Food In Canada

Recycling woes, lack of universal standards: The complex path to sustainable food packaging

By Nithya Caleb   

Sustainability Packaging Editor pick Plastics

In summer 2023, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) issued a pre-planning pollution prevention (P2) notice with proposed goals to weed out plastic from food packaging. The intention behind the notice is understandable. Plastic food packaging makes up approximately one-third of all plastic packaging in Canada, with a significant amount of that intended for single use. Examples include bottles of juice, produce bags, yogurt containers, and meat trays. Further, only 25 per cent of discarded plastic waste is collected for diversion and only nine per cent is recycled in Canada each year, according to a 2019 Deloitte study. The vast majority of plastic waste ends up in landfills, which isn’t ideal. With climate change accelerating at an unprecedented pace, it’s incumbent on all of us to do our part to find sustainable solutions to reduce global warming. However, the reality is quite complicated and there are no easy solutions for the F&B processing sector.

This predicament was the central theme of a recent consultation held by Food and Beverage Ontario (FBO). The event brought together stakeholders from across the supply chain (retail, packaging suppliers, government, etc.).

Chris Conway, CEO of FBO, kick started the discussion by highlighting the poor state of recycling infrastructure in the country. “A lot of infrastructure and technology for recycling packaging are required,” he said.

Kristina Farrell, CEO, Food and Beverage Canada, shared the task ahead for the food industry. As per the P2 notice, primary produce packaging must be recyclable, compostable, and reusable by 2028. She also highlighted studies that found consumers prefer eco-friendly packaging and would prefer reduced plastic in food packaging.


Doug Alexander, vice-president of sustainability and government relations at Belmont Food Group, added, “We all have a responsibility, and we want to do it good by the consumer. So, how do we reduce plastic in a sustainable manner without causing food-borne illnesses and hardship for consumers.” He also suggested that the heavy reliance on recycling plastics should be evaluated as the process could create microplastics.

Many food manufacturers then shared the challenges they have with the government mandate. This was followed by in-depth, frank conversations in groups. There were many takeaways, and it was heartening to see a representative from ECCC attend the meeting virtually and listen to the concerns.

Challenges on the road to sustainability

For food safety and shelf-life reasons, multi-layer films, shrink bags and flexible films are used to package different types of food products. These aren’t recyclable. Currently, there are no alternatives to these solutions. Where available, compostable packaging is three times the cost of traditional plastic packaging. Further, not all retailers accept compostable packaging. It’s also important to note that there are no industry/country -wide standards about what types of packaging are compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable. There’s also a concern that the actual time a packaging takes to compost may not match the local rules around it. This would result in creating compost with plastic residues. Contaminated compost cannot be sold in the premium category.

Another issue that was raised at the session was the lack of recycling-related standardization across provinces and municipalities. Packages may be considered recyclable in a specific province or municipality but not elsewhere. Additionally, there’s a scarcity of food-grade recycled plastic due to the non-availability of systems to create these types of materials. As everything in supply chain is integrated, the lack of recycling systems could partly be attributed to the absence of local buyers for recycled plastic.

MNC food companies have the added challenge of packaging that’s designed at a global level to meet regulations at most countries.

Most of the manufacturers present found the Canada Plastic Pact’s Golden Design Rules confusing. These rules were established to reduce the amount of virgin plastic in supply chain, but the definitions provided weren’t clear to the participants.

Participants stressed the need for governments to balance policy goals and have a clear understanding of the nuances, cost and challenges when legislating complex supply chains like the food industry.

Possible solutions

Until effective alternatives for plastic packaging are available, it might be prudent to use biodegradable plastics to limit the amount of plastics entering landfills.

Canada needs to build a sizeable inventory of food-grade recycled plastic.

An alternative to diverting plastic from landfills would be incinerating and converting them into energy. However, incinerating waste isn’t a catch-all solution. The industry must attempt to recycle as much as possible and convert the rest into energy.

We are continuing this discussion during our annual webinar series on Trends and Innovations in Food. On Thursday, May 2, 1-2 pm ET, we’ll be discussing this very issue on our webinar titled “The Next Wave of Food Packaging: Are You Ready?” I hope you can join this conversation. To register, click here.

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