Loblaw Co. Ltd promises that within three and a half years microbeads and two potentially harmful chemicals will be eliminated from its cosmetic and household products–a move that environmentalists say has the company compensating for the federal government's regulatory shortfalls.
The chain, owner of various grocery and Shoppers Drug Mart stores across the country, announced Thursday that it aims to remove triclosan and phthalates, along with microbeads, from all of its Life Brand and President's Choice products by the end of 2018.
Loblaw president Galen Weston said the decision was made as "emerging science and public opinion suggest a measured move away from some specific ingredients is prudent.''
All three ingredients have faced increasing global scrutiny for their impact on the environment and possible negative effects on humans.
Triclosan is found in antibacterial soaps and body washes, toothpaste and some cosmetic products and is thought to contribute to antibiotic resistance.
Phthalates are a family of chemicals used to add fragrance to products that include body lotions and nail polishes, and to make plastics more flexible. There are concerns they may interfere with the body's endocrine system, linked to human reproduction.
Microbeads are bits of plastic commonly used in facial and body scrubs, but are so tiny they can't be filtered out by water-treatment systems and end up in lakes and rivers where they wind up killing fish, which confuse them with food.
Environmental groups have urged Ottawa to classify microbeads as a "toxic substance'' under the Environmental Protection Act, which would make it possible for the federal government to control their use or ban them altogether.
The government said in March that it was studying the dangers posed to wildlife and the environment by the plastic microbeads, and on Thursday said the scientific review was still underway by Environment Canada along with an assessment of triclosan and phthalates.
John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada, said the Conservative government has failed to act and left the responsibility up to large companies themselves.
"We would expect that the federal government should step up at this point and say the evidence is clear,'' he said. "It also shouldn't work out that Loblaw's competitors get an economic advantage because they're not making the investments to change these products.''
Even after Loblaw's decision, some of the most popular beauty products in Canada will still contain microbeads.
Beat the Microbead, an international campaign to eliminate the ingredient, provides a list of products available on the Canadian market which contain the plastic. Some of the most common items are Neutrogena face washes, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, and items in the Garnier line by L'Oreal.
Johnson & Johnson has committed to phasing out microbeads by the end of 2017, and set earlier removal timeframes for triclosan and phthalates.
Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based environmental group, said Loblaw was showing "clear leadership'' among retailers by making the push to eliminate the chemicals and microbeads.
"Government should be helping to create a level playing field for companies,'' said Nancy Goucher, manager of the organization's water program.
"These things should've never been added in the first place, especially microbeads. They're completely unnecessary and there's lots of other safe alternatives they could've used instead, like coca beans, oatmeal or pumice.''
The organization believes Health Canada should consider reworking the approval process and also make laws that require clearer product labels. Phthalates, for example, can be hard to track because they are sometimes used in fragrance oils and therefore not listed in a product's ingredients.
While Loblaw says it could take three and a half years to phase out the ingredients completely, work has already begun and products with the chemicals and microbeads will diminish month by month, spokesman Kevin Groh said in an email.
"Our long-term deadline respects the task this will represent for our vendors. But, if our ambition is any indicator, 2018 is a conservative target,'' he said.
"In other words, we hope that the list of PC and Life products with these ingredients will be very short, very soon.''