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CPMA Corner - The Material Nature: A Plastics Debate

Plastic packaging is a contentious issue at the moment, as it has been thrust into the global spotlight in the past couple years, with attention building in recent months. The daunting visuals we’ve become all too familiar seeing in mainstream media and on social media have spread like wildfire and resulted in increasing worldwide awareness of plastic waste. Whether it’s a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril or an ocean garbage patch composed mainly of plastics, our global community is starting to take note of harmful plastic waste.

As a result, many consumers with a nominal understanding of the significance of plastics in their daily lives are quick to jump at the suggestion of national and international plastic bans—a sign of the rapid speed of feedback in this digital age. But customers expect changes to be taking place immediately, to be wide spanning, and most importantly, to be at no cost to themselves—the end consumer.

Various governments, as well as national and international organizations, have taken steps to commit to change with regards to plastic usage. Just months ago, in May 2019, nearly every country in the world agreed to a legally binding framework established by the United Nations (UN) for reducing polluting plastic waste—with a notable exception being the United States. The historic 186-country agreement holds nations accountable for the movements of plastic waste, even beyond their borders.

Nearly one year prior to the UN agreement, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the European Union adopted the Ocean Plastics Charter in June 2018. The charter included commitments to work with the industry to achieve significant reduction and recyclable goals by 2030 and 2040.

“Our global community is starting to take note of harmful plastic waste.”

Ron Lemaire, President, Canadian Produce Marketing Association

In Canada, this led to commitments from the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) to work together to address plastic waste. The CCME’s Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste, approved on November 23, 2018, noted that, “achieving the vision of a circular economy for plastics will require that actions be taken in many areas, in some cases to enhance current performance, and in others, to transform and adopt new practices and behaviours.”

Most recently, on June 10, 2019, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government’s commitment to “ban harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021 (such as plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks) where supported by scientific evidence and warranted, and take other steps to reduce pollution from plastic products and packaging work.” Trudeau’s pledge also aims to “work with provinces and territories to introduce standards and targets for companies that manufacture plastic products or sell items with plastic packaging so they become responsible for their plastic waste.”

In the weeks before Trudeau’s announcement, the Canadian Producing Marketing Association (CPMA) began to take action within the produce industry by establishing the CPMA Plastics Packaging Working Group to identify a path forward to address the use of plastics within the produce sector, identify efforts already undertaken by the industry, determine best practices, and develop an industry-supported roadmap to maintaining food quality and safety while reducing the environmental impact of plastics.

CPMA, with the support of our members and allied partners, hopes to support efforts within our sector to ensure we have a vision based on sound science and business best practices that allows the opportunity for the produce industry to identify, prioritize, and implement systems-wide changes.

The fresh fruit and vegetable industry is unique in that we operate in a volatile environment that requires businesses to move highly-perishable produce throughout the supply chain to reach the end consumer—in immaculate condition, no less.

In early July, the CPMA Plastics Packaging Working Group met for a one-day seminar which featured research presentations from subject matter experts speaking on topics including general industry landscape related to plastic use, Canadian regulatory review, economic analysis, public opinion studies, the psychology of consumer decision making, and challenges and opportunities in both our current state of recycling and our current state of plastic packaging. The group also heard an update on the Government of Canada’s plastics initiative from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Following this meeting, the working group has set forth to create a roadmap to guide the next steps. It is essential that due process be undertaken to address this multifaceted issue in our industry.

As an example, a precarious aspect of the proposed measures in Canada, which is of the utmost importance to the produce sector, is trade. Canada’s fresh fruit and vegetable industry relies on imports from countless international trading partners and our final recommendations will need to ensure we are taking these partners into consideration. This is just one element among a myriad of others that we will be considering going forward.

We have a sizeable challenge before us as we balance customer ideals versus industry practicality, all the while considering legal and regulatory requirements coming into effect. Ultimately, we remain dedicated to pursuing viable solutions that will work for the entire industry.

Contributing Author

President, Canadian Produce Marketing Association