Plastic pollution – new food safety analysis from Food in Canada columnist Ron Wasik
This article is about another crisis this planet is struggling with and how best to address the crisis without threatening our industry. It’s a problem got its start in the 1950s and has grown exponentially since — plastic pollution. Most baby boomers will remember a world where plastics were rarely seen and often shunned as weak and cheap substitutes for metal, glass and wood. Food packaging was limited to cans, glass jars, paper and natural materials (such as pig intestines for wiener and sausage casings). We consumed foods in season and ate preserves out of season. We cooked and ate our own foods. Those with wood stoves burned whatever could be burnt vs. throwing it into the garbage. Empty cans and glass jars found other uses around the home. Fast-forward to today.
Yesterday’s shunned, cheap and fragile plastics are now found virtually everywhere. They are still cheap but more durable and extremely versatile. They have replaced metals, glass, wood and paper in many of their traditional uses. There appears to be no limit on what can be done with plastics and, as a result, this has led to an endless and ever-growing variety of products which has helped the economies of both developed and developing nations to flourish. This is a good thing. All sectors of our industry depend heavily on plastics. They keep our products safe. However, it is now feared that if plastic pollution is not addressed soon, this good thing will be at risk.
The size of the problem
A study on the end-of-life management of plastics was commissioned by the Department of Environment and published in 2019. The study revealed that in 2016 plastic packaging (plastic films, plastic bags, bottles, cosmetics, healthcare products, etc.) was the largest contributor of plastic waste and accounted for 47 per cent or 1,542 kilo tonnes (kt) of a total of 3,267 kt for the year. Plastic waste comes from many other sectors including the construction, automotive, electronics, textile and agricultural sectors. I’ve not been able to find a study that breaks down in more detail what food-industry-related packaging alone may have contributed that year.
Government response to plastic pollution
Plastic pollution came to the attention of governments around the world as early as 1960 when environmentalists reported islands of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean. Community recycling programs first got underway in 1980 in Kitchener, Ontario. It took decades longer for the federal government to get involved in studying the problem and looking for solutions. Here is what the federal Government is proposing today.
The Federal government has recently published a number of studies on plastic pollution. These studies include pollution statistics and provide a number of options to consider for mitigating the problem. For those who might be interested, here are two: “Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution” and “A proposed integrated management approach to plastic products to prevent waste and pollution — Discussion Paper.” Both were published late in 2020. The “Discussion Paper” recommends that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used (by the government) as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” Note that measures should be “cost-effective.”
Government actions of concern to the food sector
I was surprised (but maybe I should not have been) that the federal government is only recommending action be taken in the food sector by recommending either banning or restricting “plastic checkout bags, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery, straws and foodservice ware made from problematic plastics.” Few would argue that these items are a problem to recycle but I’m left wondering why items such as cell phones, cosmetics, Q-tips, toys and furniture were not included.
What should be of great concern to the food sector is the proposal outlined in the Canada Gazette, Part I, Volume 154, Number 41: Order Adding a Toxic Substance to Schedule 1 to the Environmental Protection Act, 1999 which is to add “plastic manufactured items” to Schedule 1.
The potential fallout from the public assuming that “plastic manufactured items” are all toxic could make what we are experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic a walk in the park.
Wrapping up (pun intended)
We should have seen this coming! Our industry must now work with government to develop and implement practical programs that mitigate plastic pollution in ways which are “cost effective,” while keeping our products safe.
Dr. R.J. (Ron) Wasik, PhD, MBA, CFS, is president of RJW Consulting Canada Ltd. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org