Adapting to Canada's Single-Use Plastic Ban in the Food Service Industry



Have you ever look in your trash can or blue bin and counted all the single-use plastic? I have. And trust me, it’s a lot. Most of my single-use plastic waste comes from take-out containers, food containers, and plastic bags. The entire food service industry relies heavily on single-use plastic items for their low-cost, durability, and the convenience of disposal. All the environmental impacts can be overlooked for the luxury of convenience… but not for long. The government of Canada has announced a single-use plastic ban that will affect common single-use plastic items. Here is what we can expect from the new ban.


The ban was announced by Justin Trudeau on October 7th and the government will be accepting recommendations by Canadians and stakeholders in industry until December 9th, 2020. Despite having recycling programs in Canada, only 9% of plastic actually gets recycled. Polystyrene, for instance, is widely used in take-out containers and packaging, and is considered to be non-recyclable in most municipalities. The government has set out the plastic ban to address this issue. This low recycling rate will likely get worse as China and other countries have begun banning imports of recycled plastic due to contamination issues. The Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson said that “every year, Canadians throw away about three million tonnes of plastic – the equivalent of 570 garbage bags full of plastic every minute, every day.” Single-use plastics contribute to a number of environmental problems; most of the plastic litter found in our lakes, and rivers is single-use plastics. A well implemented ban could help solve many problems facing our environment today.



Plastic grocery bag, included on the list of banned single-use plastic

Plastic grocery bag, included on the list of banned single-use plastic

(Christopher Vega, Unsplash)



What's included in the ban

The government has included grocery bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and hard-to-recycle plastics into the plastic ban. Examples of these hard to recycle plastics include foamed plastic, black plastic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), oxo-degradable plastic, and composite materials containing at least one type of plastic. These plastics are considered to be non-recyclable by most municipalities. While the timeline of the single-use plastic ban is still unclear, the government is working with provincial governments to implement the ban and finalize the regulations by the end of 2021. This ban is part of the Government of Canada’s long-term plan to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. It is expected that the list of banned plastics will be expanded in the future to include a number of other single-use plastic products. Canadians should be proactively seeking alternatives to single-use plastics to prepare for future bans. The plastic ban is in the public consultation phase until December 9th. All Canadians are welcome to share their input on topics such as single-use plastic categorization to the Director of the Plastics and Marine Litter Division of Environment and Climate Change Canada via ec.plastiques-plastics.ec@canada.ca. It is important to let the government know what you think about the ban.


Canada is not alone on this ban, the government has announced that they will work closely with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, focusing on the transition of the plastic economy into a circular economy model. Read more about the environmental and economic benefits of a circular economy in our previous blog. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation places emphasis on innovating new materials and business models to reuse, and recycle. The government of Canada holds a strong belief that a circular economy system for plastics will help businesses use resources and capital assets more efficiently, create new revenue streams through improved value recovery and markets for new technologies and materials, and support the transition to a low-carbon economy. Under the principles of the circular economy, no plastics should leave the cycle and pollute our environment. There is a huge emphasis on reuse and recycling in the new plastics economy and Canada has a vision to achieve the following:

  • Support efforts towards 100% of plastic packaging being designed to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025

  • Undertake ambitious actions to ensure that at least 50% of plastic packaging is effectively recycled or composted by 2025

  • Ensure an average of at least 30% recycled content across all plastic packaging (by weight) by 2025

The government can't eliminate single-use waste on its own, government leaders are relying on key stakeholders in the plastic industry to innovate and develop new solutions to decrease plastic waste. The government also hopes that the recycling industry can implement systemic changes by recycling all plastics effectively and efficiently to provide high-quality recyclable plastics for new and innovative products. Of course, the government also relies on all Canadians to do their part by properly sorting their plastic waste.



What we can expect

While a plastic ban is a brand new concept for Canada, it's been done many times around the world. In fact, in 2019, 170 countries pledged to significantly reduce their plastic use by 2030. Each country has taken their own approach. China was one of the first countries to ban thin plastic bags. Their first attempt was unsuccessful due to the lack of enforcement in local areas. They have since reviewed this plan and pledged to implement a new plan to ban the production and sales of plastic bags thinner than 0.25mm starting in 2022, with a vision to reduce the use of single-use plastics in the restaurant industry by 30%. The UK has taken the strategy of introducing plastic taxes in 2018, and has just implemented a complete ban on stir sticks, plastic straws and cotton swabs. So far the ban has been well received, and people are asking for more. Finally the EU is set to ban single-use plastics along-side Canada. Within the EU, individual countries such as France have taken the initiative to ban plastic plates, cups, and cotton buds at the beginning of 2021, much earlier than the EU timeline. Paying attention to the bans in each of these countries will give us a better clue on what to expect for Canada.The ban might expand and individual provinces might implement different timelines for the ban.


During the pandemic, there has been an increased demand for takeout and individually packaged food items. As businesses are relying on take away items more than ever, it is critical that any changes in packaging do not hinder their businesses. Trudeau believes that people are innovative and restaurants can adapt to the single-use plastic ban. David Hopkins of The Fifteen Group also believes that the cost for switching for plastic alternatives will not drive up the price of the meals, so consumers will not see a big difference in price.



