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Plastic is not our enemy. We need smart policies, not blanket bans

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A common refrain in our culture now is: plastic is evil. After all, plastics are harming marine life and might even be accumulating in our bodies. Canada’s governments have committed to some sort of action, but it remains to be seen whether they will use evidence and the lessons learned from today’s programs to get the best results, or simply throw more money at approaches that have proven unsuccessful.

Ontario is starting to face that question right now. As part of the new environment plan launched by Environment Minister Rod Phillips, the province has committed to keeping plastics, composites and other packaging materials out of landfills and moving recycling programs to a “producer responsibility” model, where industry runs and pays for the system.

The province has set lofty goals of diverting more, consuming less and creating a circular economy. This transition offers an excellent opportunity to focus the entire waste diversion system on what’s best for our environment and for individual Canadians — and not just on who pays for it.

Adding up the costs

Today’s system has big problems. Ontario recycling rates have actually trended down for the past three years, but the system’s costs keep rising. Since 2002, the cost of operating Ontario’s Blue Box system has increased by 214 per cent, ballooning by almost $200 million.

A key factor in those cost increases has been the packaging switch to lightweight and composite plastics (plastic laminates, paper laminates, polystyrene crystal, plastic film such as grocery bags, etc.). Those items make up just over 2 per cent of all Blue Box material recycled in Ontario, but contribute over 16 per cent of overall system costs — $423 million since 2002, with virtually no results. Why? These items are tough to recycle and have little value even if they are.

A popular sentiment is to prohibit the use of these materials, particularly single-use plastics. If they can’t really be recycled and are ending up in our landfills, the obvious choice is to ban them, right? 

Lighter and more flexible packaging also mean reduced transportation greenhouse gas emissions, as more material can be safely transported per shipment. (Emily Chung/CBC)

Well, no. A growing body of academic literature paints a more positive picture when you look at the entire lifecycle of those plastics. For starters, they help to reduce food waste by enabling longer shelf lives in stores and in kitchens at home. This means emissions savings from avoided food waste/spoilage, and food source reduction. Lighter and more flexible packaging also mean reduced transportation greenhouse gas emissions, as more material can be safely transported per shipment.

Often times, these savings more than offset the environmental impacts of not being able to recycle those plastics, even when they go to landfill. 

Cost impacts on consumers are also important. While it’s nice to “make business pay” for dealing with the packaging it generates, costs inevitably trickle down to the consumer. This environmental sticker shock is especially important for people in lower-income households, who tend to spend more of their food dollars on packaged products, and who benefit from being able to cut food waste by storing unused food for later.

Rooting decisions in evidence

Governments across Canada face a fundamental policy question: What is the goal of our waste management system? Do we want recycling at any cost, or do we want to maximize environmental outcomes, while keeping costs down for individual Canadians?

As provinces across Canada consider producer responsibility, we need to ensure that policy decisions are rooted in data and evidence, and not emotionally or politically driven narratives. Blanket bans on certain materials and urging consumers to buy less might seem attractive, but the consequences of those decisions could lead to both environmentally and economically undesirable outcomes.

While it may seem counterintuitive, the decision to recycle everything, everywhere, is detrimental to Canadians. Like it or not, the environmental benefits of certain plastics resulting from avoided food waste (cling wrap, freezer bags etc.) can offset the negative impacts of that material ending up in a landfill.  While “zero waste” and “circular economy” are things we should work toward, we must also be practical and pragmatic in our approaches.

Canadians will face tough questions as we move forward – what materials should we prioritize for recovery? How do we encourage waste reduction and reuse? Does all packaging need to be recycled? How do we contain cost? And who will pay for it all? Simply declaring a war on plastics is not the answer.


This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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