These scientists are helping BC businesses reduce plastic pollution

A team of Vancouver scientists is helping BC businesses find more sustainable packaging materials as they try to reduce environmentally harmful plastic waste.

Love-Ese Chile is co-founder of Regenerative Waste Laboratories in Vancouver, which tests plastics advertised as “compostable” to see how they actually break down.

“These materials end up in landfills or in the environment, and that’s a huge economic burden,” said the UBC chemistry graduate.

Although the company’s eight-employee team does not invent new materials, it researches and compares eco-friendly options for other companies, Chile explained.

The company’s mission is “to improve the circular economy of biobased products” and to seek ways to “manage these end-of-life materials”.

“How to better manage plastic waste?” asked Chile. “And how can we ensure that – instead of losing its value to the environment as pollution – we are able to mine these materials and feed them back into the economic system?”

Plastic waste was the subject of the United Nations Environment Assembly this week, which resulted in a binding agreement international plastics agreement.

Plastic pollution has long been a concern due to its harmful effects on marine life. (Shutterstock / Rich Carey)

A growing number of organizations in Canada are exploring how to better manage plastic waste. These include not only regenerative waste labs, but also EcoPackers, a Toronto-based company that turns green waste into compostable plastic. In British Columbia, Simon Fraser University Food Systems Laboratory also does research on bioplastics.

A McGill University lab studying bioplastics and microplastics discovered two years ago that plastic tea bags can release billions of microscopic particles.

Plastics labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable” often don’t decompose as advertised except through specific industrial processes not readily available in British Columbia, Chile said.

Truly compostable tea bags

One of the lab’s clients is Vancouver-based fair trade tea company JustTea. Premium loose leaf teas are too bulky for traditional paper bags, so premium teas now often use larger “silk” or “pyramid” plastic bags.

The tiny plastics leached out of these bags are worse than people think, said Paul Bain, Just athe self-proclaimed “tea captain”; even those made of corn-based or food-grade nylon can pollute.

So JustTea tasked the Chilean team with finding something better. They invented a tea bag derived from sugar cane.

“This new organic tea bag is actually compostable,” Bain said. “It can go through current waste systems across Canada because it can compost in three weeks.”

Another lab customer is Associated Labels and Packaging, which wanted truly eco-friendly bags, wrappers and lids. The lab performed “biodegradation tests” on everything from bioplastic cutlery to toothbrushes.

Plastic in the food chain

Plastic pollution has long been of concern to scientists due to its harmful effects on marine life.

“Ultimately, whatever gets washed down the rivers and streams ends up in the ocean,” said University of Victoria geography professor Jutta Gutberlet. “The most serious impact is actually that the plastic, over time, will be broken down into smaller pieces and then it will enter the food chain.”

She hopes the global plastic pollution treaty recently approved by the United Nations will limit new plastic manufacturing and encourage a “circular economy” to recycle all plastic, while providing fair employment for communities.

“The biggest problem is that we keep producing new plastics…and a lot of these new plastic materials aren’t recyclable or just aren’t accounted for in waste management,” Gutberlet said in an interview since. Brazil, where she research people who earn income by collecting recyclable waste.

“If they are not 100% recyclable, if there is no solution found yet, they should not be put on the market anywhere.”

Whether through new technologies or government regulations, various approaches are needed to deal with a global crisis, Chile and Gutberlet agreed. As a passionate science educator, Chile said she was inspired by the diversity of her lab team.

Having more voices at the table and behind the microscope is essential to their mission, she believes.

“The more different perspectives we have when looking at a problem, the more the solution will be fully applicable to different people in different places.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to stories of success within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(Radio Canada)

Bryce K. Locke