Alternatives to single-use food containers: recyclable, biodegradable, and reusable

The single-use plastic ban forces many business owners to switch to different manufacturers for food containers, cups, and cutlery sets. Some factors to take into consideration when switching from single-use alternatives include functionality, durability, cost, government regulations, environmental impact etc. In a take-out meal, the functionality of the take-out container can directly impact a consumer's dining experience. Common alternative materials for single-use plastic take-out containers include recyclable materials such as aluminium, and plastics, and biodegradable and compostable containers such as paper and compostable plastic. However, these options may not be as good as they seem. Below is a breakdown of each of the options with their relative costs and environmental impacts.


Aluminium

Aluminium containers are great for holding heat and being non-absorbent, and the flexibility of aluminium makes it easy to seal. Unfortunately, aluminium is not microwave safe and is generally very costly. Aluminium seems like a viable option to replace plastic; the sorting process is simple, and the recycling process consumes less energy compared to plastics. However, most municipalities also do not accept greasy aluminum containers for recycling.


The production of aluminium produces by-products such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. Aluminum extraction is also extremely energy and water intensive. To be manufactured, raw bauxite must first be extracted and processed. Five litres of liquid waste are produced for every litre of aluminium manufactured, this liquid waste will pollute soil and groundwater. The mining of bauxite also removes all vegetation within the mining region and causes soil erosion. While recycled aluminum presents many environmental benefits, the original extraction is extremely detrimental to the environment.


Paper take-out container that has plastic lining and is non-recyclable

Paper take-out container that has plastic lining and is non-recyclable

(Anna Hill, Unsplash)



Paper and sugarcane pulp containers

Both paper and sugarcane pulp containers have the advantages of being lightweight and available in many sizes. The downside is that they are not very good at holding liquids as they do not seal completely. The paper industry is also not as eco-friendly as it seems. The paper industry is the world’s third largest consumer in water and fifth largest consumer in energy. This leads to extreme amounts of pollution and waste water generated. The greenhouse gas emissions that are produced from manufacturing paper are 3.5 times more per ton compared to plastics. Paper based food containers are often lined with polyethylene plastic as a barrier to prevent liquid from leaking and to keep the freshness of the food product. Paper take-out containers are usually considered to be non-recyclable due to the plastic coating. Sugarcane pulp containers are much more eco-friendly in terms of the manufacturing and decomposing process. However, Sharon George, an environmental science professor at the Keele University, mentioned that sugarcane plantation consumes a lot of water, accompanied with use of pesticides and herbicides. This raises a concern that sugarcane pulp might not be able to mass produce in a sustainable manner.


A compostable container takes a long time to degrade in nature

A compostable container takes a long time to degrade in nature

(Annie Spratt, Unsplash)



Biodegradable plastics

Biodegradable plastics are made from plant-based material such as corn, sugarcane, and bamboo, which can break down into natural substances. They are made to feel and function just like conventional plastics. Compostable plastics are a specific type of biodegradable plastics, of which 90% of the plastic material has to degrade within 6 months. That is the certification requirement for compostable plastics, however, no certification is needed from manufacturers to verify and label their product as compostable in Canada. According to Zamry Jamaludin from Environmental Defence, compostable plastics require industrial composting facilities to control specific parameters including temperature, carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, humidity and air supply so that microorganisms can break down the plastic without producing toxic chemicals. In a commercial facility, the plastic can be broken down in two to six months, but in nature it can take years. Most municipalities do not accept compostable plastic in their green bins. If compostable plastic ends up in recycling, it will contaminate the recycling streams as recycling facilities cannot separate out the compostable plastics. Compostable plastics are also often more expensive than other materials; they can be 60% more expensive than conventional plastics. The Government of Canada is in the process of determining whether biodegradable plastics will be included in the ban.



Recyclable plastics

Recyclable plastic containers are great for holding liquids, and they're microwavable, durable, and come in many shapes and sizes. The government of Canada also plans to expand the recycling industry and increase the amount of plastic packaging that can be recycled through a circular economy model. The principle of the circular economy aims to keep products in a closed loop. Recycling keeps plastics in the loop, however it uses the more energy in a circular model compared to reuse or repair. The production of plastic requires crude oil refinement and it results in greenhouse gas emission. The type of plastics that are accepted in the recycling bin varies between municipalities, but most of them require the container to be emptied and cleaned. The government has placed restrictions on businesses to eliminate non-recyclable plastics, but the government has not placed any restrictions on proper disposal of recyclable plastics. In the future, the government might post more regulations based on the outcome of this plastic ban.



Reduce, reuse, recycle

Plastic takes a lot of energy and resources to manufacture, but what if we used it to make products that weren't one-time use? What if using plastics could be more environmentally-friendly than any of the above listed alternatives? Reuse makes this possible. According to the 3R principle of reduce, reuse and recycle, reducing plastic consumption is the best way to reduce waste. For example, restaurants can ask consumers if they need a straw instead of automatically handing them out with every drink. Reuse is the next best way to reduce waste.


By using products like reusable straws rather than disposables, the energy and waste associated with producing one straw can last hundreds of drinks. Other benefits of reuse includes: cost savings, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and less waste generated. Reusing plastic containers means we can get all of the benefits of plastic as a material, with much lower environmental impacts. However, with reuse comes the increased responsibility of collecting and washing the reused items. The following paragraph will showcase how A Friendlier Company can handle all the logistics of collecting and cleaning the containers for you. Recycling should be the last choice to reduce waste because the products are still one-time use.


Principle of reduce, reuse, then recycle

Principle of reduce, reuse, then recycle

(Brgfx, freepik, https://www.freepik.com/vectors/arrow)



Making reuse simple for food service providers