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Fast food players take tentative steps towards sustainable packaging

Two McDonald’s Canada restaurants will soon be testbeds for the company’s greener packaging initiatives, serving wooden cutlery, paper straws and other recycling-friendly packaging.

The fast-food giant’s move is the latest in a wave of announcements from major chains pledging to reduce their reliance on plastic, but experts say the steps are small, often take a long time to expand nationally and, if not properly planned, will ultimately have a negligible impact.

As one of the largest restaurant chains, we have the responsibility to take action on these important social and environmental challenges,” said Rob Dick, supply chain officer at McDonald’s Canada.

The company announced Wednesday it would operate one location in Vancouver and another in London, Ont.

While the two locations will continue to use much of the same packaging found in other McDonald’s restaurants, they will also test alternatives. This summer, diners there will see wooden cutlery and stir sticks, and paper straws, as well as receive their cold drinks in a cup without plastic coating and with lids made from a wood fibre.

It’s part of the company’s commitment to source allof its guest packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources” and recycle all of it at each of its restaurants by 2025.

McDonald’s is not the only company to start introducing more environmentally friendly packaging.

Burger chain A&W swapped out plastic straws for compostable ones at its restaurants earlier this year.

Tim Hortons has introduced a new lid that is 100 per cent recyclable, said spokeswoman Jane Almeida in an email, adding it will be rolled out nationally by the end of the summer. The company is also testing paper straws and rolling out wooden stir sticks, and has announced a 10-year marketing effort to sell consumers on the merits of reusable cups.

Starbucks plans to eliminate plastic straws globally by 2020, according to an emailed statement that also outlined the company’s other initiatives including helping to fund a competition to develop a compostable paper cup and an upcoming pilot of a greener cup alternative in Vancouver.

Many of these promises start out as tests, but can take a long time to scale nationally.

McDonald’s chose to start testing in two restaurants to allow it to be more nimble and try new things faster than if it were to attempt the same at its more than 1,400 restaurants in Canada, Dick said.

This allows the company to test them from a food safety and quality perspective, like whether consumers will approve of the feeling of drinking out of a wood-fibre lid.

There are practical considerations, he said, like the fact that it’s easier to ship new items to two restaurants rather than 1,400.

It’s too early to tell how long it would take to scale-up any of the tests, he said, but if the reaction is positive, the company will work with the supplier to add more restaurants incrementally.

That also gives the supplier and the industry kind of time to catch up.”

Another factor is cost, said Tony Walker, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University who studies plastic pollution.

Restaurants struggle with tight profit margins and competition is fierce, he said, adding consumers don’t want to pay a premium for green alternatives even if they support their use. A recent study he conducted suggested Canadians aren’t willing to pay more than a 2.5 per cent premium.

So, I’m sure that the packaging costs have to be ultra-low, otherwise they’re not going to be able to launch an alternative.”

There’s also the fear of initiatives backfiring, he said, and having a catastrophic impact on share price if it’s a public company.

Nobody wants to over commit to a strategy that might not work,” he said, explaining it’s a safer bet to start small.

What Vito Buonsante wants to see instead of these small changes, though, is a shift from the fundamental business model of throwing away packing.

Restaurants should focus more on reducing waste and reusing equipment, said the plastics program manager at Environmental Defence, an advocacy organization that fights for a reduction in plastic waste. One example of this would be A&W serving much of its eat-in meals on ceramic plates and in glass mugs.

As for the third R _ recycling, he said they need to ensure their products are actually recyclable in all of Canada’s jurisdictions and that requires more transparency.

Otherwise it’s meaningless.”


Imperial Tobacco denounces plain packaging

In the wake of the Health Canada’s new legislation, Imperial Tobacco is coming out swinging, calling plain packaging a “nanny state” approach that does little to change consumer behaviour.

“We remain shocked that despite all of the evidence, the Government of Canada is moving ahead with bad public policy,” said Eric Gagnon, head of corporate and regulatory affairs at Imperial Tobacco Canada.  “The experience of other countries demonstrates that plain packaging does not change consumer behaviour and that it’s a proven way to fuel an already booming illegal tobacco market in Canada.”

Imperial Tobacco points out 20 percent of the market remains controlled by illegal operators and criminal organizations selling products outside of any regulatory framework and untaxed (depriving Canadian governments of more than $2 billion in tax revenue every year).

Eric Gagnon of Imperial Tobacco.

Eric Gagnon of Imperial Tobacco.

