Why Ideology Shouldn’t Push the Single-Use Plastic Elimination Agenda in Canada [Op-Ed]


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A Federal Court judge has recently declared the federal government’s decision to categorize plastic items as toxic to be both “unreasonable and unconstitutional.” This ruling has introduced further regulatory uncertainty for the food industry as it grapples with its dependence on plastic.

While waste management primarily falls under provincial jurisdiction, the classification of plastic items as toxic played a significant role in enabling the federal government to move forward with the prohibition of certain single-use plastic products. These regulations, slated to take effect on December 20th, will effectively ban the sale of plastic checkout bags, utensils, food service items, stirrers, and straws in Canada.

In the decision made public this week, the Federal Court asserted that federal law cannot apply a generic toxicity label to a broad category of plastic-manufactured products, deeming it excessively inclusive. In essence, this ruling underscores the diversity among plastic materials, as not all plastics are created equal.

Winners (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

For Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and Minister Steven Guilbeault, this verdict serves as a lesson in the consequences of allowing doctrine to guide cabinet decisions. Consequently, an appeal is likely to follow.

Nevertheless, for the food industry, the battle to reduce its reliance on plastic is far from over. The industry acknowledges the necessity for change and adaptation to align with our collective sustainability goals. However, from the outset, many observed that Ottawa’s approach to climate and plastics was not only an overreach on provincial jurisdiction but also ideologically driven, often lacking practical logic.

The repercussions of phasing out plastics in the food industry could be profound, particularly in terms of our access to fresh produce. Canada imports approximately $7 billion worth of fruits and $3.5 billion in vegetables annually, and international trade plays a crucial role in ensuring affordable food for Canadians. While we export our food globally, we also depend on global markets for our sustenance. Therefore, the economics of food packaging hold immense significance both domestically and internationally. Surprisingly, many foreign suppliers providing produce to Canada remain unaware of our policy directions and their potential implications. Over the years, several food manufacturers, including Nestle, have exited the Canadian market for various reasons, leading to the withdrawal of some brands. Our policies could further deter key suppliers that support our health and sustainability objectives.

A few years ago, a comprehensive analysis led by Dr. Martin Gooch, a prominent expert in supply chain management and food waste in Canada, forecasted that ineffective packaging had the potential to result in an increase of nearly half a million metric tonnes in food losses and waste compared to current levels. This would amount to a value of CA$2.5 billion. It’s important to emphasize that this projection is on the conservative side. Notably, the most substantial losses are expected in the case of perishable goods that are susceptible to damage or require specialized packaging. Plastic packaging plays a crucial role in prolonging the shelf life of products sensitive to ethylene, a natural ripening agent produced by fruits and vegetables. Take carrots, for instance, which can be adversely affected by ethylene emitted by adjacent produce, leading to a shortened shelf life, altered appearance, and diminished taste. A decline in the appeal of produce at the retail level ultimately results in reduced consumer interest.

Replacing plastics won’t be easy, but it can be done. A comprehensive approach to eliminating plastics recognizes the diversity of plastic materials and involves the active participation of provinces and cities in this endeavour. Ottawa’s approach has been divisive and, more importantly, patronizing and resented by various stakeholders seeking to contribute positively to environmental efforts.

Furthermore, Ottawa must acknowledge that our food industry operates within a larger system that includes partners beyond our borders. Significant changes to our packaging policies can and will impact our nation’s food security. Plastics have facilitated the transportation of food over long distances, ensuring freshness and safety while minimizing waste. While all companies aim to contribute positively to the environment, they also prioritize competitiveness. Policies should strive to create a level playing field for all while remaining grounded in scientific evidence.

Especially at a time when food prices are a significant concern for many, ECCC must proceed with caution. While eliminating plastics from our lives is a commendable goal, it is essential to treat industry stakeholders and Canadians with respect and recognition of their intelligence.

Sylvain Charlebois
Sylvain Charlebois
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Director of the Agri-Foods Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Also at Dalhousie, he is Professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculty of Agriculture. His current research interest lies in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety, and has published four books and many peer-reviewed journal articles in several publications. His research has been featured in a number of newspapers, including The Economist, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Globe & Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star.


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