The need to limit plastic waste

AProgress has been made in reducing plastic packaging waste (or there is a mixture of ineffective and half-baked measures) across the world. In the United States, depending on the region, plastic bags are banned in several states. In Canada, a federal initiative has targeted single-use plastics. At the municipal level, in 2018, Montreal and Vancouver banned the use of certain single-use plastics.

CPG food companies have their own motivations. For example, Haagen-Daz developed a reusable aluminum container to run a test pilot. Innovation is emerging everywhere. In March 2021, food browser reported how US company MiTerro has developed a patent-pending technology that creates biomaterial from agricultural waste.

A study by Walker et al 2021 in Communications in the humanities and social sciences draws attention to single-use plastic packaging in the Canadian food industry. The authors note that since the mid-20and century, plastic production has doubled every decade, and nearly 7 billion metric tons of plastic waste has ended up in landfills, seeping into groundwater and waterways, and impacting marine, terrestrial ecosystems and aquatic. The convenience of low-cost food packaging has led single-use plastics to dominate decades of product design. Since the 1950s, approximately 40% of the plastic produced worldwide has been designed for single use, discarded shortly after use. Food industry experts, business leaders, politicians, activists and economists are reframing the equation to view this massive waste as a lost economic opportunity. According to the World Economic Forum, in 2016, 95% of the value of plastic packaging, worth $80-120 billion per year, is lost to the economy. According to a 2019 Deloitte study, plastics is big business, contributing C$35 billion in sales annually. The criticism presented by the industry is that Canada does not currently have sufficient infrastructure to manage the recycling of plastic waste. When it comes to packaging, an important question for CPGs is: will people actually pay the costs associated with sustainable packaging? According to food browserSupply chain transparency will dominate the post-pandemic food scene, and consumers are looking for brands they can trust.

Consumer Perceptions

In 2019, the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax conducted a survey of over 1,000 Canadians to better understand consumer perceptions of the single-use plastic dilemma. The results suggest that younger people are more aware of plastic waste than older generations, but most Canadians are unwilling to pay more than 2.5% for single-use plastic solutions at retail. The study indicates the favor of government partnerships and the use of new green packaging. Three-quarters of respondents agreed that media education and pressure from industry would create the conditions for waste reduction. Additionally, Walker et al in 2021 add that consumers play an important role in market adoption of alternatives as they are the decision makers in purchasing packaging products. The solution is not easy. Canadians have come to expect selection, variety, safety, shelf life and affordability in their food packaging. In part, experts need to chart a course for plastic waste management of recyclable, biodegradable and compostable options that hold industry accountable for the materials used.

Extended Producer Responsibility

By 2018, more than 125 countries had created regulations on packaging types. What is emerging are policy tools that require us to manage packaging with the manufacturers themselves. Called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), this allows producers of consumer goods to think holistically about the after-use of packaging. The catch is that there are implications in terms of coordination, infrastructure and logistics. EPR requires rethinking packaging systems with technical, operational and practical standards. For CPGs that aspire to greater sustainability and less waste, there are a range of supply chain implications. Meanwhile, political and regulatory pressure is unlikely to ease as the circular economy gains momentum.

In June 2021, the Ontario government introduced plans to transfer management of its blue box recycling program to industry, essentially bringing EPR to Canada’s most populous province. While Ontario had set lofty plastic waste recycling targets in principle, short-term targets have been reduced. The province has held consultations with businesses on achievable targets, but critics, such as the Toronto Environmental Alliance, have noted that the plans have been watered down due to industry pressure. In Ontario, industry covers about 50% of recycling program costs, and landfill diversion rates have stagnated at about 60% for the past decade and a half, and up to one-third of waste plastics are sent to landfills.

According to a report published in the Globe and Mail by Jeff Gray and Kathryn Blaz-Baum, Ontario’s current government says a new industry-led system could save the province and municipalities $150 million a year. The new provincial REP program remains unclear, with packaging producers, product manufacturers and retailers having to put systems in place to fund and manage the program.

Speaking on behalf of the Circular Innovation Council, its executive director, Jo-Anne St. Goddard, expressed concern that “for the next five years [to 2026]we don’t have goals to achieve and, doubly worrying, we offer goals that don’t really have meaningful levels of improvement”.

By offering food products in reusable containers, Loblaws and Loop are taking steps to reduce food packaging waste in Canada. Photo courtesy TerraCycle


It is obvious that private brands are multiplying initiatives to fight against plastic waste. In February 2021, TerraCycle launched the Loop program in Canada with lead partner Loblaws. Customers will have groceries delivered in reusable containers, paying a refundable container deposit and $25 fee (waived if order is over $50). Customers place items in a Loop bag and a pickup is arranged. Burger King and Tim Hortons plan to have similar initiatives and pilots with Loop in the near future. Alternatively, others in the packaging industry are focusing on materials made entirely from plants, and often fully recyclable. Dutch company Avantium is on track to bring PEF to market by the end of 2023, a plastic that uses 100% plant-based biopolyesters. PEF can replace materials such as PET, glass or aluminum in food grade containers. Avantium has partnered with Carlsberg Brewery to produce the first paper beer bottle and reduce the carbon footprint of its value chain by 30% by the end of the decade.

From an industry perspective, there are no easy answers. A positive industry-wide partnership formed the Canadian Plastics Pact in 2021 with the goal of keeping plastics out of the environment and economy. With signatories including some of Canada’s largest private companies, foundations and environmental associations, the Pact has created a multi-stakeholder, industry-led, cross-value chain collaboration to directly address plastic waste and pollution. These types of partnerships provide coordination, logistics, and resources at the scale required that goes beyond one jurisdiction, consumer, or business. We must closely monitor and participate in these efforts.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2022 issue of Food in Canada.

Bryce K. Locke