Compostable packaging exemption in Ontario Blue Box overhaul criticized as a 'loophole'

Most compostable packaging and plastics in Ontario will continue to be sent to landfills as the province tries to learn more about a sector that has long been a source of confusion for consumers.

With most compostable plastics going to landfills, there are calls for better regulation

Ontario is set to begin collecting more data on what kinds of compostable packaging are being produced, but the companies that make it still won't be required to pay for its disposal. (CBC)

Most compostable packaging and plastics in Ontario will continue to be sent to landfills as the province looks to learn more about a sector that has long been a source of confusion for consumers. 

In Ontario's recent Blue Box overhaul plan, which would make producers pay to recycle the packaging they produce, any product that is labelled compostable is exempt.

Producers of that kind of packaging would instead have to report to the province, which says the aim is to "build knowledge" before eventually moving to a producer responsibility model for compostable packaging as well. 

But that exemption is a mistake, says Karen Wirsig, the plastics program manager at Environmental Defence, a Canadian environmental advocacy group. 

"We see it as a loophole for producers to evade responsibility," she told CBC Toronto.

"So-called compostable plastics ... are being put on the market without any sense of whether they're actually compostable in existing composting systems," said Wirsig.

She says the decision not to require the companies "to figure out a system to make this work" is a missed opportunity. 

Products that are labelled as compostable, but can't be processed by municipal compost facilities, have been a source of confusion for Ontario consumers. (David Donnelly/CBC)

An 'opportunity to develop standards' 

But Calvin Lakhan, a research scientist at York University who studies waste management, argues there's a possible silver lining in the government's approach. 

He calls it a "step in the right direction" to begin collecting data on what is, right now, largely unknown: what kinds of compostable packaging are being produced in Ontario, and by what measure they are being certified as compostable. 

"It's an opportunity to actually develop standards and practices, and formal definitions," said Lakhan. 

As it stands, very few Ontario municipalities will accept any kind of plastic or packaging labelled as compostable in their green bins. 

There are some scant exceptions — a single facility in Kingston that takes compostable plastics from commercial sources, for example — but beyond that, all Ontario cities tell their residents to throw things like cutlery, cups and food packaging in the garbage, even if they are labelled "biodegradable," "plant-based" or "certified compostable."

But "not all compostable plastics are created equal," said Lakhan.

He says his team has helped run pilot tests of a coffee pod that successfully broke down into compost in municipal facilities in under three months.

The pod was certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), which is based in New York City and describes itself on its website as "a science-driven organization that supports a shift to the circular economy" by promoting products that are "designed to fully biodegrade in specific biologically active environments."

"If producers adhere to these principles and standards and technical requirements, their packaging will break down, too," Lakhan said. 

Each facility 'different from the other' 

Atul Bali, CEO of Leamington, Ont.-based Competitive Green Technologies, agrees that a move towards gathering data and setting standards for compostable packaging is badly needed.

His company produces resins that can be used to create BPI-certified compostable products, such as food storage and drink containers. 

 "It strikes me as a hopeful sign, but I think it is still not sufficient," continued Bali, arguing that the government should invest to improve composting facilities as well. 

CBC Toronto has identified only one facility in the province that accepts certified-compostable products, but it only takes items from commercial sources. (Kate Porter/CBC)

"I've been to maybe about 15 or 16 of these composting centres around the country, and each one is different from the other." 

But there's a debate about where that kind of investment should come from — with voices like Environmental Defence's Karen Wirsig arguing that if anyone's going to pay to upgrade facilities, it should be the companies producing compostable packaging. 

The provincial government says it will need "robust data" to figure out an "effective producer responsibility approach," but doesn't give a timeline for when that might come together. 

The first report from the province's compostable packaging producers is due in Oct., 2021.