Supermarkets are being asked to cut plastic waste. What would that look like?

Faced with a rising tide of plastic waste, the federal government is pursuing a plan to get supermarkets to cut down on their use of plastic packaging — a measure that could mean big changes to the shopping experience.

Ottawa announced earlier this month that it’s introducing a policy to require Canada’s largest supermarket chains to develop and roll out plans to cut their plastic waste footprint.

Environment and Climate Change Canada said it’s now consulting with the supermarket sector on the proposed policy and hopes to implement it by the end of the year. Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said the federal government has options to enforce the policy but would not say which measures it’s considering at this point.

“We’re asking these companies to be responsible and to do the right thing. And we think they can do that,” Guilbeault told CBC News.

According to this government consultation document, Ottawa’s goal is to motivate chains like Loblaws, Walmart and Costco to be greener.

The government says grocery chains, grocery supercentres and warehouses that generate over $4 billion in annual sales will be required to come up with strategies to cut plastic waste. The policy is not intended to affect small businesses, independent grocers, specialty food stores, convenience stores or farmers’ markets.

Environment Canada estimates Canadians throw away more than 4.4 million tonnes of plastic waste yearly, only 9 per cent of which is recycled. Plastic food packaging accounts for about one-third of all plastic packaging used in Canada.

Ottawa already has announced a ban on many single-use plastic items. The sale of plastic checkout bags, cutlery, food service ware, stir sticks and straws will be prohibited in Canada after December 20.

The new packaging policy could target a wide range of disposable plastic packaging in stores: condiment bottles, squeezable baby food packets, plastic pet food sacks, clamshell containers, milk bags and shrink-wrap on vegetables and meat.

Some major grocery chains have started moving away from these forms of plastic packaging already by choosing alternatives like glass jars, which can be returned, cleaned and refilled.

The government’s consultation document says major retailers will have “flexibility” to meet the requirements as they see fit, but they’ll still be expected to follow certain timelines.

The government proposes, for example, that at least 75 per cent of fruits and vegetables be sold in plastic-free packaging as early as 2026. The government also proposes that by 2030, major retailers must develop plans to sell more than 50 per cent of non-perishable items like rice or beans in plastic-free packaging.

WATCH | Can big grocery chains cut down on plastic packaging:

Ottawa takes aim at grocery store plastic waste

Ottawa wants industry to come up with voluntary regulations to reduce plastic packaging in grocery stores and says it will regulate if the industry doesn’t propose adequate standards.

In response, businesses could pivot to a bring-your-own-container model, or offer shoppers products in plastic or glass packaging that, once emptied and cleaned, could be returned for reuse.

The government is introducing these measures through what it calls a P2 notice requiring major grocery chains to develop plans to reduce plastic waste and report publicly on their progress. Companies that do not comply with the packaging policy will not be found non-compliant but could be subject to enforcement.

“If we’re not satisfied, the next step for us would be to develop specific regulations for that,” he said. “Which is not what we’re doing at this point.”

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeaul
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault in the House of Commons. Companies that don’t comply with the government’s plastic waste policy could be subject to enforcement. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

Major retailers react

Grocery chains rely on plastic packaging because it’s cheap, lightweight and flexible, and reduces food loss and waste.

The industry’s trade association, the Retail Council of Canada, said the new policy “unfortunately” targets large grocers exclusively.

“Which is impractical, as Canadian retailers lack direct control and influence over the global supply chain,” said Michelle Wasylyshen, the council’s national spokesperson.

The Retail Council of Canada claims the policy could drive up the cost of groceries and add to the problem of food waste. Wasylyshen said more research is needed to better understand the financial, environmental and food safety consequences before the government adopts the measure.

“In the meantime, we continue to encourage the government to invest in innovation and foster collaboration with all stakeholders to meet our plastic waste reduction objectives,” she said.

Grocery store produce aisle where all products are packaged with plastic and thermal labels.
Many stores depend on Styrofoam trays, plastic wrap and thermal labels to package perishable items. (Darius Mahdavi/CBC)

The council said it’s committed to bringing its plastic waste down to zero by eliminating problematic packaging, using more recycled content and working on an industry-led initiative to tackle plastic pollution — the Canada Plastics Pact. 

Environmental Defence, an advocacy organization, isn’t convinced.

Karen Wirsig, Environmental Defence’s senior program manager for plastics, said the organization recently commissioned an audit of grocery chains that found many items that used to come in jars or paper packaging now come encased in plastic.

“It’s painful just to see how much plastic is in places it shouldn’t be,” she said.

“These are very large corporations with very large profits in recent years. They have the money to invest in improving their systems.”

How does plastic-free food shopping work?

Grocery stores promising plastic-free shopping already exist in some Canadian cities. 

Ottawa’s NU Grocery strives for zero waste in its operations and the products it sells.

“It would be a lie if I said that would create no packaging waste,” said Valérie Leloup, the co-founder and co-owner of NU Grocery. “We create a very small amount of packaging waste compared to a traditional grocery store operation.” 

Leloup said the store buys items in bulk to minimize the packaging per unit. Where possible, she said, the store opts for local suppliers that offer products in reusable packaging, which the store returns to suppliers.

A wall of nuts, beans and other items at the NU Grocery Store in Ottawa.
Dry goods line the wall at the NU Grocery Store in Ottawa. (Jean-François Benoît/CBC)

Customers at NU Grocery use brown paper bags and jars provided by the store, or bottles and containers they bring from home. Customers weigh their empty containers beforehand. The tare — the weight of the empty container — is subtracted at the cash register.

The store sanitizes bins, dispensers and scoops daily. Special funnels are used to fill bulk containers to prevent waste and cross-contamination.

Items such as yogurt or peanut butter come in pre-packaged containers. Customers are charged a deposit fee to ensure they return the containers. When they’re brought back, the store cleans and refills them. (NU Grocery doesn’t sell meat.)

Items at NU Grocery are more expensive than those sold by many of its competitors, said Leloup, but they’re competitive when compared to other organic stores in the city’s downtown.

NU Grocery is a zero waste grocery store in Ottawa.
Some items at NU Grocery, like milk and butter, come in pre-packaged containers that customers can return. (Jean-François Benoît/CBC)

“You cannot compare them to the cheapest packaged option that you will find in a big box store. That would be a very unfair comparison,” she said.

Leloup said that while her store occupies a niche market, grocery chains can still learn from it. 

While she supports the government’s push to reduce plastic waste among the big grocery chains, she said she’d rather see the government proceed through stricter regulations — or even by placing a price on plastic pollution, along the lines of a carbon tax.

Staff at NU Grocery Store in Ottawa fill a jar with cooking oil.
Cooking oil dispensers allow NU Grocery customers to fill their own jars. (Jean-François Benoît/CBC)

“If you pay the price for the pollution you create, retailers will start thinking about ways to reduce that price,” Leloup  said.

Ottawa has not indicated it’s contemplating putting a price on plastic pollution, but Guilbeault said the government is prepared to take further action beyond its P2 notice.

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