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Report on Business ‘It’s greenwashing:’ Businesses left frustrated as pricey bioplastics still end up in landfills

Nuha Siddiqui CEO and co-founder of Eco Packers Inc., shows the biodegradable plant-based beads her company uses to make food packaging.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Tractor Everyday Healthy Foods Inc. has a goal to use 100-per-cent compostable cutlery, napkins and takeaway containers at its seven restaurants in B.C. and Ontario − a decision the company hopes resonates with its environmentally conscious customer base.

But it’s also an expensive one, according to vice-president of operations Jim Nagy. Compostable items cost anywhere from 50 per cent to 200 per cent more than traditional equivalents for his restaurant to buy, he said. On top of that, Mr. Nagy doesn’t know where the compostable plastic lids that seal the plant-fibre salad containers end up after customers carry them out − since the lids need to be sent to an industrial composting facility that accepts them.

“It can easily go into a garbage bin and you lose track of the life cycle of it. We get a little bit frustrated with that on our own end,” he said.

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Many bioplastics marketed as compostable in Canada do not end up at a facility capable of composting them and could instead languish in landfills and waterways faring little better than their petroleum-based counterparts do. None of Canada’s four largest cities − Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver or Calgary − accept compostable plastics through their residential composting programs.

Plastics pollution is a global issue with dire environmental consequences. Ninety per cent of Canadians worry about it, according to a 2019 Angus Reid and CBC Marketplace poll. Dozens of countries have introduced bans or fees to reduce or eliminate the use of single-use plastic waste. Last month, Ottawa announced that it’s moving toward a single-use plastics ban.

For businesses that want to be friendlier to the environment by moving away from these products, the challenge is that pricier compostable plastics don’t always live up to their name, since final resting places that can deal with them are few and far between in Canada.

“I think it’s greenwashing,” Matt Keliher, general manager of solid-waste management services with the City of Toronto, said of plastics marketed as compostable. “It’s trying to get consumers to do what they believe is the right thing. But ultimately, that material ends up in a landfill.”

He added that business and consumers are paying more for the compostable designation, which “they’re not really getting at the end of the day.”

Bioplastics refer to items made from plant or other biological sources as opposed to fossil fuels. Thirty-four million metric tonnes of bioplastics are manufactured globally every year, representing 1 per cent of all plastic manufacturing, according to European Bioplastics, an association representing the industry.

It’s a sector MarketsandMarkets, a business research agency, pegged as worth US$6.95-billion in 2018.

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But despite their name, bioplastics aren’t necessarily biodegradable. Even though they’re made from natural materials, less than half (43 per cent) are biodegradable, according to European Bioplastics. Polylactic acid (PLA), often derived from corn or sugar cane, is a polymer used to make many compostable plastics on the market. PLA needs high heat and water at an industrial compost facility in order to be broken down.

Those conditions aren’t met at many municipal compost facilities in Canada, and if these compostable plastics end up at landfills, they could take decades to break down.

“They’re not designed for landfilling,” said Amar Mohanty, director of the Bioproducts Discovery & Development Centre at the University of Guelph. “If PLA goes to landfill, it will take 150 years to degrade."

If a customer takes a Tractor salad bowl home and throws it in their green bin in Vancouver, the PLA plastic lid gets sent to landfill. But if a customer throws it out in neighbouring Surrey, it will be accepted by the city’s municipal compost facility.

At Tractor, the compost bins inside the restaurant are picked up by a private waste hauler. Mr. Nagy said he wasn’t sure what happens after that, but assumed the compostable plastics were dealt with appropriately.

Waste Management, a hauler that serves 20 million customers all over North America that some of his restaurants use, said none of the Canadian facilities its connected to currently accept compostable plastic. The Globe and Mail contacted eight private waste haulers and all but one said they don’t have connections to facilities that deal with compostable plastics.

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Many municipal green-bin programs also refuse compostable plastics because facilities can’t tell them apart from regular plastics and they take too long to break down, Toronto’s Mr. Keliher said. “Compostable plastics are an item created to solve a problem, but they created many, many more problems."

Danimer Scientific, an American bioplastics company headquartered in Georgia, makes PLA resins it sells to manufacturers of single-use products, such as Frito-Lay. Richard Tuten, chief marketing officer, acknowledged that PLA needs an industrial compost facility in order to break down. But he believes designing bioplastics that will break down, even if only in that type of facility, is a step forward in battling pollution compared with using petroleum-based plastics.

Parisa Mehrkhodavandi, a professor at the University of British Columbia with expertise in bioplastics who has worked with PLA for the past decade, says it’s not “truly compostable,” however.

She believes PLA is useful in niche applications in agriculture. For example, farmers can use PLA clips to affix tomato plants to trellises and then compost them along with the vines at the end of the season. But she doesn’t think it should replace ubiquitous single-use plastics. “People expect science to solve everything,” Dr. Mehrkhodavandi said, adding we need to focus on reusing items instead.

Some green-tech companies who recognize this problem, though, think the next generation of bioplastics could offer better alternatives.

Nuha Siddiqui, chief executive of Toronto-based EcoPackers Inc., says she and her co-founders, a chemical engineer and a plant biologist, have developed polymers from agricultural byproducts that she says can biodegrade in the natural environment in less than three months.

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Ms. Siddiqui says her company's polymers can biodegrade in less than three months.

Glenn Lowson

“After assessing the challenges within existing municipal composting sites and the lack of proper communication to end consumers, we wanted to create a material that would be easy to dispose of no matter what,” Ms. Siddiqui said.

The company’s polymers will break down in backyard compost bins or soil, as long as moisture is present, she said. EcoPackers is doing five pilot projects with plastic manufacturers, but Ms. Siddiqui declined to name them.

Danimer is also working on a new resin that can biodegrade outside of an industrial compost facility. It’s a polymer called polyhydroxyalkaoate (PHA), extracted from fermented bacteria.

The company has created a PHA water bottle through a pilot project with Nestle, and they’ll start producing products for sale this fall. “PHA is our golden egg,” Mr. Tuten said.

Experts The Globe spoke with acknowledged that PHA can break down in appropriate soil conditions, but questioned whether the high cost of producing it is worthwhile.

“At the end of the day, should we be spending that energy on something we shouldn’t even be using at all?” Dr. Mehrkhodavandi said.

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