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Plastics ban can’t be instant, restaurants warn Ottawa

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Canada’s restaurant owners are eager to do their part to curb this country’s addiction to plastics, their association says, but they want the government to leave time for them to adapt to a ban on plastic take-out containers.

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said Thursday Ottawa’s promised ban on many single-use plastics is coming in 2021 after a scientific assessment of plastic pollution released Thursday found that the waste is harmful to the environment.

The list of what will be banned is still in development.

Carol Patterson, national vice-president at Restaurants Canada, said the industry needs a reasonable time to find and procure alternatives that are both affordable and better for the environment.

“We are really calling on the government to have an approach that takes into account the full life cycle of products but also providing those reasonable timelines for safe and functional alternatives to enter the market,” Patterson said.

At the same time as restaurants are grappling with finding non-plastic options, they are seeing a surge in demand for take-out containers from the explosion of online food-delivery services. Restaurants Canada reports between 2017 and 2018, ordering via apps and websites grew 44 per cent.

The Ipsos Foodservice Monitor found in 2018, sales via food delivery grew 54 per cent and take-out grew 18 per cent. While in-person dining is still a majority of restaurant sales _ 79 per cent in 2018 _ there is no growth in that segment of the market.

Patterson said restaurants need to make sure alternatives are also safe and accessible for customers. She said the government has been open to hearing from the industry so far.

Chelsea Rochman, an assistant professor of ecology at the University of Toronto whose lab specializes in water pollution caused by people, said when it comes to deciding what products to ban there is some “low-hanging fruit” like plastic grocery bags and straws. The bags, said Rochman, are easily replaced with reusable options and plastic straws can be eliminated for most people entirely. Many stores and restaurants have already replaced or eliminated both.

Paper-based take-out containers are already popular and are better for the environment than plastic or Styrofoam versions, even if the paper ones end up landfilled, she said.

Other items, like cutlery, may be harder to figure out, at least in the short term, because most people aren’t carrying around their own reusable forks and spoons.

“It’s a huge societal switch,” said Rochman.

She said questions is what is likely to happen to a product at the end of its first use. Some compostable plastics might be able to go industrial composting facilities in cities but there are few cities that offer that service, and there are no standards nationwide for what can be called “compostable plastic.”

The scientific assessment on plastic pollution released by Environment Canada found there was little evidence most packaging labelled as biodegradable will fully break down.

Plastic products that are really hard to replace with reusable options, like much of the packaging for shelf-stable foods such as condiments, need to be standardized so they can be recycled, said Rochman. It is hard for one recycling facility to turn bottles into plastic pellets for reuse if every bottle is made of different kinds of plastic polymers.

Only about a dozen firms across the country constitute Canada’s recycling industry. Policies that require more things be made using recycled materials are also needed to spur action, said Rochman.

Wilkinson said the plastics ban is only part of the government’s plan to eliminate plastic waste by 2040, noting standards and policies to make producers responsible for the full life cycles of their products are also in the works.