From single- to no-use: plastics and the food industry
Updated: Aug 12, 2019
It seems the Canadian government is committing to a world-wide trend lend by consumers to reduce plastic waste.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent announcement to ban harmful single-use plastics should come as no surprise as a global movement to reduce plastic waste kicks into high gear. However, some may be caught unawares all the same. Those who have failed to adopt reduction, reuse and recycling initiatives so far may struggle under this new policy push.
Some of the largest plastics customers are restaurants and grocery stores. It will be interesting to see how they adapt under this new legislation.
The list of banned items has yet to be announced but we’re told it will be grounded in scientific evidence and will closely mirror actions taken by the European Union. Some examples of items likely to be banned include plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates and stir sticks.
Additional steps have been outlined to support innovation, promote the use of affordable and safe alternatives, and reduce pollution from plastic products and packaging. Under this new legislation, responsibility for appropriate recycling will fall on the plastic industry.
This newest policy builds on several other Canadian initiatives including the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment’s action plan to implement the Canada-wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste and the Oceans Plastic Charter (OCP).
The OCP was launched in 2018 as a global initiative to demonstrate commitment to take concrete and ambitious actions to address the global marine plastic litter problem. This was meant to lay the groundwork to ensure plastics are designed for reuse and recycling. Partners now include 21 countries and 63 businesses and organizations.
The pollution caused by plastic waste is one many of us are familiar with. The topic recalls shocking stories of marine life washed up with various plastic products found throughout their digestive systems as they commonly mistake plastic for food. Beyond hurting marine life, improperly disposed of plastic products also end up in landfills and incinerators, litter parks and beaches and pollute waterways.
Complicating matters further is the fact that about one-third of plastic products used in Canada are for single-use products. Despite having a relatively short functional life-span (often as short as 10 seconds - think of a coffee stir stick), these plastic products can take hundreds of years to fully decompose.
A report released earlier this year found that in 2016, only 9% of plastic waste was recycled with 87% ending up in landfills.
This is a shocking statistic – much lower than I had expected. Perhaps my own biases come into play here. I recycle where possible and witness my neighbours, colleagues and friends doing the same. However, this small sample size is unlikely to be representative and what's more, there is only so much consumers can do to facilitate the recycling of these products.
Waste management practices vary significantly across the country. Inconsistency in rules and sorting procedures can result in wide-spread confusion and inefficient recycling practices.
Furthermore, appropriate incentives and infrastructure are lacking to effectively recycle plastic materials. This can cause significant end-of-life management issues.
The Food-Service Industry
Single-use plastics have a long history with the food-service industry. They are relatively inexpensive, durable and hygienic making them ideal for a range of dining situations including take-out, serving and delivery. Single-use items can be found throughout restaurants from packaging and shipping materials to serving implements like cutlery, plates and straws.
Known for their tight margins and steep competition, it has always been important for restaurants to keep one step ahead of ongoing policy changes in order to ensure business sustainability and longevity. In the past, failing to implement pro-active changes prior to the point of mandating change can result in heavy fines and may compromise a business’ ability to operate at all.
This ban on single-use plastic is unlikely to be any different. Restaurants who have not already begun thinking about reducing their plastic use may fall behind as this new legislation spreads across the country. For more information on how to reduce single-use items in the foodservice industry please visit the University of Guelph Sustainable Restaurant project website.
Grocery stores, often big perpetrators of plastic waste, will also have to adapt.
Some large retailers have joined the movement already and are launching recycling efforts. For example, Loblaws has said it is looking for solutions to reduce plastic waste by reducing plastic check-out bags, increasing recyclable packaging and eliminating synthetic microbeads in its private label products.
The most familiar of these initiatives is the 5-10 cents charged at checkout for plastic bags. Reusable bags are a great alternative – if you remember them. Upon the (more frequent than I care to admit) occasion where I do forget my bags, I engage in an awkward balancing act where I try to stack my groceries in my arms, stashing boxes and produce in my purse and pockets.
One particular grocery store in Vancouver is trying a different approach. Grocery store owner David Lee Kwen customized his store's plastic bags with embarrassing messages on them like "Wart Ointment Wholesale" or "Weird Adult Video Emporium". The impact of these bags is two-fold; it discourages the use of plastic bags while starting a conversation about plastic consumption habits.
However, we must remember that these plastic products do often serve a purpose. Although most unanimously agree that plastic waste is unacceptable, the Canadian plastics industry has suggested that lightweight, cost-efficient products that extend the shelf-life of produce and support food safety are somewhat necessary.
This is where it can become difficult to respond to consumer demand; when consumers don’t know all of the facts. For example, the extent to which the product they are protesting against actually protects them.
It is also important to consider the potential costs associated with moving away from plastic materials. The ban suggests that it will be up to plastic companies to take responsibility for the plastics they’re manufacturing. If food manufacturers are forced to stop using plastic, a relatively inexpensive material, prices of food products still requiring some packaging could go up. These costs are likely to be placed on the consumer.
Another interesting effort to watch for in the coming months is an initative to launch reusable packaging. Earlier this year we saw many headlines about Loop, a company making reusable packaging for food products and household items like detergent and shampoo.
The plan is for a major retailer in the Toronto area to launch a test of the reusable packaging sometime late this year. Residents within a 200-300 km radius will be able to purchase a variety of products in reusable packaging. This will be available online only at first, then in-store a couple of months later. Similar to the old milkman delivery system from the 1950’s, customers will be charged a deposit on the container that will be refunded once it is returned.
This is one potential solution, but certainly not the only one.
Ultimately, there is no one answer to this complex environmental challenge and many solutions will be needed in order to effectively and holistically address it. However, it is encouraging to see the Canadian Government taking action on such an important issue.
Recommended citation format: Gallant, M. “From single- to no-use: plastics and the food industry”. Food Focus Guelph (35), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, June 17th, 2019.