Takeout containers and other plastics are on the way out. Here's how businesses are adapting

·4 min read
Mithun Mathew, owner of the SpiceX restaurant in St. John's, welcomes a plastic ban but fears that it will affect both the availability and cost of other options.  (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
Mithun Mathew, owner of the SpiceX restaurant in St. John's, welcomes a plastic ban but fears that it will affect both the availability and cost of other options. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

When the federal government announced this week that it will be banning six kinds of single-use plastic, St. John's restaurant owner Mithun Mathew was caught off guard.

While he agrees with the federal government's desire to halt the use of many plastics, he is apprehensive about what the changes will mean to SpiceX, the Indian takeout he owns — including coping with the expense of finding alternatives to the takeout containers that are ubiquitous at thousands of small businesses across the country.

"Everybody is going to switch to the paper containers. So, the price is going to be … very high," said Mathew.

Mathew said the Newfoundland and Labrador government's ban of plastic bags in 2020 caused problems, regarding both cost and availability of paper alternatives. Paper bags, he said, cost about five to six times more than plastic bags.

He fears the same might happen again.

Mathew says he currently uses both paper and plastic takeout containers, depending on what is available at the supplier.

"Sometimes we get … paper containers, but sometimes it's sold out, so you have to find another option. We cannot close the store just because of that," he said.

The federal ban includes six types of single-use plastics — straws, stir sticks, cutlery, takeout containers, plastic bags and six-pack rings.

Ottawa, which is aiming to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030, plans to ban these products in stages, with takeout containers to be phased out by the end of the year.

'It's something that we were OK with'

At least one St. John's business won't be affected by the upcoming ban of these items.

Quidi Vidi Brewery switched to cardboard packaging for its cans about two years ago.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

 

"That was a pretty easy decision to make," said Justin Fong, the sales and marketing director for the company.

"We go through millions of cans of beer a year. And if every, you know, eight or 12 of those has plastic attached to it, that's not good."

He said the cost that came with the decision was worthwhile.

"Whenever you're doing anything environmentally conscious, there's usually a little bit more of a cost value," said Fong. "But it's something that we were OK with."

'These are definitely baby steps

Environmental organizations in the province and across Canada have been pushing for the ban for years.

Atlantic Healthy Oceans Initiative (AHOI), a non-profit organization based in Norris Point on Newfoundland's west coast, has been organizing beach cleanups and waste audits throughout Gros Morne National Park since 2019.

WATCH | Restaurant owner Mithun Mathew has mixed feelings about a pending ban on plastics: 

While founder and executive director Rebecca Brushett welcomes the ban, she has some reservations about its scope.

"These are definitely baby steps," said Brushett. "We do commend the federal government for making those steps. But there's definitely so much more left to do."

Brushett says the banned items make up only 2.7 per cent of all plastics that are picked up in AHOI's cleanups. Out of 20,000 audited pieces over the past two years, 427 were straws, 11 six-pack rings, 115 plastic bags, 145 pieces of cutlery and 77 takeout containers.

She believes that more plastic items need to be banned, such as plastic tampon applicators, bottles and chip bags, as they often end up polluting the environment.

"It leaches out into our river systems and it goes in our oceans, … and then eventually breaks down," she said. "But it doesn't actually biodegrade."

Problem can hit the food chain

Animals, said Brushett, often mistake small plastic pieces, called nurdles, for zoo- and phytoplankton, eat it and pass it on to humans through the food chain.

Brushett added that plastic in water acts as a magnet and attracts chemicals, and that this also hurts animals and humans.

Lauren McCallum CBC
Lauren McCallum CBC

Lucy Bain, co-ordinator of the Problem with Plastics Project with the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, said the ban is not far-reaching enough.

"More than these six items need to be banned," said Bain, naming hot and cold drink cups, sachets, produce bags, cigarette filters and pouches as a few examples.

"We are in a plastic crisis for many different items."

The ban will come into effect in phases over the next 18 months, a timeline that Bain criticizes.

"This was originally announced in 2019. Now it's 2022. And some of the bans aren't coming into place till 2025," she said.

Rebecca Brushett
Rebecca Brushett

For Mathew, the schedule means time to look for plastic-free alternatives.

He would like to see more government support, such as subsidies, during that period to address both cost and availability concerns.

But, he also sees the positive side of the ban.

"It's going to help the environment … For my kids in the future, it's going to be really helpful," said Mathew.

"If we have a cheaper option, of course, we are not going to go for plastic, we are going to go for paper, right? Like, because we want to support the environment, too."

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