'We can't wait': Why more Canadians are finally getting serious about making less garbage

A growing number of Canadian consumers and businesses are taking action against single-use plastics, even before this week's meeting of G7 environment ministers in Halifax. And there's a fresh understanding that biodegradable and compostable plastics are a problem, too.

'Biodegradable' and 'compostable' may not always mean what you think

Sophie Jacazio tries to avoid plastic in her daily life. Her cupboards are mostly filled with reusable glass containers. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

Fed up with a lack of action on the rising tide of plastic pollution, a growing number of Canadian consumers and businesses are launching their own crackdowns.

"We can't wait for policies about using single-use plastics," said Sophie Jacazio, standing in the kitchen of the high-rise apartment she shares with a roommate in Toronto.

"There's no ban on plastic bags but we always refuse them. Same with straws: there's no ban but we always say, no thank you."

Jacazio has never been tempted by biodegradable or compostable plastics either, saying she knows they also present problems. She'd rather carry a glass Mason jar filled with water in her backpack instead of buying bottled water, and she takes her own containers to bulk food stores to avoid buying food packaged in plastic. 

"It's simple," she insists. "It's just a matter of getting used to it."

Viral videos make the point

Social media can take some of the credit for inspiring more consumers and businesses to adopt a new standard of eco-friendly behaviour. The backlash against plastic straws was due, in part, to a 2015 video of a suffering sea turtle that went viral on several social platforms.

Now the groundswell has broadened to include all single-use plastics, including food containers, produce bags and disposable coffee cups — so-called convenience items that are used for minutes, but will sit in landfills or pollute bodies of water for decades.

Shocking images — waves of garbage washing up on beaches, for example, or giant islands of floating plastic in the Pacific — are being widely shared.

Nothing much 'bio' about biodegradable

Consumers who want to help address the problem, though, may find it's not as simple as it seems.

Ashley Wallis, of the advocacy group Environmental Defence, says even plastic containers labelled as biodegradable or compostable can present issues.

Ashley Wallis, of Environmental Defence, examines a compostable container from the Toronto-based De La Mer fish market. (CBC)

"Biodegradable just means it breaks down into small pieces quickly," said Wallis. "That means that the volume in your landfill will decrease and you'll have more space in that landfill over time. But biodegradable does not mean: 'Hey, put this outside on your front lawn and over time it will disappear.'"

The European Parliament voted last week to adopt a resolution that would set new standards and definitions for biodegradability and compostability, she points out, which would ban oxo-degradable plastic entirely by 2020. It notes that oxo-degradable plastic "does not properly biodegrade, is not compostable and adversely affects how conventional plastic is recycled."

There are so many rules about recycling, it's not surprising consumers can be confused, Wallis said. Even 100 per cent compostable containers present issues because they can look exactly like ordinary clear plastic, she said. 

"I think your average person would put it in the recycling bin. But compostable plastics don't have the same properties as regular plastic. If that ends up in the recycling stream, it can actually contaminate all the other plastics."

Making the 'best choice'

Dave Owen owns four De La Mer fish markets in Toronto, and spent more than a year researching compostable containers and bags before finding ones "that would do what we want them to do."   

"All of the containers we use are fully compostable and biodegradable," he said. "Those can go in your garbage and it's actually going to decompose in landfill after about six months. Same thing with the bags."

While the new eco-friendly containers cost him four times as much as ordinary plastic ones, Owen says he knows they're not perfect. "The way I look at it is we're making the best choice that we can with the materials and the science that we have right now," he said.

Dave Owen, co-owner of four De La Mer fish markets in Toronto, offers customers bags and containers that look like plastic but are made of a material derived from corn. (CBC News)

According to Wallis, the real issue is that disposability has become part of how we live.   

"We have a desire to keep this sort of disposable lifestyle, where we have all these single-use products that we use for mere minutes," she said. "And we want to believe we have a way to dispose of them in a way that doesn't impact the environment." 

Avoiding any kind of plastic — and aiming for a zero-waste lifestyle, like Jacazio does — is a much better approach than using supposedly eco-friendly materials, she said.

No national strategy in Canada

Last June, the federal government announced that an oceans plastics charter had been signed at the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que. But only five of the seven countries agreed to the non-binding accord, with the U.S. and Japan as the holdouts.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna told reporters afterward that the goal is to ultimately have the entire membership sign the charter. "We're certainly working hard to get G7 leadership on board," she said. "We think that it's really important that the world comes together. Oceans don't know any borders."

An ocean plastics charter was announced at the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que., in June. But neither the U.S. nor Japan signed on to the non-binding agreement. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

McKenna will be promoting that charter again Wednesday, as a gathering of the G7 environment ministers gets underway in Halifax. She's also said she plans to bring the charter to the United Nations next week during a trip to New York.

McKenna acknowledges that Canada not only has work to do on the international stage, but there is a need for a domestic strategy at home.

"We know plastic ... is literally choking our lakes and rivers and we have to take steps to stop that or we'll have more plastic pollution than fish by 2050," she told the Canadian Press this week, ahead of the G7 meeting.

While people like Jacazio and Owen aren't waiting for legislation or policies from this week's meeting, they do agree that government has a role to play.

"I feel it would help," said Jacazio. "Because it would cover a much larger proportion of the population if it comes from the government."

Inside one of his fish stores, Owen acknowledges the challenge in getting multiple countries to agree to address the global plastic problem. "It is very difficult, but my question is, if that's not the goal, why even have the meeting?"


Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.