Much has been made of the federal government’s ban of single-use plastics like straws, takeout containers, grocery bags and cutlery. Though environmentalists claim it was a significant win for the environment, the evidence suggests it will be a net environmental negative in the long run. Not to mention that it will increase the hospitality sector’s costs as it switches to more expensive alternatives. In sum, the ban amounted to symbolic policy, driven more by uninformed perception than reality.
Unfortunately, Ottawa has now set its sights on a new target for regulation: plastic food packaging. Earlier this month, the federal government opened consultations on food packaging waste, with the ultimate goal of having Canada “move toward zero plastic waste.” But if Ottawa introduces a ban, as it did with single-use plastics, it will create a world of hurt for Canadian consumers and ultimately do more harm than good when it comes to protecting the environment.
Scratching beneath the surface of a prospective ban reveals that plastic food packaging is often the most environmentally friendly option. A study publishedin the journal Environmental Science & Technology concluded that “When comparing the relative environmental impacts of single-use glass and plastic, plastic has been shown to be significantly better in terms of energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and multiple other environmental impact categories.”
How much better for the environment is plastic than glass? Researchers in Switzerland, looking at baby-food containers, concluded using plastic rather than glass reduced emissions by up to 33 per cent due in part to its lighter weight and lower transportation costs. That same metric applies to almost all food that needs to be stored in airtight packaging. It’s obviously hard to effectively package food items like baby food in paper or bamboo alternatives.
Not only is plastic better from an emissions standpoint, it is often the superior option for reducing food waste. Compared to the alternatives, including no packaging, plastic does a significantly better job of keeping food whole and fresh and extending its shelf life. Research on this issue suggests spoiled or damaged food may have a significantly higher impact on the environment than the type of packaging the product comes in. How? Food production generates emissions. Eliminating plastic food packaging would increase the volume of food that spoils, which means more food would have to be produced, transported, refrigerated and put on grocery store shelves. All of which generates additional emissions.
A shift away from plastic food packaging would also drive up costs for consumers. When asked about the impact of Ottawa’s proposed shift on food packaging Dalhousie University’s Sylvain Charlebois explained “My guess is that it will compromise our food affordability. Any alternative solutions will cost more money.” Right now, of course, the last thing Canadians need is higher food costs: food prices in July were up 8.5 per cent over a year ago. Does Ottawa really want to add more fuel to the food inflation fire?
The federal government is repeating the same mistakes it made with its first plastic ban. Yes, banning plastic food packaging will likely reduce the total amount of plastic waste generated in Canada. If that’s all you care about, then this policy is a win. But if you also care about total greenhouse gas emissions, food waste, food availability and, most importantly, food affordability, a ban on plastic food packaging would be a nightmare.
Originally published here