The next time you get a takeout order of spaghetti and meatballs, or a tasty bowl of pho, imagine carrying it home without plastic.
Because in another 18 months or so, you might just have to.
As the federal government announced long-awaited details of its ban on some single-use plastics Monday — including bags and takeout containers — restaurant and grocery industry executives warn that there just aren’t enough replacements around.
“You can’t put soup in a cardboard box. You can’t just put fries in people’s hands,” said an exasperated Olivier Bourbeau, vice president of national affairs for Restaurants Canada after a morning announcement by federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault.
Guilbeault announced that companies will be banned from importing or manufacturing plastic bags and takeout containers by the end of this year, from selling them by the end of next year and from exporting them by the end of 2025.
The move will also affect single-use plastic straws, stir sticks, cutlery and six-pack rings used to hold cans and bottles together.
“Our government is all-in when it comes to reducing plastic pollution,” Guilbeault said.
While most restaurant owners are on board with the idea of cutting down on pollution, Bourbeau said the federal government needs a grace period to allow businesses to find alternatives. There just isn’t a big enough supply of products to replace plastic straws, bags and takeout containers, he argued.
“We’d really prefer to see an extension aligned with supply,” said Bourbeau, who added that restaurants are already having trouble getting any kind of takeout containers — plastic or otherwise.
Nonplastic replacements are harder to find, and more expensive, said Ryan Mallough, Ontario vice president for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
“Pre-pandemic when this was first floated, one of the biggest challenges was always going to be ‘what do we replace it with, and how do we source it’?” Mallough said. “And more importantly, how do we source it relatively quickly?”
For grocers, particularly smaller chains and independents, replacing plastic bags and takeout containers is shaping up to be a logistical nightmare, as larger competitors snap up limited supplies of alternative products, said Gary Sands, vice president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.
“That’s been one of the concerns our members have had: Their ability to source some of these products, and at what cost,” said Sands, who also scoffed at the federal government’s suggestion that grocers can pass increased costs along to their customers.
“That’s a lot easier said than done,” said Sands “particularly for our smaller members.”
Still, long-time food industry watcher Sylvain Charlebois argues there’s no time like the present to get rid of one of a major source of garbage and pollution. If worldwide supply chain woes mean even plastic containers and bags are harder to find, why not try to track down greener substitutes, Charlebois reasoned.
“Supply chains are impacting everything right now. So it doesn’t matter what you’re looking at, you’re having trouble procuring it. So I actually think it was the right time to do it,” said Charlebois, a professor and director of the Agri-Foods Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. “I think Ottawa is reading the room correctly on this one.”
Charlebois acknowledged, however, that smaller chains and independents — both in the restaurant and grocery industry — will likely have a harder time striking a deal with suppliers of nonplastic alternatives.
“That’s the real issue for independents. It boils down to cost. Larger chains are better organized, but they’re able to negotiate better deals. That’s the biggest challenge for smaller operators. They’re gonna have to really negotiate good prices,” said Charlebois. “Most nonplastic technologies are more expensive. So that’s the concern I would have for smaller players. The Tim Hortons of this world will be able to deal with that.”
The Chemical Industry Association of Canada, the national trade association of the Canadian plastics industry, slammed Guilbeault’s announcement.
“We are disappointed that safe, inert plastic materials that play such important roles in Canadians’ lives are being banned when innovative technologies like advanced recycling are available to manage them effectively,” Elena Mantagaris, vice president of CIAC’s plastics division said in an emailed statement . “Rather than bans, we need to invest in recycling infrastructure and innovation, including infrastructure to manage compostables, to harness the $8 billion value of plastics that are currently sent to landfill and recirculate them in the economy.”
Karen Wirsig, plastics program manager of Environmental Defense, said history shows recycling just isn’t a reliable way to eliminate plastic pollution.
“The plastics industry insists that better waste collection and recycling are the answer but after years of failed recycling efforts, it’s never been more obvious that plastic pollution is not a waste management problem,” said Wirsig. “These bans are the first clear sign that making and using less plastic is not only possible, but doable and necessary.”
With files from The Canadian Press
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