Nfld. & Labrador

How will N.L. comply with the 2021 single-use plastic ban? Look to Gros Morne for guidance

A trio of restaurants, along with a non-profit group, have been making Gros Morne greener for years, and they have some advice ahead of the federal ban next year.

'It will be a challenge, but it will be good,' says Rebecca Brushett of non-profit AHOI

This is some of the 300 pounds of plastic collected from a summer beach cleanup in Cow Head. Fishing gear was the primary source, with single-use plastics like straws coming in second, says Rebecca Brushett. (Rebecca Brushett)

Shores strewn with fishing gear, pop bottles and all manner of broken, unrecognizable bits of plastic: the Gros Morne area is known and marketed for its pristine beauty, but beach clean-ups tell a different story.

"The second-biggest amount of plastics we were picking up were single-use plastics, from the straws to the bottle, cup covers," said Rebecca Brushett, executive director of the non-profit group Atlantic Healthy Ocean Initiative.

Brushett welcomed Tuesday's announcement from the federal government advising that by the end of 2021, six types of single-use plastic would be banned Canada-wide. In addition to plastic grocery bags — which Newfoundland and Labrador banned Oct. 1 — straws, cutlery, six-pack rings, stir sticks and hard-to-recycle takeout containers will be eliminated.

"It will be a challenge, but it will be good, I think, for long-term sustainability of our communities," she said.

The ban has been a Liberal promise for years, and comes on the heels of a scientific assessment that calculated 29,000 tonnes of plastic garbage ended up as litter in Canada in 2016. That problem extends to Newfoundland and Labrador, where a recent report showed the depths of plastic pollution in this province.

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, the ban remains a big request to people, businesses and communities that have grown accustomed to the convenience and cheap cost of single-use plastic, particularly in the food service industry. But a trio of connected hospitality businesses in Norris Point have been avoiding such items for years, and its chef said even before the ban, he's watched the sector change.

"I really do feel that the restaurant industry as a whole is quite responsible and has already started moving this way," said Jason Lynch, the chef at Neddies Harbour Inn, Black Spruce Restaurant and the Old Store Café.

Gros Morne is known for its scenic vistas, but groups and businesses in the region are also pushing forward on reducing the area's plastic use. (Submitted by Aimee Doiron)

Café ahead of the curve

At the Old Store Café, slim wooden forks and knives accompany paper-based takeout containers. Lynch said those items do come at a cost, but it's not as big as some may believe.

"Years ago, the cost difference was fairly large," said Lynch. When Neddies Harbour Inn opened 13 years ago, he said, green options were 10 times the price of their plastic counterparts.

"But that's changed. It's become more competitive, and especially where there's been a real push to move away from plastic, it's created more competitors on the market, so it's helped bring price down."

Lynch estimated the incoming ban may add a few cents on to the price tag of takeout. And while in the early days he spent time scouring for alternatives to plastic, he said businesses that will soon have to switch will have an easier time.

"Just talk to your suppliers. I mean, most of them have the alternatives now, where years ago they didn't," he said.

"It doesn't take as much research or digging as it once did."

The owners of the Old Store Café in Norris Point have been focusing on recyclable and compostable takeaway items since it opened four years ago. (Jason Lynch)

Getting help with greenwashing

There are pitfalls to moving away from single-use plastic.

Other options aren't created equal, such as bioplastics, a catch-all term for a variety of alternatives that are either made from biological sources, such as lobster shells, or are biodegradable only in industrial, highly sophisticated composting settings.

It can be hard to separate out what is best for the environment, and Brushett's group is trying to do that research on behalf of those businesses that will soon have to consider the bewildering options. This summer, AHOI hired an intern that looked at what alternatives to plastic realistically work for the province.

"She actually looked at different suppliers that provided eco-friendly alternative products that can biodegrade in our backyard, not just in specific facilities that are built for certain recyclables," said Brushett.

"We really focused on that, because it's rural Newfoundland and we don't have the setup to recycle properly."

AHOI recently received two years' worth of funding from the federal Department of Environment and Climate Change to move Gros Morne, with its seven communities, toward being a plastic-free region by 2025. Brushett is excited to further projects to take the area well past the federal ban's requirements, but said the spinoffs of their work will have an impact across the province.

"From the work we're doing, we will have a best practice report, a how-to guide for any other community to do their part and move in a more efficient manner, and to better understand what types of products to use rather than just buying the first one that comes up on Google," she said.

Brushett, right, and Atlantic Healthy Oceans Initiative workers cleaned up a Cow Head beach in July. The group now has federal funding to increase its anti-plastic work. (Rebecca Brushett)

More education needed

The federal ban will help her group's momentum, Brushett said, but she hopes the government also realizes the need to educate.

"I think there should definitely be more support, financially and just with resources available online," she said.

Lynch, too, would like to see the ban implemented in such a way that it doesn't create more harm for the environment, or stress out industries.

"The federal ban is not a magic fix. I think it will start moving the needle in the right direction," he said.

"We're going to have to be careful in that switch, that we're not having another, bigger impact somewhere else on our environment."

In announcing the national ban, Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal minister of the environment, said regulations will be finalized by the end of 2021. 

The federal government unveiled which single-use plastics will be covered by a national ban coming into effect in 2021. (CBC Graphics)

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