By Heather Fegan
Attendees from across the grocery, restaurant, and retailer industries eagerly gather around tables in a conference room in Dartmouth, N.S. They are convening for a Plastic Packaging Reduction Summit to discuss challenges and focus on solutions to reduce plastic packaging. Representatives from the provincial and federal government, as well as various municipal waste management facilities, and environmental organizations are also in attendance.
“Plastic is convenient. It’s easy. We can promote reuse, and saying no to single-use plastic, but is this enough for our throwaway culture?” This is the question Jeff MacCallum, Chief Executive Officer of Divert NS, poses to attendees during his opening remarks.
At the back of the room on a round table sits a small sculpture. It’s a tree that has been created with reclaimed nails from salvaged lumber by artist Al Hattie of Redneck Craft Creations. Guests are encouraged to hang a leaf, crafted from seed paper, inscribed with a personal pledge to reduce single-use plastic in everyday life, an insight learned, or an ‘a-ha’ moment that’s occurred to them throughout the day.
Attendees listen to presentations outlining actions to reduce plastic from Nova Scotia Environment and learn about Federal plastic reduction initiatives from Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Presentations from Loblaw Companies Limited, Walmart Canada, and Sobeys share plastic reduction practices among the grocery stores. Each are engaged in a variety of activities to reduce their environmental footprints, increase biodiversity, and reduce food waste. They all fully embrace their roles as large retailers and recognize that single-use plastic waste is a problem that needs addressing.
While initiatives such as cutting excess packaging and banning single-use plastic bags at check-outs are important, it is not always possible to eliminate plastic altogether. These key players recognize the need to better manage their plastic. Walmart’s Recycling Playbook, a resource for companies setting recyclable packaging and recycled content goals, examines whether a product needs packaging and if so, what the best solution is.
Violet MacLeod with Sobeys Public Affairs says she’s encouraged by the day’s summit. “Industry players, food retailers, and government coming together like this to find solutions at all levels across the supply chain is key,” says MacLeod.
Luc Erjavec, Vice-President, Atlantic Canada at the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association says single-use plastic packing is essential to meet customer needs in the restaurant industry, to protect the integrity of food, adhere to strict food safety standards, and keep costs affordable. He also emphasizes that customers have environmental concerns and the industry is sustainably responsible.
Julie May, Senior Manager, Government and Public Affairs at McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada says delicious food can also be sustainable for customers, producers, and the environment. McDonald’s platform of initiatives includes two key commitments globally. To source 100% of guest packaging from renewable, recyclable, or certified sources by 2025. The second is to recycle guest packaging in 100% of McDonald’s restaurants by 2025. (Compared to 10% of restaurants in 2018).
Perspectives from plastic packaging manufacturers and distributors, with representation from the industry including Farnell Packaging Ltd., Vale Packaging Ltd, and Veritiv, are similar. They each share the same wish for provincial and national harmonization of recycling systems to allow for recovery and recyclability, of federal and provincial governments working with the industry and consumers, with the goal of achieving a circular economy for plastic.
A key theme throughout the day was broad support for Extended Producer Responsibility from multiple stakeholders. EPR is an environmental policy approach where the producer's responsibility for a product is extended to include managing the product's proper disposal at the end of its use.
For attendees like Kevin O’Handley, a By-law and Compliance Officer with Eastern Region Solid Waste Management, a day like this one is important. With seven years in the industry, he sees firsthand the amount of plastic in landfills. “It would blow your mind,” he says. “It means a lot to hear key players in the industry doing something about it.”
The Plastic Packaging Reduction Summit demonstrates both the opportunities and challenges to reduce single-use plastic.
“For the attendees, everybody is looking for this type of dialogue,” says MacCallum, towards the end of the day. “They’re really interested. I think it's the opportunity to share. For the presenters, because a lot of them are under pressure to do things, it was commendable for them to come here and participate in the dialogue. Also sharing some of the really innovative things they’re doing, it gave hope that there are solutions down the road.”
By afternoon, the branches of the sculpted tree at the back of the room are peppered with personal pledges, insights learned, the ‘a-ha’ moments experienced by attendees throughout the day. One says “bring bags for my fruit and vegetables to grocery stores and refuse all plastic bags”, another says “6% of oil globally used to produce plastic products - wow!” and another, “let’s standardize recycling programs!” Later, these paper leaves can be planted in the sun to grow wildflowers. It is a gesture of hope for the future, echoing the sentiment of hope felt throughout the day.
The summit wraps up with facilitated sessions for strategic conversation among attendees, broken into small groups, to determine next steps and opportunities for stakeholders to work together to reduce plastic packaging.
“A lot of times we tend to focus on the problem,” MacCallum says. “But today we heard a bit about the work being done. We’re at a tipping point, where people — industry, governments, other stakeholders, really are starting to take the issue seriously and engage on it. I think that’s the most important first step to getting to solutions. It’s been an excellent day with good participation, good dialogue, and good sharing.”
Presentations from the day are available on the Summits page. Photos of the summit are available here. (Note: Photos are copyright Divert NS 2020. Please feel free to download and share photos, but credit Divert NS.)