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Ottawa’s Plastic Smile

By Sylvain Charlebois

The Canadian government has introduced an initiative for the food retail sector that targets plastic packaging pollution. P2 represents the next step in addressing what is arguably the most significant challenge in this sector: food packaging.

Under the P2 Notice, Canadian food retailers would be required to develop and implement comprehensive pollution prevention plans with the goal of reducing, reusing, and redesigning plastic packaging in food distribution. It’s worth noting that P2 is set to be a voluntary policy, but the industry should prepare for the possibility of mandatory guidelines.

In principle, reducing plastic usage is a commendable goal, but it’s important to recognize that plastics are widely used in food retail because of their efficiency in ensuring food safety and their cost-effectiveness compared to existing alternatives. Plastics play a vital role in preserving the freshness and visual appeal of food products for extended periods. Given Canada’s strong food safety culture, consumers may be hesitant to buy unpackaged or inadequately packaged items, perceiving them as risky.

Another significant concern is food waste. Plastics enable the safe transportation of products over long distances without compromising freshness or quality. Grocers understand that subpar products are less likely to be purchased by consumers.

Despite the unpopularity of plastics among Canadians, support for their usage can change during unforeseen events, such as a pandemic. Public opinion has shifted in the past, with many seeing plastics as a protective measure against bacteria and viruses. Additionally, concerns related to food safety arise, as plastics help protect fruits and vegetables from potential tampering.

Food access is also an issue. Consider the example of the U.S. and the California Growers, which represent 50 per cent of all imported produce. Recent interviews with members conducted by the Canadian Produce Marketing Association have been met with surprise and concern. Astonishingly, few are even aware of this impending Canadian regulation. Even growers dedicated to sustainability are often left bewildered when they learn of it. As a result, Canada may become a less appealing market for international partners.

Efforts to reduce plastic usage are crucial, but Ottawa seems to be advancing policies without robust empirical evidence supported by a comprehensive evaluation of how our food market would function without plastic. Both the industry and consumers will need to adjust their expectations, accepting certain compromises in convenience and pricing.

It’s worth noting that less than 15 per cent of Canadians are willing to pay more for food with environmentally friendly packaging, which presents a significant challenge for the industry to innovate without losing crucial market support.

Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in food distribution and policy, senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, and co-host of The Food Professor Podcast

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