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10/22/2021

New action plan on plastic will bring changes to grocery store shelves

Canada Plastics Pact releases ambitious roadmap to address plastic waste
Still life of different types of plastic packaging on white and grey set arranged by colours
The Canada Plastics Pact brings together businesses, policymakers and associations behind a shared vision of a circular economy for plastic. (Shutterstock/Almost Green Studio)

Major retailers and manufacturers are getting down to work on tackling the plastics problem.

The Canada Plastics Pact (CPP), a platform with more than 70 retailers, manufacturers, associations, non-profits and other organizations have released an ambitious action plan to eliminate plastic waste. As CPP states, the plan “represents unprecedented cross-value chain collaboration, uniting key players behind a shared vision for a circular economy for plastics packaging in Canada and a targeted plan to drive tangible change by 2025.”

While CPP notes that plastic is a vital part of daily life (it’s high-performing, lightweight and low cost), more than 85% of plastic packaging produced in Canada gets used once and ends up in landfills or the environment.

In an interview with Canadian Grocer, CPP managing director George Roter said part of the problem is the many different formats of plastic packaging for products. “At a grocery store, there’s 100,000 SKUs and probably two thirds of those have plastic packaging of some sort,” he said. “It’s just tonnes of different formats and tonnes of different types of plastic.”

The products end up in millions of households and businesses in Canada, and then need to be collected and processed. “It’s quite a complex system and challenge and that’s why it hasn’t been addressed up until now,” said Roter. “We’ve built a very efficient system for preserving our products, delivering them, getting them into our households, and then we can throw [the packaging] away and forget about it. The roadmap shifts [the mindset] to say we can’t actually forget about it. Businesses, citizens and governments have come to that conclusion, so now it’s time to address all this complexity and make a big shift.”

CPP’s “Roadmap to 2025: A shared action plan to build a circular economy for plastics packaging” has three strategic priorities:

Reduce, reuse, collect: This includes eliminating unnecessary and hard to recycle plastics, driving innovation for reuse and refill business models, innovating to prevent waste from being created in the first place, and improving collection and recycling systems.

Optimize the recycling system: The CPP will drive wide adoption of circular packaging design standards to improve recyclability. It will also address some of the technical challenges for incorporating recycled resins into packaging and boost demand, and inform relevant government policies.

Use data to improve the whole system: The CPP will improve the performance of recycling systems by creating standard definitions and measurement practices for what packaging is put on the market, where it goes, and what is collected, sorted, recycled and reprocessed. It will also drive investment in real-time data and monitoring.

Roter said the plan would result in changes coming to grocery shelves over the next few years. “Some of those changes might be really subtle that the average person might not be able to see. For example, making the cap the same type of plastic as the rest of the container,” he said. “That sounds like a simple change, but it’s really complicated to do in some cases and absolutely transformative on the downstream recycling side.”

Other packaging changes may be more obvious to customers. For example, Roter said it’s hard to make some recycled plastic perfectly crystal clear and see-through and Canadians will need to accept that. “[The packaging] is going to be a bit cloudy, so people are going to need to say, ‘I’m okay with that. In fact, I’m better than okay with that. I’m excited about that because it means that there is real action being taken on this issue.’”

For grocers’ part, Roter said they could make changes to their private-label packaging and support their suppliers in tackling plastic packaging waste. They can also look at their own operations, including plastic bags and packaging for prepared foods. Depending on the product or category, grocers can look at changing the design, eliminating the plastic packaging, and innovating on a business model by introducing refill and reuse stations.

An important piece for grocery retailers is talking to customers about the changes and listening to their feedback.

“We do believe there’s a role for the interaction between citizens and customers and businesses to tackle this challenge,” said Roter. “The wonderful thing about grocers is people go to the grocery store once a week or multiple times a week. I can’t think of another store that people will visit so regularly. And so, that interaction is such an incredible opportunity for talking to people about this issue and inviting them to be part of the solution. “

On the grocery retail side, CPP partners include Loblaw Companies and Walmart Canada, while manufacturer partners include Maple Leaf Foods, Nature’s Touch Frozen Foods, Unilever and Kraft Heinz Canada, among others. 

“Embracing innovation and collaboration within our industry is imperative as we move towards a circular economy for plastics. As a founding member of the Canada Plastics Pact, Walmart Canada is proud of its involvement in the creation of the Roadmap, which is an opportunity for significant and decisive whole-system change,” said Walmart Canada president and CEO Horacio Barbeito, in a press release. “This is another step in our journey towards becoming a regenerative company and one we’re proud to take with industry partners.”