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Canada’s major grocery chains slow to tackle the mounting problem of plastic waste

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When you throw your food’s plastic packaging into a blue bin you probably don’t expect it to be exported across the world to be dumped or burned. But that’s exactly what could happen.

Exclusive images provided by Greenpeace show mountains of plastic packaging dumped next to palm plantations, near waterways and burned on the roadside in industrial areas to the south of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia imports plastic waste from all over the world, including Canada. Much of it is recycled, but some of the materials may be discarded due to poor quality, contamination or degradation from being improperly stored outside in the tropical climate.

Among the piles were pieces of plastic that came from Canadian grocery stores including a bag from Sobeys, a milk bag from Nova Scotia dairy Scotsburn and a burger bun bag from Ben’s Bakery.

Despite being the source of a huge amount of plastic packaging, Loblaws and Sobeys, the two largest Canadian-owned supermarket chains, don’t have targets — or at least none they were willing to share with Marketplace — to reduce the amount of plastic they sell in their stores.

A milk bag from Nova Scotia sits among the piles of plastic waste Greenpeace investigators documented in Jenjarom, Malaysia. (Greenpeace)

“Things need to change,” said Sylvain Charlebois, an expert in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

He says single-use plastics such as those used for food packaging are becoming increasingly controversial and that “companies will need to comply with what the public is beginning to expect of them.”

As Marketplace discovered, that process is much further along in the U.K. compared to Canada. Retailers there have begun to take major steps toward removing plastic from their stores.

‘We took action’

Iceland, a U.K.-based chain that specializes in frozen products, is the first supermarket in the world to commit to removing all plastic from its own products within five years.

Morrisons, another large British chain, has banned single-use plastic bags and allows customers to bring reusable containers for meat and fish. The company has also removed packaging from fruit and vegetables on a trial basis in some stores.

Andrew Thornton, owner of Thornton’s Budgens in London, has taken drastic steps to eliminate as much plastic packaging as possible from items sold in his grocery store. (CBC)

Thornton’s Budgens, a branch of the Budgens chain located in London’s Camden borough, has gone even further, becoming one of the first supermarkets in the world to introduce completely plastic-free zones throughout the store.

In 10 weeks, the store eliminated the use of plastic packaging for nearly 2,000 products including fruit, vegetables, bacon, fish, baked goods, cheese and takeout food.

“We are trashing the planet, and for me, plastic has become … one of the things that’s wrong with our society today,” store owner Andrew Thornton said.

“We took action because we could and we felt we could make a difference.”

Fruit and vegetables are packaged with compostable beechwood netting made from sawmill offcuts or have no packaging at all. Bakery products are sold as is or packaged in paper, and cheese, fish and some meats are wrapped in wax paper or compostable cellulose wrap.

“Our customers love it,” said Thornton, who plans to have the whole store “virtually plastic-free” in three years.

WATCH: British anti-plastic campaigner Frankie Gillard is shocked to see how much plastic is used to package groceries in Canada.

British anti-plastic campaigner Frankie Gillard is shocked to see how much plastic is used to package groceries in Canada. 0:56

But to take those further steps, he says he will need co-operation from major suppliers like Nestle, Unilever and Coca-Cola to find alternative packaging for their products.

Frankie Gillard of the environmental group A Plastic Planet, who oversaw the project at Thornton’s Budgens, says big supermarkets have the power to get major brands to switch to more sustainable packaging methods.

“You basically say, ‘We’re going to de-list your product otherwise,'” she said.

“They have the power to make or break a brand. So, of course, they have the power to say how it should be packaged.”

China closes its doors

If public opinion could help push the grocery giants in that direction, those mountains of plastic waste in Malaysia might provide an added sense of urgency.

Until recently, for much of the developed world, recycling meant shipping plastic to China, where it was bought as a commodity and processed cheaply to be used in new consumer products.

Western countries had grown used to this solution rather than re-processing all of their materials at home. Nearly half of the world’s plastic trash has been sent to China since 1991, according to a University of Georgia study.

But this all changed in January 2018, when China closed its doors to much of this waste as part of an effort to reduce pollution in the country. The University of Georgia study estimates the move could lead to 111 million tonnes of global plastic waste having nowhere to go by 2030.

Plastic waste is piled next to a waterway near Kuala Lumpur. (Greenpeace)  

Marketplace contacted municipal waste managers in cities across Canada to find out what impact the change has had one year on. While the challenges varied across the country, many municipalities are still facing major headaches.

“It’s a buyer’s market out there. We’re not selling material anymore, we’re paying people to take it,” said Matt Kelleher, manager of solid waste for the City of Halifax.

The business of finding markets for Canada’s plastic waste has become “hyper-competitive,” he said. Kelleher wouldn’t reveal the destination for plastic collected in Halifax’s blue bin program for fear the city could be undercut by other municipalities.

Sharon Howland, head of program management for the City of Calgary, said the municipality used to send 50 per cent of its recyclables to China. Calgary still hasn’t found a destination for some materials, including those plastic clamshells used to package things like cherry tomatoes, salads and berries.

“They’re just sitting in containers with nowhere to go,” she said.

Sobeys sells many vegetables packaged in plastic. (CBC)

Toronto and Montreal have been less negatively affected by China’s decision. Waste officials in those cities told Marketplace they work with recyclers based in Ontario and Quebec.

However, both cities are still struggling to find markets for what is known as film plastic, which is used for shopping bags, bread bags and dry cleaning bags.

“Film is a problematic one, as all of it was going to China before,” said Nadine Kerr, manager of processing and resource management for the City of Toronto.

And it is this type of plastic — including some apparently shipped from Canada — that Greenpeace found dumped in Malaysia.

