Science

Metro, Sobeys among companies called out for not doing enough to reduce harmful chemicals

Some major names in Canadian retail, including Metro, Sobeys and the parent company of Tim Hortons, have received a failing grade in one environmental group's report card ranking businesses on their commitment to reduce certain chemicals and plastics in the products and packaging they carry.

Some retailers phasing out bisphenols, phthalates, other substances, but some lag behind, advocacy group says

Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Tim Hortons, is among several companies that received an F in a report grading large businesses on the reduction of certain potentially harmful chemicals and plastics in their products and packaging. A spokesperson for Tim Hortons says the chain is 'striving to do better' and plans to update its packaging by early 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Some major names in Canadian retail, including Metro, Sobeys and the parent company of Tim Hortons, have received a failing grade in one environmental group's report card ranking businesses on their commitment to reduce certain chemicals and plastics in the products and packaging they carry.

Restaurant Brands International (which includes Tim Hortons), Metro, Sobeys and Alimentation Couche-Tard (which includes Circle K and Couche-Tard) all received a grade of F on a "retailer report card" compiled by the advocacy group Toxic-Free Future and contributed to by various environmental organizations, including Environmental Defence Canada.

The report card, which was published last week, is the group's fifth annual evaluation examining chemical use by large U.S. and Canadian retailers.

It grades the companies on several criteria, including whether they have policies committing to using safer chemicals, a commitment to public disclosure and whether they have taken any action to reduce the specific chemicals that the group has identified as potentially harmful to health or the environment.

According to the report, companies with high grades have:

  • Adopted specific goals and timelines for reducing these substances.
  • Compiled lists of chemicals and plastics they've committed to limiting.
  • Worked with their suppliers to ensure adherence to their policies.
  • Are transparent with customers and other stakeholders.

For instance, Apple, which led the 50 companies ranked, scored some points toward its A+ grade for replacing methanol, xylene, cyclohexane, acetone and methyl ethyl ketone in the cleaning products it uses during the manufacturing of its products with safer alternatives, such as ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, glycerol and water.

It was also praised for setting a goal to phase out all plastics from its packaging by 2025.

Report urges reduction of bisphenols, phthalates

The report's authors say retailers not managing their use of chemicals risk damage to their reputations, and the report card is a way to motivate them by comparing them against their peers.

"Retailers are increasingly phasing out entire classes of toxic chemicals," the report says.

It identifies a series of chemicals retailers should target, including:

  • Bisphenols, which are used in plastics and receipt paper. The Canadian government declared Bisphenol A toxic in 2010, and some experts say its replacement, Bisphenol S, may be just as bad or worse.
  • Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS and sometimes called "forever chemicals" because they last long in the environment. They are common in food packaging and found in everything from non-stick cookware to firefighting foam.
  • Ortho-phthalates, which are used to make PVC and are found in personal care products such as perfumes, nail polish and lotions as well as flooring, footwear and sports equipment.
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC, or vinyl) and expanded polystyrene foam, which the report's authors say include hazardous chemicals in their production.

Make policies public, authors say

The group that put together the report card wants companies to go beyond what is required by regulators and reduce their reliance on products and packaging that contain what it calls chemicals of high concern — substances that are persistent, bioaccumulative and potentially harmful to humans or the environment.  

It recommends retailers:

  • Adopt and make public policies on reducing, eliminating or substituting potentially harmful chemicals and plastics in products, packaging and the supply chain.
  • Set clear, measurable goals.
  • Demonstrate continuous progress in meeting those goals.

The report is largely positive in its assessment of the 50 companies it graded, touting the progress made over the last five years by about 70 per cent of them, but it calls the 12 companies that received F grades "laggards."

Metro was criticized as one of only four companies that the report says have made "zero progress" in the last three years.



"There is no indication that Metro has made any significant public-facing commitments to address the safety of chemicals used in the products it sells, including any indirect food additives that may be in food-contact materials," the report says.

Indirect additives are trace amounts of substances that get into food through packaging, storage or handling. Health Canada says it prohibits the sale of food in packages "that may impart any substance to the contents which may be harmful to the consumer of the food," though in most cases, it's the responsibility of manufacturers and distributors to ensure the safety of the packaging.

In an email, Metro spokesperson Stephanie Bonk said the company "was unaware of this report and therefore cannot comment," though she said the company had "taken note" of it and would look into it. 

RBI, the parent company of Tim Hortons, faces similar criticism in the report. 

"RBI has not publicly documented progress on reducing chemicals of high concern or plastics of environmental health concern going beyond regulatory compliance in the last three years," the report says.

However, the company gets credit for "restricting bisphenol A (BPA) in food-contact materials and for setting a goal to eliminate expanded polystyrene foam in all food packaging globally by 2021."

Tim Hortons to update packaging by early 2022

A Tim Hortons spokesperson said that all its products and packaging meet Health Canada and Canadian Food Inspection Agency standards and that the company has strict guidelines about food safety.

"We're always striving to do better and continuously review our policies on raw materials," the spokesperson said.

Tim Hortons said it has been working with Canadian suppliers over the past year to develop and test packaging free of PFAS and is ahead of the industry standard in this regard.

"The updated packaging materials will be introduced at all Tim Hortons restaurants in Canada, with the goal to complete the transition by early 2022," the spokesperson said.

Sobeys ranked 44th out of the 50 companies graded and also received an F. (Sam Nar/CBC)

The report also says "there is no indication that Sobeys is taking substantial action" to address indirect food additives, toxic chemicals or plastics. And the report says Alimentation Couche-Tard has made no obvious commitments to address similar issues.

The two companies did not reply to a request for comment.

Loblaws, which received a C grade, was the highest-rated Canadian company.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

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