.g., books, clothes) to the home in cardboard boxes. In the past, such items purchased at a retail outlet might have been placed in a plastic or paper bag. MRF operators interviewed for the study have noticed an increase in OCC (old corrugated cardboard) in the blue box programs; this explanation makes sense to them. More food is purchased through the internet and as the population ages, people will take more advantage of this convenient service. The packaging formats used for delivery of food orders to households is changing to reusable formats so over time this trend may not impact on recycled materials and programs. However, re-sealable stand up pouches are now a popular package for many products including dried fruit, cereal etc. and this will impact programs.

Changing families: The traditional two-parent two-child family is changing to “blended” (and smaller) households. There are also more one-person households. Lifestyles are changing; many families do not sit down to a traditional dinner together. Hence, more take-away food is being purchased, and the sales of prepared meals (in thermoform PET plastic packaging) is increasing. There are many new immigrants in Canada leading to a large variety of food in many different packaging formats. PET is frequently used for packaging of fruit, salads, etc. These containers are not accepted in most recycling programs, but efforts are being made to develop recycling markets.


The consultants concluded the following:

  • The amounts of fibre and containers will change over time, with the amount of plastics increasing and the amount of paper decreasing.
  • A 15 per cent reduction in the weight per household of printed paper and packaging in the blue box/bin was projected (as a most likely scenario) over the next ten years, made up of: 18 per cent reduction in paper (kg/hh); 17 per cent increase in plastic (kg/hh); metals would remain about the same; a 50 per cent reduction in glass (kg/hh) as packaging moves from glass to aluminum and plastic, which is lighter.