Plastic wasteland
Credit: Kagan McLeod

Plastic creates problems that last forever. It’s time companies reduced its use in packaging, says columnist Steve Burgess

Whole foods? Great in theory, but in real life inconvenient and annoying. Much better to cut them up and enclose them in plastic. Presumably that’s why the Whole Foods Market Inc. supermarket chain briefly tried marketing pre-peeled oranges in plastic containers—at least until a Twitter user named Nathalie Gordon came across the product in a California store in 2016. Her photo, posted with the comment “If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them,” inspired a furor and forced Whole Foods to go back to the old-school practice of selling oranges packaged in orange peels.

Plastic has long been essential to modern retailing—packaging, shipping and branding. Sanitation, shelf life and bright logos are among the advantages offered by plastic packaging. And the disadvantages? Those are, so to speak, downstream. “Plastic never biodegrades; it only gets broken down into smaller and smaller pieces called micro-plastics,” says Brianne Miller, co-founder of Nada (formerly called Zero Waste Market), a package-free grocery store that has opened various pop-up locations in Vancouver. “Micro-plastics easily make their way into the food chain when they are consumed by animals and fish lower on the food chain,” Miller adds. “When these fish and birds get eaten by bigger ones, and ultimately by people at the top of the food chain, the toxins bioaccumulate, resulting in much higher concentrations.”

Imagine life on Earth if no one ever died. Then consider that virtually all of the plastic ever created still exists. A plastic water bottle has an estimated life of 450 years. “Many of us don’t make the connection that once a plastic item is created, it never goes away,” Miller says. “It only changes form.”

A 2015 study published in the journal Science determined that 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic ended up in the ocean in 2010 alone and predicted a tenfold increase over the next 10 years.

But the problem isn’t defined simply by excess use of plastic packaging—it’s the follow-up, or lack of it. Anyone who’s ever shopped in Japan has encountered that nation’s almost bizarre layers of product swaddling—pears encased in individual foam webbing, then placed in boxes filled with shredded packing material, the box then wrapped and bagged; bananas sitting on store shelves, sheathed in plastic. And yet Japan’s proportional contribution to the global plastic glut doesn’t approach that of China because Japan is better at recycling. Laws in place since 1997 require separation of plastics, and there are elaborate trash collection schedules specifying pickup days for different materials.

In some cases, plastic packaging is a great way to prevent spoilage, breakage and food waste, Miller says. Whether it’s the best choice is a complicated question requiring a life cycle analysis for each package. “There is a fine line between packaging that is necessary and packaging that is not,” she explains. “That being said, we know that landfilling and recycling is not the answer and that plastic pollution needs to be tackled at the source.”

Sexy branding is a driver of plastic use, but Miller insists that businesses can still meet branding and marketing needs without excessive packaging. Reusable container programs, digital marketing and in-store displays can all be effective, she says. Any business can take steps to reduce waste—with a potential bonus of cost savings.

The City of Vancouver is developing a zero waste strategy with an ambitious target of diverting 100 per cent of waste from landfill by 2040. Miller notes that many countries have banned single-use plastics such as cutlery, bags and containers, an example she would like to see Canadian provinces and cities follow.

An association of B.C. brewers, including the local divisions of Molson Coors Brewing Co. and Labatt Brewing Co., recently announced plans to recycle packaging in addition to bottles and cans, while the Vancouver Aquarium will no longer sell water in single-use plastic bottles. “When we were young, we were taught the three Rs,” Miller says. “We’d love to see as many schools as possible teaching the five Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot, or compost. We hope a more informed generation will be inspired to take action.”

This story has been updated to acknowledge that Zero Waste Market is now called Nada.