Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.
Tony Walker is an assistant professor at the School for Resource and Environmental Studies Dalhousie University.
An increasing number of people are voicing concerns about the use of plastics in our daily lives. Single-use plastics of any kind, such as grocery bags, cutlery, straws, polystyrene and coffee cups, are significant yet preventable sources of plastic land-based and marine pollution. In Canada, bans on plastics have so far been left up to municipalities, some of which are taking action. Both Montreal and Victoria have recently decided to ban plastic bags in stores, with business owners subject to huge fines if caught providing these to customers. Other jurisdictions, such as the city of Halifax and the province of Nova Scotia, are contemplating similar bans, in the wake of China’s recent ban on the import of certain recyclable products. Although regulations are cropping up in only certain places, increasing public awareness appears to be gaining widespread momentum globally and across Canada.
National and regional plastic-bag bans have been successfully implemented widely internationally: in Asia, Europe, Australia and North America. But plastic bags are not the only single-use plastic items being targeted – polystyrene is on the hit list as well. Food businesses in Washington and San Francisco will no longer be able to use containers or other foodservice products made of polystyrene. In Maine, the Brunswick Town Council voted unanimously to ban polystyrene food containers. All retailers, restaurants and vendors are prohibited from using polystyrene foam packaging, including take-out containers, meat trays and egg cartons. While the movement toward single-use plastic bans is significant, not everyone is convinced of their effectiveness.
In Canada, some players are taking their own steps to reduce plastic use, regardless of government policy. In 2009, Loblaws, Canada’s largest grocer, implemented a seemingly insignificant 5-cent charge on plastic grocery bags. This unassuming action has reportedly diverted 11 billion plastic bags from our landfills and oceans over the last nine years. In February, 2016, Walmart Canada followed suit and began charging customers a 5-cent fee for all shopping bags across all Walmart stores in Canada. Public sentiment on climate change and environmental stewardship has changed significantly over just the last few years, as more Canadians are expecting industry to act. But some still have reservations.
Some have claimed that plastic bags serve an important food-safety function and protect the public from harmful bacteria, outbreaks and food-borne illnesses. A University of Arizona study in microbiology suggested that the combination of reusable grocery bags and food can be harmful to many. According to the study, coliform bacteria and Escherichia coli (E. coli) were found in half of the reusable grocery bags sampled. The Mercatus Center in the U.S. claimed that discouraging the use of single-use plastic bags is almost pointless, given the insignificant variance in carbon footprint between bagging alternatives, including paper bags. And data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggest that only 0.28 per cent of all the garbage generated by municipalities, by weight, comes from plastic bags. These groups believe that banning the use of plastic bags is more about appearances and idealism than about protecting the environment.
Clearly, the ban of plastic bags is a divisive issue. The resistance is real, and several cities have been hesitant to move forward on legislation, and some plastic-bag legislation has even been rescinded. Toronto once had a 5-cent levy for plastic bags and an outright ban on plastic bags was sought in 2012, but such a ban was rejected by the City Council in 2013. Plastic bags are a convenience, and habits are hard to break. What could potentially be an inconvenience to food shoppers can, and in some cases has, become a political nightmare to those in public office.
But the problem will not go away, as the planet is currently drowning in plastic pollution. A study led by the Five Gyres Institute in Los Angeles estimates that at least 5.25 trillion plastic particles – totalling 268,940 tonnes – are currently floating in our oceans. Most of us cannot see the problem, but it is out there. While some trash skimmers, capable of removing floating debris in marinas and harbours achieve modest success, a global cleanup is next to impossible. The situation is being made worse by countries like Canada, whose food industry continues to generate more waste from single-use plastic food packaging every year. Given that 26 per cent of all households in Canada consist of only one person, and the number of Canadians living alone is going to continue to grow, the single-serve economy will expand as well, especially in food. This means that the use of single-use plastic packaging and containers could increase at alarming rates.
Banning plastics is one swift way to deal with the issue, and offer a temporary path to more impactful, sustainable strategies. The use of bioplastics may be the future and could be a convenient solution for all concerned. More and more different feedstocks can be used to manufacture bioplastics. Algae and shrimp shells are some examples. On the issue of single-use coffee pods, an increasing number of them sold in Canada are indeed compostable. Recently, a Dutch supermarket chain opened the world’s first plastic-free food store. This project was only made possible by using innovative solutions to plastic packaging. You will find only biodegradable flexible bioplastic packaging and bags in the store. So technically, everything sold there – everything – could be eaten.
The challenge with these alternatives, of course, is the cost. Price points for such bioplastics solutions are more than twice those of regular products. But given how rapidly the narrative around climate change is shifting, the “green” premium is increasingly worthy of consideration by industry. Once supply chains mature and become more developed to allow more access to affordable feedstocks, production costs and end prices for bioplastics will likely drop as well.
The notion of reduce, reuse, recycle has been preached for years now. Outright bans fit well within such a paradigm. But the concept of replacing single-use plastics requires the achievement of a revolution in consumer mentality. As such, a much more interesting challenge is that of keeping grocery shopping from becoming either a burden on the environment or an inconvenience to customers.