Cutting back on waste is possible--if Canadians can afford it

Zero-waste groceries are becoming more commonplace, but it requires both a financial and time commitment
Shutterstock/Bogdan Sonjachnyj

Amy Ash knew reducing her waste wouldn't be easy. But the cost of wasting less took her by surprise.

"I had always been motivated to not make unnecessary waste," said the Vancouver resident, who started to actively reduce her waste in 2017. At the time, she was working six days a week at low-wage jobs in the city.

"Where it became difficult was when I would have liked to have gone to the zero-packaging stores. It was almost cruel how expensive everything was."

Each year, Canadians generate roughly 3.2 million tonnes of plastic waste. Almost a third of it is packaging, and only 9% is recycled, according to a 2019 report commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC).

With growing concern about the environmental impacts of plastic waste, more Canadians are actively trying to reduce the amount of trash they produce. Zero-waste groceries are popping up across the country and encouragements to "reduce, reuse, and repurpose" are increasingly common.

Yet, despite the minimalist ethos driving the shift, reducing waste is a privilege.

"There is a real association between wealth and being a good environmental citizen,'' said Myra Hird of Queen's University, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and an expert on waste. Shopping at zero-waste or health food stores is often more expensive than buying food at larger chain supermarkets, where avoiding packaging is near impossible, she said.

For many Canadians, reducing waste could be a trade-off between having money for food and other necessities, or reducing their environmental footprint. In June, Statistics Canada reported that about 5.1 million Canadians had lacked food at least once in the previous month. With an increasing number of people facing precarious financial situations as the pandemic wears on, experts anticipate hunger--a symptom of poverty--will be on the rise.

Nationally, the annual income for someone working full-time at minimum wage is, on average, $27,000. For many, that's not enough to get by, and they need to take on two--or more--jobs to make ends meet. That time commitment can make reducing waste even harder.

"Income isn't just about being able to buy things that are more expensive (and) eco-friendly,'' said Hird. "It's also about having the time to do that."

Searching out less-packaged products and cooking more--common techniques to cut back on waste--all require time. Finding the time to cut back on waste is difficult for people working long hours of who have other commitments, she said.

Ash concurred. While working six days a week, she only had her day off to shop for groceries. But purchasing packaging-free food meant hopping between four grocery stores scattered across Vancouver: Bulk goods stores like Bulk Barn or Costco for dry goods, a local green grocer for produce, and a supermarket for miscellaneous necessities.

"It was crazy--it was the only thing that I would do," she said.

The cost of zero-waste living isn't limited to consumers. The stores working to reduce the amount of packaging for products they sell also face financial hurdles.

"There are things that are pricier that are zero-waste, and the reason is that we're often working with small-batch producers, in a local context, to bring you items that are not mass-produced,'' said Emily Sproule, owner of JARR, a package-free grocery delivery service in Vancouver.

Wholesale distributors often couldn't provide her business with minimally packaged goods, leading her to work more closely with smaller, local--and often more expensive--farmers and food processors. Larger grocery chains likely face similar issues when it comes to reducing the waste they and their customers produce, she said.

"We've built systems around plastic production. I really believe that reusable systems are not that hard, but we've got into this pattern of distribution that has to do with disposable and mostly plastic (packaging),'' she explained. "What I really hope is that small companies like mine ... are a signal to bigger companies that this can be done and (that) this should be part of our day-to-day life and not an outlier.''

It's also likely that zero-waste products would be more affordable if they were more widespread. Packing-free supply chains are currently much smaller than conventional ones, but as they grow, it will be possible to make greater economies of scale, she said.

Some major retailers have started to shift their practices. For instance, in February, Loblaw Companies Ltd. announced a partnership with the global reuse platform Loop. The agreement will let customers in Ontario purchase dozens of products like ice cream, sauces, and pet food in reusable containers, which are returned to Loop after use to be washed and refilled.

Companies alone can't solve the problem, Hird said. Reducing waste is tied into crafting government policies that ensure people have adequate incomes--and that the plastics industry reduces its production. But until those kinds of policies are implemented, becoming zero waste will be too expensive for many Canadians.

"Zero-waste? I feel like privileged people can afford it, and people who are struggling to get by simply can't," said Ash.

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