British Columbia

These scientists are helping B.C. companies cut plastic pollution

As the United Nations agrees to create a global plastic treaty, B.C. businesses are eyeing more sustainable packaging for everything from tea bags to toothbrushes. A local laboratory is helping them get there.

From tea bags to toothbrushes, plastic is everywhere. This lab is looking for alternatives

Love-Ese Chile works in the Vancouver research lab she co-founded to find more sustainable plastic and packaging products. (Maria Stern)

A team of scientists in Vancouver is helping businesses in B.C. find more sustainable packaging materials as they try to curb environmentally damaging plastic waste.

Love-Ese Chile is co-founder of Regenerative Waste Labs in Vancouver, which tests plastics advertised as "compostable" to see how they actually break down.

"These materials are ending up in landfills or in the environment, and it's a huge economic burden," the University of B.C. doctorate of chemistry graduate said.

Although the company's eight-employee team doesn't invent new materials, it researches and compares eco-friendly options for other businesses, Chile explained.

The company's mission is to "improve the circular economy for bio-based products," and to research ways to "manage these materials at the end of their life."

"How can we manage plastic waste more effectively?" Chile asked. "And how we can make sure that — instead of losing its value into the environment as pollution — we're able to harness those materials and feed them back into the economic system?"

Plastic waste was the subject of this week's United Nations Environment Assembly, which resulted in a binding international agreement on plastics.

Plastic pollution has long been a concern for because of its harms to marine life. (Shutterstock / Rich Carey)

A growing number of organizations in Canada are exploring how to manage plastic waste better. Those include not just Regenerative Waste Labs, but also EcoPackers, a Toronto firm that converts plant waste into compostable plastic. In B.C., Simon Fraser University's Food Systems Lab is also doing bio-plastic research.

A McGill University laboratory studying bio-plastics and micro-plastics discovered two years ago that tea bags made of plastic can release billions of microscopic particles.

Plastics labelled "compostable" or "biodegradable" don't often break down as advertised, except under specific industrial processes not widely available in B.C., Chile said. 

Truly compostable tea bags

One of the laboratory's clients is Vancouver fair-trade tea company JusTea. Premium loose-leaf teas are too bulky for traditional paper packets, so high-end teas now often use larger plastic "silk" or "pyramid" bags. 

Tiny plastics leached from such bags are worse than people might think, said Paul Bain, JusTea's self-described "tea captain"; even corn-based or food-grade nylon ones can pollute.

So JusTea tasked Chile's team with finding something better. They came up with a sugarcane-derived tea bag.

"This new bio-based tea bag actually is compostable," Bain said. "It can go through the current waste systems all over Canada, because it can compost in three weeks."

Another lab client is Associated Labels and Packaging, which wanted truly eco-friendly bags, wrappers and lids. The lab has run "biodegradation tests" on everything from bio-plastic cutlery to toothbrushes.

Plastic in the food chain

Plastic pollution has long been a concern for scientists because of its harms to marine life.

"In the end, everything which is washed into rivers and creeks ends up in the ocean," said Jutta Gutberlet, geography professor at the University of Victoria. "The most serious impact is actually that the plastic, over time, will be broken down into smaller pieces and then it gets into the food chain."

She hopes the newly approved UN global plastic pollution treaty will restrict new plastic manufacturing and encourage a "circular economy" to recycle all plastic, while offering fair employment to communities.

"The biggest problem is that we continue to produce new plastics ... and many of these new plastic materials are not recyclable or they are just not captured in waste management," Gutberlet said in an interview from Brazil, where she researches people who earn income by collecting recyclable waste.

"If they are not 100 per cent recyclable, if there is no solution found yet, they should not be put onto the market anywhere."

Whether through new technologies or government regulations, a variety of approaches are needed to tackle a global crisis, Chile and Gutberlet agreed. As an avid science educator, Chile said she's been inspired by the diversity of her laboratory team.

Having more voices at the table, and behind the microscope, is essential to their mission, she believes.

"The more different perspectives we have when reviewing a problem, the more the solution will be wholly applicable to different people in different places."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David P. Ball

Journalist

David P. Ball is a multimedia journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. He has previously reported for the Toronto Star, Agence France-Presse, and The Tyee, and has won awards from the Canadian Association of Journalists and Jack Webster Foundation. You can send story tips or ideas to david.ball@cbc.ca, or contact him on Twitter.

With files from Thomson Reuters

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now