Malaysian government statistics provided to Greenpeace show a sharp increase in global plastic exports to that country since China introduced its new restrictions. In the first six months of 2018, Canada shipped more than 16,000 tonnes of plastic to Malaysia.

‘Overwhelmed’

Reuben Muni, Greenpeace’s Malaysia program manager, says the country’s recycling industry is “overwhelmed by the huge influx of imported plastic waste.”

He says the global recycling system is broken and that fixing it will require the co-operation of the wealthy countries that produce so much of the waste and the countries that import it.

Since mass production of plastic began in the 1950s, the world has produced 8.3 billion tonnes of it. In Canada, just 11 per cent of plastic gets recycled, and globally that number drops to nine per cent.

Plastic has been found in the Arctic, in the deepest trenches of the oceans, in the air and in our food. By 2050, it is believed there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans per tonnage than fish.

Unlike materials such as aluminum and glass, plastic can only be re-processed a finite number of times. This means even the plastic we do manage to recycle will eventually end up as waste. Once discarded, it takes hundreds of years to break down.

A University of California, Santa Barbara study estimates that 40 per cent of plastic is used for packaging.

But reducing the amount we use as consumers is difficult when retailers provide few alternatives.

Plastic everywhere

The shelves at Canadian grocery giants Loblaws and Sobeys are filled with plastic-wrapped products.

Fruit, vegetables, eggs, bakery products and even coconuts are wrapped in plastic packaging. Meat and fish are wrapped in difficult-to-recycle foam trays, and ready-made takeout food is sold in black plastic trays that aren’t accepted for recycling in most of Canada.

Loblaws and Sobeys customers reveal how much plastic packaging comes with their groceries.

Loblaws and Sobeys customers reveal how much plastic packaging comes with their groceries. 0:57

Both stores also still provide customers with single-use plastic shopping bags, although Loblaws says it provides a billion fewer bags a year since introducing a small fee in 2009.

Marketplace reached out to both Loblaws and Sobeys to find out their targets to reduce plastic packaging in their stores.

A look at takeout options at a Loblaws store. The black trays are particularly difficult to recycle. (CBC)

In a statement, Loblaws did not reveal any specific targets, but the company did say it recognizes that “plastic packaging is an area that needs considerable attention” and that it will take “incremental steps” to tackle it.

The grocery giant says it has reduced total packaging by 4.9 million kilograms since 2009, but didn’t provide a specific figure for plastic.

Sobeys did not respond to repeated requests to share any steps the chain is taking to cut down on plastic.

‘The big change’

As for Thornton in London, he hopes the big stores will be inspired to follow his lead.

“If we … can do this in 10 weeks, what could a Loblaws, or a Tesco, or a Walmart do if they put all their resources behind it?” he said.

“That’s when the big change happens.”

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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DFO tries to allay fishermen’s fears that protected area would impact livelihood

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The two-lane highway along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore is dotted with dozens of signs declaring “No Marine Protected Area Here!”

It’s a sign, literally, of organized opposition to a proposed 2,000-square-kilometre marine protected area.

The Eastern Shore Islands area is the first coastal candidate in Canada with an active inshore commercial fishery, albeit a small one with just 150 lobster fishermen. Still, they are a mainstay of the local economy and leading the opposition.

The fishermen fear a marine protected area, or MPA, would automatically lead to so-called no-take zones, barring industrial activities like harvesting.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is moving to put those fears at rest.

“We will not be making a recommendation for there to be a zone of high protection within the MPA,” said Wendy Williams, director of DFO Maritimes Oceans Management.

A “No Marine Protected Area Here!” sign is seen along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. (Robert Short/CBC)

Last week, the department presented the results of a draft risk assessment to an advisory committee established to recommend what should or should not be allowed inside Eastern Shore Islands.

The committee was created after the department declared the unspoiled archipelago of hundreds of islands an area of interest. It is the first step on the road to designation as a marine protected area under the federal Oceans Act.

The risk assessment concluded the lobster fishery would not harm the kelp beds, eel grass and cod nursery the federal government wants to protect.

“The predominant activity that takes place there is the lobster fishery. It’s a low-impact fishery. It only operates two months a year, so we feel it’s not necessary to have a no-take,” Williams said in an interview.

“We talked to the advisory committee about that and what we heard and unanimously around the table is that they felt the same way. So in our design going forward we will not be incorporating a no-take zone.”

Fishermen seek assurances

But fisherman Peter Connors is not declaring victory.

“You have to remember this is deathbed conversion,” he said.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area.

He does not trust DFO and is seeking some sort of legally binding commitment from federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson honouring Williams’s promise.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Peter Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area. (Robert Short/CBC)

“I want to know the mechanism that he’s going to use and just how he intends to secure that for future generations,” said Connors. “I don’t want a trust me proposition and I don’t want a temporary reprieve … just because they are facing a lot of opposition now.”

Connors acknowledged a marine protected area on the Eastern Shore could help “Canada’s brand” from a marketing perspective. The country has committed to protecting 10 per cent of its ocean by 2020.

‘Give and take’

Environmentalists have watched in frustration as opposition to Eastern Shore Islands galvanized over the prospect of no-take zones.

Susanna Fuller, senior projects manager for conservation organization Oceans North, urged DFO to eliminate no-take zones from the discussion last year.

“Since it has been such an issue of contention, we are hoping that this gives the community and the fishermen a sense that they are being heard,” said Fuller.

“For this process to go forward there needs to be some give and take.”

While DFO has decided to allow unrestricted lobster fishing inside Eastern Shore Islands, Williams said no precedent has been set.

“Every MPA is different. If people have their expectations raised in any particular way because of what we’re looking at now for this MPA, they really shouldn’t. Everything is unique and we need to look at it that way,” she said.

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