It's time Canadian grocers - and governments - get tough on plastics

If you need more signs that the movement against plastic is gaining traction, look no further than last month's World Petrochemical Conference. Some of the planet’s largest plastic chemical manufacturers gather in Texas every year to discuss advances in technology and industry trends. Last year’s WPC theme was about “cresting the wave” and prospering in boom time. This year, speaker after speaker discussed how looming political and environmental risks are threatening the sustainability of plastic’s “golden age.”

It doesn’t take an industry insider to tell us the plastic sector is losing its license to operate. In early April, a pregnant sperm whale was found dead off the coast of Italy with 22 kilograms of plastic in its belly. This just weeks after another dead whale was found with twice that amount of plastic in the Philippines. As the reality of waterways drowning in plastic sinks in, a growing number of cities, countries and companies are joining the worldwide revolt against the ‘miracle’ material.  And yet at a front line in the battle against throwaway plastics, most Canadian grocers have yet to take meaningful action.

Food packaging is responsible for about a third of all Canadian household waste, and just 20% of that gets recycled, according to Industry Canada. Even less if it's the plastic kind. There are no hard stats for how much plastic trash grocers alone create in Canada, but over 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging are generated by supermarkets in Britain every year. And that doesn’t include the roughly 1.1 billion plastic shopping bags and 1.2 billion clear plastic produce bags that supermarkets dish out annually.

The plastic pushback by shoppers and campaigners has been so intense across the pond that nearly every major supermarket signed onto the UK Plastics Pact last summer, promising to oust unnecessary single-use plastics by 2025 and use only reusable, compostable or recyclable packaging. British grocers are already way ahead of the curve. UK’s sixth biggest grocer, Co-op, cut plastic packaging by 44% in the last decade. Last month, Britain’s largest supermarket, Tesco, started trials to remove plastic packaging from 45 produce items in a handful of stores. The likes of apples, onions, bananas and avocados will only be sold in all-natural packaging – their very own skins and peels.

Tesco will also be purging all hard-to-recycle packaging (cling wrap, black plastic and that #3 PVC stuff) six years ahead of the Plastics Pact.  “Ideally we would like to move to a closed loop system,” said the grocer’s Chief Product Officer Jason Tarry.

A lot of closed loop talk is bandied about in this country, too. And some efforts are underway. But so far, major Canadian grocers haven't done a whole lot about it. Walk into a Loblaws, Sobeys or Metro store and endless bags of produce sit alongside pre-portioned, pre-cut fruits and veg of every variety, often Styrofoam-backed and shrink-wrapped. Grocers can rightfully argue that packaging some foods in cling wrap extends shelf life and curbs food waste – a significant greenhouse gas contributor. But do Loblaw’s “farmer’s market” cucumbers really need to come double-wrapped in two layers of shrink wrap?

One large British grocery chain has found a compromise. Last year, Morrisons opted to ditch plastic packaging from its loose English cucumbers when they can be sourced locally between March and October. Shortening the supply chain and getting fresh cucumbers from farm-to-shelves faster will save 16 million plastic sleeves a year. Said Morrisons, “While plastic can serve a purpose we believe this move will remove it from the environment without leading to food waste."


Ready-to-eat trend fuels rise in single-serve plastics

In the lead up to SIAL Canada, North America's biggest food innovation trade show (Toronto, April 30 to May 2), SIAL experts chipperly forecasted that “in 2030, ready-to-eat will be the dominant force in Canadian grocery stores, and it will take up more than 80% of retail space.” What goes unsaid is how much plastic is involved in fueling the food industry’s ready-to-eat megatrend. As Dalhousie U profs Sylvain Charlebois and Tony Walker have written, “Canada’s food industry continues to generate more waste from single-use plastic food packaging every year” in part because of the expanding single-serve economy feeding a growing population of Canadians living alone. A trend they say will increase “at alarming rates” - if left unchecked.


Canadian grocers respond  

So, what are Canadian supermarkets doing about plastics?

Despite repeated requests for comment, Empire (the conglomerate behind Sobeys, Safeway, Farm Boy, IGA, Price Chopper and Foodland) didn’t respond to inquiries about its plastic policies. Neither did the Toronto-area chain Longo’s, which also owns Grocery Gateway. 