“The illegal tobacco problem in Canada is poised to get much worse now that it will be impossible to differentiate between a legal and illegal product.  Not only has the federal government had its head in the sand for long enough when it comes to illegal tobacco, they have facilitated the thriving illegal market by allowing illegal operators unfettered access to the Canadian market,” says Gagnon. “The RCMP have stated that there are 50 illegal factories operating in Canada and 175 criminal gangs involved in the illegal trafficking of tobacco, and the feds have done nothing about it.  They now need to step up and address the issue they created themselves.”

Still, plain packing continues to gain traction around the globe. In 2012, Australia became the first country to introduce plain packaging of tobacco products, leading the way for others to follow suit. Today, New Zealand, France, Norway, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and United Kingdom required standardized packaging. Singapore, Belgium and Turkey will institute plain packaging in 2020.

Global uptake notwithstanding, Gagnon maintains plain packaging isn’t effective.  “Despite what some Canadian anti-tobacco lobbyists will claim, plain tobacco packaging has been tried, tested and failed, and it will have the same result in Canada,” he said. “The plain packaging experiment in Australia, New Zealand, France and the United Kingdom have yielded the same results: plain tobacco packaging does not work.”


Industry reacts to Health Canada plain packaging rules for tobacco

Canadian cigarette packs will have to be plain drab brown with standardized layouts and lettering under new rules that start this fall, Health Canada says.

The government says plain packages will increase the impact of graphic health warnings about the dangers of smoking, keeping them from getting lost amid colourful designs and branding.

Health Canada says plain packages will increase the impact of graphic health warnings about the dangers of smoking.

Manufacturers will have to begin complying with labelling rules for packages and dimensions for cigarettes by Nov. 9, 2019, while retailers will have to sell only products meeting the new rules by Feb. 7, 2020.

Officials said plain packages will increase the impact of graphic health warnings about the dangers of smoking, keeping them from getting lost amid colourful designs and branding.

The government wants to stop cigarette companies from using their packs as tiny ads for their products, insisting even on a single shape and design for the packs themselves – meaning soft packs are out, as are creative designs with bevelled edges and any other distinctive features.

Health Canada picked the same dark brown for the packages as Australia did for its tobacco products a few years ago, one identified by market researchers as the ugliest colour in the world. Several European countries have used the colour as well.

“Packages with darker colours were perceived to be more ‘harmful to health’ and their products ‘harder to quit,’ in contrast to packages with lighter colours,” the department said in a summary of the plans.

Health Canada said there could be a shortage of the new packs in the early going as a very limited number of suppliers retool to make just one design instead of many different ones.

The regulations released May 1 also standardize the size and appearance of cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products inside the packages.

Specific rules have been awaited since Parliament passed a law requiring them last fall, joining 13 other countries that have adopted similar measures.

The new rules are part of a larger strategy aimed at driving the rate of tobacco use among Canadians down to five per cent by 2035. Federal statistics show that in 2017, 18 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 said they used tobacco in the previous month, an increase of 15% from 2015.

The Canadian Cancer Society praised the government’s regulations, calling them “the best and most comprehensive in the world.”

On the flip side, the industry association representing convenience stores said plain packaging increases the appeal of contraband tobacco products and makes them harder to distinguish from legally marketed ones.

“Instead of addressing the 20% of tobacco that is sold illegally in Canada, government is adding one more burden to law-abiding retailers who don’t sell to minors, comply with display bans, and partner with government to collect and remit most of the $9 billion in tobacco tax revenue every year,” Anne Kothawala, president of the Convenience Industry Council of Canada, said in a statement.

Representatives from the Ontario Korean Businessmen’s Association agree, saying the new rules will hurt small businesses.

“The only way the government can guarantee this will occur is if the law is applied equally to all products being sold and purchased in Canada, including the up to 40 percent of illegal tobacco consumed in Ontario today. To date, this government has shown no willingness to crack down on illegal manufacturers,” stated OKBA spokesperson Kenny Shim. “The booming black market of illegal, unregulated, and untaxed products not only leads to a loss in market share for our members – it also leads to a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in government revenue, contributes to the funding of organized crime, and further compromises Canadian public health by introducing unregulated products to the market.”

The convenience industry has long advocated that plain packaging is not an effective tool to reduce smoking. In its recent eNewsletter, CICC stated: “We were successful in one key area: standardized packaging (slide and shell) will not happen for another 24 months for manufacturers, with retailers being given an additional three-month transition period to comply. On plain packaging, a few technical issues arose out of last week’s regulations that the CICC is working to clarify. We will be providing comprehensive information to both wholesalers and retailers in the coming weeks to help prepare them for this significant policy change.”

With files from Michelle Warren