With the recent release of their much-anticipated Phase I White Paper titled Rethinking plastic packaging recycling: Solutions towards increased circularity in Quebec and Canada, the Circular Plastic Taskforce (CPT) / Groupe d'action plastiques circulaires (GAPC) have taken an important step in helping Quebec and Canada realize a circular economy for plastics.
We took some time to sit down with two of the main figures behind the project, Stephen Tramley and Charles David Mathieu-Poulin, to discuss how the project came together, learn about the initial findings, and find out more about plans for Phase II and III of the project.
How did this project initially come together?
Charles David – The project started three years ago when a lot of our companies decided to make commitments to get recycled content products into market. A lot of companies set targets for 2025 and started on their own to look for post-consumer recycled resin (PCR) to help reach their commitments. We all realized we had a similar issue, and that was finding recycled resins on the market that would meet our volume and quality needs, especially when we wanted them to be local which was a goal, we all had.
So back in the day when we would see each other in person at sustainability events, we would chat about it and realized we all had the same problem, even though we were working with very different resins and very different types of packaging. We decided then it was better to get together than do it on our own.
So that’s how we got together; common goal, common problem and a feeling that we can do better by collaborating.
Of course, other stakeholders other than companies are involved (the CIAC as an example), but some governments have also shown support. Can you speak to that?
Charles David - It took about a year of discussions and planning to turn our common objective into an actual project. We knew we needed to map the supply chain in Quebec, perform interviews, and run simulations tests, so we built a project that had clear goals, timelines and budget and called it Phase I. We went to multiple governmental entities including Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to get funding for the project. ECCC liked our vision and how it was in line with their own work around plastics, so they funded the majority of Phase I, which meant we could get going rapidly. It was definitely good to have their support and that they feel our work is valuable, and I think it gave a lot of credibility to our initiative that we got funding from them.
Éco Entreprises Québec (EEQ), which is the PRO of the Quebec EPR program, and our six founding members (Cascades, Danone Canada, Dyne-a-pak, Keurig Dr Pepper Canada, TC Transcontinental and the CIAC) also put forward some funding for Phase I.
Did the current COVID-19 pandemic affect or delay the project?
Stephen – For Phase I, we did have an initial plan where we had set timelines and goals to meet. And since it was an action plan and not just a study, we needed to get into plants physically. We were working with sorting centres, recyclers and finished product manufacturers and were physically doing tests on operations, so yes COVID did come into play. It was difficult at times to get into these locations; it was maybe 2 or 3 months where the pandemic really had an effect, so I guess that pushed us back a season on getting results compared to what our initial plan was.
This is clearly a large project with many moving parts. How did you structure the project to set yourselves up for success?
Stephen – With this project we wanted to be a little bit different compared to some of the studies that have been done or are being done. We wanted to be a team of action – it’s a taskforce which is reflected in the group’s names in both French and English.
We came up with a sort of mantra which is our “reverse engineering approach”. With that we wanted to determine what is needed and required for finished products and end markets. Our directors are from industry, and what was important not just for our companies but also for the entire market is that a high-quality level of recycled plastics was needed to be able to incorporate it into finished goods.
With that level of quality that is required, we got back to the recyclers and see how they are going to be able to obtain these types of specifications, and from there with the feedback from the recyclers, we can look at what will be required at the sorting centres. While a lot of studies look at sorting centres and what they’re capable of, we wanted to look at what is required to obtain the highest possible recovery rate as well as the level of quality to get to the finished market.
With Phase I now complete, have there been surprises in your initial findings?
Charles David – I think the main findings were not surprising, and I think it’s good that they were documented and there was a real process behind it. On a lot of industry calls, people ask: “Is supply the problem or is it demand?”. Our answer is that they don’t align. It’s not that that there’s no supply or no demand, they simply don’t match and that was our hypothesis from the start.
I’d say my biggest surprise, which was a positive surprise, is how unifying our project ended up being in Quebec. How everyone got so excited, from supply chain to governments and associations, and that people were now looking at this in a more systemic way rather than individual pieces.
Stephen – I would agree with that. Streamlining communication from the end markets all the way through to the sorting centers is very important and an area that we saw success.
With the completion of Phase I and plans to move forward with Phase II and III, are you expecting more companies and stakeholders to come on board?
Charles David – Definitely, that’s what makes our project different. We’re all around the table, we’re all working hard and we want stuff to happen quickly. I think that’s a strength of our project is that we went quick and we had some actual work that happened right on the shop floor. But we need more players, we need recyclers, we need markets. The pilot projects for Phase II and III will probably be even more specific than Phase I. The goal of Phase III is to move outside of Quebec, but we are also open to having even some Phase II projects being done outside of Quebec.
Stephen – With the way it’s setup, Phase II will have separate and different projects touching different waste streams. Let’s say there is someone interested in plastic film and not so much the rigid side of the value chain, we have specific projects that they can become involved in. There’s a lot of variety, we’re touching on mixed plastics, polypropylene, polystyrene, as well as films, so there is a lot of possibilities out there for different parts of the plastics industry to get involved in.