Walmart Canada’s gone further than most major food suppliers in this country, announcing back in January that it would joining Ellen MacArthur Foundation-led commitments to use 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025 – at least for Walmart’s in-house private labels. Walmart Canada also says it’s developing design guides to help its private label suppliers “reduce unnecessary plastic packaging.”

Loblaw (No Frills, Valu Mart, Superstore, Maxi, Zehrs, Fortinos, T&T) has yet to announce any commitment to the 2025 targets that over 250 other companies have signed onto globally. A Loblaw rep said in a statement that the company is working with Canadian Stewardship Services Alliance Inc. and the Circular Economy Leadership Coalition to “promote a whole new approach to sustainable management of the use and ideally the re-use of product and packaging materials.”

Loblaw is right to call it a “huge task” and to note that the plastics challenge “requires the work of industry, government and consumers – and a system built to address the environmental, social and business opportunities and risks associated with waste.”

British grocers have, nonetheless, proven that individual supermarket chains can take the bull by the horns and eliminate plastic from thousands of products in their own stores, as has Toronto’s Organic Garage chain, which has already purged all of its bagged produce.

To its credit, Loblaw says it has reduced packaging in its private brand products by 4.9 tonnes since 2009. It’s taken some constructive steps, including using reusable produce containers to ship produce. But wander its aisles and you’ll still see plenty of unnecessary plastic (including those double-wrapped cucumbers).

Like Loblaw, Metro has yet to release an official packaging policy, but Metro’s VP of Public Affairs, Marie-Claude Bacon, says the grocer is finalizing a packaging policy to be launched in the first half of 2019. “We recognize that waste, including plastic waste, is a concern for our customers, as it is for us,” says Bacon.

In the meantime, all of its Quebec locations are, as of April, letting customers fill their own containers from home (glass containers excluded) when buying from Metro’s meat, fish, prepared foods and pastry departments. The practice is already common at indie bulk stores and zero waste stores like Unboxed in Toronto, Nada in Vancouver and Ottawa’s Nu, but large supermarkets have been resistant up until now.

Greenpeace’s plastic campaigner, Sarah King, says the move alone won’t necessarily cause a large reduction in plastic use, unless there’s a massive uptake by customers or Metro also removes single-use packaging in these departments. Still, she says, “It can help create the conditions for larger change.”

Canadian cities beat feds to the punch

The vast majority of Canadians believe the government should be doing more to tackle plastic –– 82%, according to an Angus Reid poll conducted for CBC Marketplace. So far, lower levels of government are taking the lead. Montreal, Victoria and soon PEI and Newfoundland are all outlawing plastic bags. Following in Vancouver’s footsteps, Montreal announced last week that it’s hoping to ban single-use plastics by 2020 (including Styrofoam-backed meat, fish and veg). Despite gutting other environmental regs, even Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government is considering a single-use plastic ban knowing the issue has broad support across political divides.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has promised a concrete plastic strategy is coming in June. Hopefully, the feds go beyond voluntary measures and half-baked solutions, including incinerating plastics (which disincentivizes reduction strategies) and biodegradable plastics that aren’t wanted in recycling or compost bins and, sadly, only belong in trash bins.

A federal EU style ban on a dozen single-use plastics would be a solid place to start. A coalition of nearly 50 environmental orgs, including Environmental Defence, Greenpeace and the David Suzuki Foundation, have called on the feds to ban all hard-to-recycle plastics and bring in a national 75% recycled content standard for single-use plastics, along with other measures that would help lay the foundation for a circular economy that doesn’t just trash its plastics.

Back in Texas, the plastics industry is already bracing for change. Bob Patel, CEO of LyondellBasell (one of the world’s largest plastics makers), told World Petrochemical Conference goers that the industry should prepare to sacrifice 1 to 2% of the plastic stream. “If certain single-use applications should no longer be in plastics, then let it be what it is.” Packaging consultant, Victor Bell, was less optimistic, suggesting the backlash against plastics could potentially cut growth in demand for new resin by half, as regs mandating more recycling come into force in the European Union and beyond.

If we do this right, Canadian grocers and governments can make sure this country is a leader in slashing demand for water-clogging disposables made of virgin resources. Let’s just hope they don’t let this crisis go to waste.


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