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2020 is set to be a transitional year for many Canadian consumers and businesses as they adopt new measures to minimize plastic and other forms of waste that clog landfills.
Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals plan to ban single-use plastics as early as 2021. But many jurisdictions are already planning their own bans, including the provinces of Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador. And on Jan. 1, Vancouver became the first Canadian city to ban single-use foam.
Here’s a look at how consumers, businesses and governments are making the transition toward cutting down waste.
Consumers driving zero-waste movement
Thirty-seven-year-old Toronto resident Haley Higdon has been committed to cutting out excess plastic use for the past decade. At the peak of her commitment to minimizing waste (and before her newborn came along), she and her husband needed to throw out only one grocery bag of garbage every three months.
Higdon told BNN Bloomberg in a phone interview getting to that point was a gradual process. Her journey began during Toronto’s major garbage strike in the summer of 2009, when the month-long delay in trash pickup forced her to re-examine her consumption habits. She started cutting down on her use of plastic by switching over to reusable bags for produce. Then she began bringing her own reusable jars to bulk food stores and fresh food markets such as the St. Lawrence Market. She and her husband now even avoid ordering takeout as a measure to cut out extra packaging.
“A lot of people think the lifestyle is more expensive,” Higdon said. “But since you’re consuming way less, you aren’t buying frivolously.”
Haley Higdon shares her tips with other “zero-wasters” on her social media feeds. (Source: https://www.instagram.com/50shadesofgreentoronto/)
Higdon and others are part of a motivated group of consumers who are very active in online forums where they share and discuss zero-waste lifestyle tips. In one popular Facebook group, users have been sharing their 2020 goals for how they will try to reduce their landfill contributions, including buying second-hand items, refusing disposable napkins at restaurants, bringing reusable mugs to coffee shops, and trying cloth diapers for the first time.
The Facebook group, “Zero Waste Toronto,” is approaching 7,000 users who shop at local stores that support their environmentally-conscious efforts, such as Unboxed Market, Urban Bulk & Refill, Karma Co-operative, and refill shops for bath and body products such as Saponetti Refill Depot, Bare Market, and Eco + Amour.
These eco-conscious consumers want mainstream retailers to take notice of their shopping preferences, but they recognize the transition may be slower in the broader consumer landscape.
“That big systemic change isn’t going to happen until policy change happens,” Higdon said.
Mainstream retailers stepping up
Recent surveys suggest the majority of Canadians would support moves from industry and government to reduce waste that ends up in landfills.
A November report from Accenture found 64 per cent of Canadian consumers want to be offered the option of packaging-free products and deliveries.
Meanwhile, Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab found in a 2019 survey 71.2 per cent of respondents across Canada would support a ban of all single-use plastics used in food packaging. The same study found nearly 94 per cent of Canadians are “personally motivated to reduce single-use plastic packaging.” The majority of respondents (62 per cent) believe responsibility falls with industry sectors to act on the issue of reducing plastic waste in Canada.
And retailers are beginning to take note.
Over the past year, major publicly-traded Canadian grocers have committed to some form of a zero-waste initiative. Loblaw Companies Ltd, the country’s largest food retailer, said last June it will start a pilot with Canadian waste management company TerraCycle in early 2020 to allow shoppers to buy some products in reusable containers, delivered to their doors – similar to the way milk bottles were delivered and reused in the past.
Metro Inc., meanwhile, introduced a new policy last spring to allow customers to buy meat, fish and pastries using their own containers. Sobeys, which is owned by Empire Co. Ltd., made perhaps the boldest move out of all the grocers by vowing to phase out plastic bags completely by the end of January 2020. The company will provide alternatives such as paper bags and sell a line of reusable mesh produce bags to encourage customers to make the transition.
Sobeys is showing “tremendous leadership” by eliminating plastic bags, according to Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.
“It may have been seen as a simple decision, but Sobeys’ decision triggered governments and perhaps other businesses in the future to ban single-use plastics,” he told BNN Bloomberg in an email.
After Sobeys announced it would eliminate plastic bags, Charlebois said a Dalhousie survey revealed nine per cent of Canadians said they would plan to shop at another store because of the change. He says that while that percentage is considered very small, businesses will need to weigh whether they can handle that risk.
Attacking a plastics glut from all angles
Charlebois recommends governments and businesses take a multi-pronged approach to minimizing plastic in the system.
He points to the circular economy model as being a helpful tactic. A successful example of this approach is found at The Beer Store in Ontario. The retailer boasts a recovery rate of 96 per cent on the industry-standard bottle.
“We are among a small number of businesses that integrates container refilling and self-management of every single piece of packaging we sell,” Rachel Morier, director of sustainability at The Beer Store, said in an email.
The retailer says the return program cuts the costs of manufacturing new bottles and maximizes transport efficiency by providing backhauling for empty containers when delivering full goods.
Morier says the program is successful because consumers see value in it.
“Ontarians strongly support refilling bottles 15 to 25 times before needing to be recycled,” she said.
In addition to bottle returns, The Beer Store also helps brewers arrive at packaging and container choices that are easier to recycle at the end of their usefulness.
“As markets for recycled material shrink over time, this has become a more important aspect of producer responsibility,” Morier said.
Convenience and costs as deciding factors
Charlebois says convenience will ultimately determine whether or not various approaches gain traction, adding any approach that requires consumers to go out of their way to minimize waste is inherently flawed.
For example, he says recyclable coffee pods are less than ideal because they require the consumer to take it apart before putting them in the green bin. A better solution, he said, would be a biodegradable coffee pod which will break down fully in a compost bin.
Ultimately, waste reduction solutions need to make economic sense for both the business and the consumer to order to be effective over time, according to both Charlebois and Morier.