Most of Ontario’s compostable packaging and plastics continue to landfill as the province wants to learn more about a sector that has long been causing consumer confusion.
The recent Blue Box overhaul plan in Ontario, which would make manufacturers pay to recycle the packaging they make, exempts any product labeled compostable.
Manufacturers of such packaging would instead have to report to the province, which says that it is a matter of “building up knowledge” before they finally switch to a producer responsibility model for compostable packaging as well.
But that exception is a mistake, says Karen Wirsig, program manager for plastics at Environmental Defense, a Canadian environmental protection organization.
“We see it as a loophole for producers to evade responsibility,” she told CBC Toronto.
“So-called compostable plastics … are brought onto the market without knowing whether they can actually be composted in existing composting plants,” says Wirsig.
She says the decision not to require companies to “develop a system to make this work” was a missed opportunity.
Products that are labeled as compostable but cannot be processed by municipal composting facilities have created confusion for consumers in Ontario. (David Donnelly / CBC)
An “opportunity to develop standards”
However, Calvin Lakhan, a researcher at York University studying waste management, argues that the government’s approach may have a silver lining.
He calls it a “step in the right direction” to start collecting data, which is currently largely unknown: What types of compostable packaging are made in Ontario and to what extent they will be certified as compostable.
“It’s an opportunity to actually develop standards and practices and formal definitions,” said Lakhan.
Currently, very few communities in Ontario accept any plastic or packaging that is labeled as compostable in its green bin.
There are a few exceptions – a single facility in Kingston that sources compostable plastics from commercial sources, for example – but on top of that, all of Ontario’s cities encourage residents to throw things like cutlery, cups, and food packaging in the trash, even if they do are labeled as “biodegradable”, “vegetable” or “certified compostable”.
But “not all compostable plastics are created equal,” says Lakhan.
He says his team helped pilot a coffee capsule that successfully crumbled into compost in city facilities in less than three months.
The pod has been certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), based in New York City, and describes itself on its website as “a science-driven organization supporting the transition to the circular economy” by promoting products that “are used in certain biologically active Fully biodegradable environments. “
“If producers adhere to these principles and standards and technical requirements, their packaging will break too,” said Lakhan.
Each facility “different from the other”
Atul Bali, CEO of Competitive Green Technologies in Leamington, Ontario, agrees that there is an urgent need to move towards data collection and standards setting for compostable packaging.
His company makes resins that can be used to make BPI-certified compostable products such as food storage and beverage containers.
“It seems like a hopeful sign to me, but I think it’s still not enough, “Bali continued, arguing that the government should also invest in upgrading composting facilities.
CBC Toronto has identified only one facility in the province that accepts certified compostable products but only takes items from commercial sources. (Kate Porter / CBC)
“I’ve been to maybe 15 or 16 of these composting centers across the country and each one is different from the other.”
But there’s a debate about where this type of investment should come from – with voices like Environmental Defense’s Karen Wirsig arguing that if someone pays to upgrade facilities, it should be the compostable packaging companies.
The provincial government says it will need “robust data” to figure out an “effective approach to producer responsibility” but does not provide a timetable for when this might come together.
The provincial compostable packaging manufacturers’ first report is due in October 2021.