Federal plastics ban creates 'unintended consequences' for compostable alternatives
Sylvia Johnson thought she had her bases covered.
Johnson, who owns Cornerstone Music Cafe in Calgary, had been phasing out single-use plastics, such as cutlery, takeout containers and straws, for the past six years. So when the federal government introduced a ban on single-use plastics, she thought she was in the clear.
But that wasn't the case.
"I am shocked. It's very surprising. I don't think [the] compostable products that I use should be under that ban," Johnson said.
The federal ban prohibits six categories of plastics from being manufactured or imported for sale in Canada. Stir sticks, cutlery, takeout containers, plastic grocery bags and straws all fall under the new rule, which took effect in December. Such products will still be able to be sold in Canada for the next year.
A ban on plastic ring carriers will begin in June.
But not all of Johnson's alternatives are allowed, because they are considered non-conventional plastic, such as her compostable cutlery and black plastic takeout containers.
According to an emailed statement from Environment and Climate Change Canada, the prohibition applies equally to conventional and non-conventional plastics.
Johnson isn't the only one who's been caught off guard. Rick Babington is the president of Wentworth Technologies in Brantford, Ont., which owns the manufacturing company Stone Straw.
His southwestern Ontario company — which makes paper and conventional plastic straws — developed what he calls the Back to Earth straw.
"We went to work to develop the most innovative straw that I think is out there, one that checks all the boxes in terms of being industrial and home compostable," Babington said, adding his straw feels just like a traditional one.
"Also the material is made out of a cellulose acetate that is certified as marine and freshwater biodegradable."
But it's still prohibited under the government's new rules. For Babington's straws to be OK, they would need to be reusable.
According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, plastic cutlery is considered reusable if it does not break down after being washed in a dishwasher 100 times.
Since Babington's straws are designed to break down, they don't pass the test.
Environmental groups such as Greenpeace Canada say the six categories of products make up only about five per cent of total plastic waste generated in Canada in a year, according to data from 2019.
Anthony Merante, a plastics campaigner with environmental group Oceana Canada, said stipulations like these are actually very important and that not all items labelled compostable actually are.
"Compostable and biodegradable plastics are very clever marketing ploys, he said. "Everything is biodegradable. If you throw anything into a hot furnace, it will melt and it will burn."
Merante said everything is technically compostable if it's exposed to the right conditions or sent to a facility that has the necessary technology. "But in reality, in Canada we don't have those facilities."
While the federal ban's wording poses a challenge for companies such as Wentworth Technologies, Merante said it's important that the wording is strong and specific so it doesn't allow for loopholes.
"This ban will, yes, target all plastic products in these categories — whether something is plant-based plastic, if it is compostable plastic, if it is biodegradable plastic," Merante said.
"Because at the end of the day, it will still look, feel and act like a plastic product in the environment, which is what this ban aims to keep plastics out of."
Babington disagrees, saying his compostable plastic straw isn't like others, which break down into microplastics. He says the Back to Earth straw is made from organic material, not fossil fuels.
According to the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, there are more than 130 companies that exclusively make products that are banned under the new rules. According to a federal analysis, the change will cost the economy about $1.3 billion over the next decade.
"That's an unintended consequence, not being able to proceed with that type of innovation, and the impact on the environment because we don't have a straw that has the lowest carbon footprint," Babington said.
"[It has an] impact on the economy, impact on jobs. I think that's really unfortunate."
Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him by email at [email protected].
Produced by Jennifer Keene and Danielle Nerman.
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