Grocers worry about which plastics Ottawa will ban next — and say prices could go up

First, they came for your takeout containers and plastic bags.

Could the shrink-wrap on your cereal boxes be next?

As the federal government moves full speed ahead with plans to ban some single use plastics, grocery industry experts and food producers are already wondering what’s next on environment minister Steven Guilbeault’s hit list.

“It’s pretty clear that what they banned this week was the low-hanging fruit,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. “Some containers are much more easily replaced than others.”

Monday, 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.

Guilbeault also said he’d consider widening the ban to other plastic products.

Grocery industry insiders worry that widening the ban could mean more costly changes before they’ve even had a chance to understand the full impact of this week’s move. It could also make it harder and more expensive to ship fresh fruit and vegetables to remote communities served by smaller, independent grocers, said Gary Sands, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.

“It takes more time to get fresh produce to those communities. It already costs more and at certain times of the year — this is Canada — those challenges can be heightened by weather,” said Sands, adding that plastic wrapping on fresh produce is effective, available and affordable.

The combination of effectiveness and affordability is what makes plastic packaging so ubiquitous in the restaurant and food industry, said Charlebois.

“Plastic is an amazing tool to keep food safe and fresh. It’s going to be hard to replace. It’s not irreplaceable, but it’s going to be hard to replace, especially for the price. That’s where the addiction comes from. It’s a proven technology,” said Charlebois, who predicted that “centre of the store” products like plastic shrink-wrap on cereal boxes are more likely to be affected by a ban than “outer aisle” products like fresh produce or prepared meals.

“I think it’s going to be centre of the store that’s added next. Centre of the store is going to be the easiest battle. All the non-perishables, the dry stuff? That’s easy,” said Charlebois. “What’s on the outer aisles, the perishables — that’s harder. You have to think about the safety of the product, and that’s a compromise that companies may not be willing to take.”

Even something like the plastic “clamshells” which are frequently used to hold berries are going to be tougher to replace, Charlebois explained.

“They’re proven. They’re able to keep products safe, both in terms of contamination or getting damaged. If you compromise the integrity of that product, you might actually get that product to be not as desirable, and perhaps even more dangerous. You can see moulding much more quickly,” said Charlebois.

That, said Charlebois, means that other government agencies, including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency — which monitors food safety — could be involved in any decisions about widening the ban.

Grocers, as well as companies which manufacture everything from breakfast cereals to baked goods are also concerned about the prospect of a wider ban.

“We support the government’s vision of reducing plastic waste, and of innovation. We are concerned about the timing, given what our industry, and our customers’ industries have been through over the last two years,” said Denise Allen, CEO of Food Producers of Canada, an industry association. “Our concern is finding reasonable alternatives.”

“Every ban has to have an alternative. An alternative that is actually available and affordable. And it is imperative that the Government widen its small business lens to understand that these measures don’t impact small and big businesses equally,” agreed Sands.

While CFIG members support the principles of helping the environment and reducing waste, Sands said Guilbeault needs to help grocers understand exactly what his long- and short-term visions are.

“Before any extension to other products, it’s critical that the minister talk to industry first,” Sands said. “To hear him say he is considering this before discussions with industry is disconcerting.”

The Retail Council of Canada, which represents major grocery chains including Loblaws, agreed that businesses need a better sense of the government’s plans.

“While bans of problematic materials are an important policy tool for driving a circular economy, we believe that the federal government should develop a comprehensive plastics strategy — one that gives industry the foresight into what is coming next so that it can plan accordingly,” said RCC spokesperson Michelle Wasylyshen.

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