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While novel recycling technology is key to reducing plastic waste, so is cutting down the use of plastics in food packaging, seen above at the North Vancouver depot in 2019.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

After several decades of steadily increasing our diet of single-use plastic, the world finds itself now drowning in waste that chokes waterways, sits in landfills and is ingested by wildlife. The federal government has pledged to ban several single-use plastics by the end of this year and many Canadian companies are undertaking their own efforts to reduce plastic use.

The rising popularity of “green” investments has provided a financial incentive for this shift and surveys show that investors increasingly favour companies that try to balance financial success with environmental responsibility. A 2019 Responsible Investment Association survey shows 82 per cent of respondents believe that companies in their portfolios should be reducing plastic waste.

“In the early days, it was more difficult to raise money as plastic waste was not a well-known issue as it is today,” says Virginie Bussieres, vice-president of communications at Pyrowave, a Montreal-based polystyrene recycler. “Nowadays, we have the opportunity to have the support of public and private investors.”

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Pyrowave is one of several small Canadian companies introducing new plastic recycling approaches. Its innovation is a microwave technology that breaks down polystyrene into base elements that can be recycled into other plastics or back into new polystyrene, using far less energy than it takes to produce virgin polystyrene from crude oil.

Polystyrene – used in food packaging as well as in other industries – is difficult to recycle: Its low density and bulkiness make it impractical for many recycling programs. Traditional recycling methods convert it into hard plastic, meaning it can only be recycled once.

“[The technology] brings back the full value of plastics and allows us to reuse them in the production loop for new packaging or products,” Ms. Bussieres says. Along with new polystyrene, the recycled plastic can be used for tires, packaging and products for the construction and pharmaceutical industries, she adds.

The company received a shot in the arm in November when it inked a €20-million ($30.4-million) agreement with French tire-maker Michelin to industrialize the technology and roll it out in international markets.

Brantford, Ont.-based GreenMantra Technologies is another small Canadian company pushing new recycling processes with an approach that transforms recycled plastics into higher-value waxes and specialty plastics for industrial applications.

“Our technology modifies the structure of the plastic molecule so the properties of our products can be tailored to ensure compatibility with different applications,” says Domenic Di Mondo, GreenMantra’s vice-president of technology and business development.

The company takes in recycled bottles, plastic bags, films, carpet backing and polystyrene – and last year received a $1-million grant from the federal government to transform polystyrene insulation waste into new insulation.

How large grocers are cutting plastic

While novel recycling technology is key to reducing waste, so is cutting down the use of plastics in food packaging, and large grocers over the past few years have started taking steps to reduce their plastic use. Sobeys, for instance, says it removes 225 million grocery bags from circulation each year at its main stores and is planning to remove bags at its other banners, which include IGA and Safeway.

“If we want large-scale adoption of this kind of system change we’re going to need big companies to take some risks and lead the way.”

— Laura Yates, an ocean and plastics campaigner at Greenpeace Canada.

With their massive customer base and supply chain connections, large grocers flex a lot of muscle in the consumer plastics industry and have the ability to affect long-term reductions in use, says Laura Yates, an ocean and plastics campaigner at Greenpeace Canada.

“If we want large-scale adoption of this kind of system change, we’re going to need big companies to take some risks and lead the way,” she says.

While reducing plastic bags use is important, it’s also a fairly easy move for grocers, Ms. Yates says. More challenging is reducing plastic waste in food packaging and not simply trading single-use plastic for single-use paper, which substitutes one form of waste for another.

She pointed to Loblaw, which has been part of a pilot with waste management company TerraCycle to explore selling certain items in reusable containers, and on Feb. 1 announced the rollout of several products that will be sold in refillable packaging, including ice cream, sauces, snacks, pet food and toothpaste.

While the initiative is a good step, Ms. Yates says, further progress should include ensuring products in reusable containers are priced the same as they are in disposable containers and ultimately replace them.

Ms. Yates added that investing in more recycling won’t solve the plastic pollution crisis. Instead, companies need to invest in reuse models to cut their reliance on plastic packaging and stop the problem at the source.

”There’s not really any scenario where continuing to use disposable packaging is going to work out well,” she said.

Niche plastic reduction projects

While there are many new players and recent converts to plastics reduction, others have been establishing a niche in the area ahead of the recent surge in investor demand.

Electronics giant HP Inc. has been recycling plastic from its discarded printer cartridges for decades. Still, for much of that time, the recycled plastic was too low-quality to be used to make new cartridges. It took a partnership with Montreal-based plastics company Lavergne Group in 2007 to change that.

The company is now able to recycle spent cartridges into new ones, and supplements its recycled plastic supply (customers often don’t return spent cartridges) with used water bottles and plastic clothing hangars.

“We’re taking other plastics that would have ended up in oceans, landfills forever and we’re putting them back in the circular plastics,” says Frances Edmonds, head of sustainable impact at HP Canada.

While virgin plastic has been extraordinarily cheap as of late owing to low oil prices, Ms. Edmonds says the steady costs of the recycling process means HP is protected against price instability if oil prices spike. The company, which also used recycled materials in other product lines, also draws in new business owing to its sustainability work, Ms. Edmonds says.

“We’ve set a goal to include 30 per cent postconsumer recycled plastics across our entire product portfolio by 2025 and that’s very aggressive.”