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Almost two-thirds of products in these 4 key grocery store departments come in plastic packaging: report

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A new report suggests that almost two-thirds of products across four key departments in Canada’s grocery stores are packaged in plastic.

The report, released Tuesday by the organization Environmental Defence, audited produce, soups, baby food and pet food aisles at 54 high-traffic grocery stores across Canada, including Loblaw, Metro, Walmart, and Empire, the parent company of Sobeys.

From their analysis on 40,000 products, they found that, on average, nearly two out of every three products in the departments of produce, baby food, pet food and soups had significant plastic packaging, with produce and baby food being the worst offenders.

In produce aisles, 71 per cent of products had plastic packaging, while more than 75 per cent of baby food products came in plastic packaging.

“People in Canada are sick of all the plastic they bring home from the grocery store,” Karen Wirsig, Senior Program Manager for Plastics at Environmental Defence, and author of the report, said in a press release. “This research shows plastic has become practically unavoidable and people are right to be frustrated. Too many groceries are packed in throwaway plastic and all the retailers we looked at were guilty.”

Canada is working towards eliminating single-use plastic packaging, having banned the manufacture and import of certain plastic packaging such as cutlery, checkout bags and most plastic straws as of December 2022 and having pledged to “divert at least 75 per cent of plastic waste from federal operations by 2030.” 

According to Environmental Defence, more than half of the four million tonnes of plastic discarded in Canada each year is plastic packaging. The vast majority of it, more than 85 per cent, is not recyclable.

While it may not be surprising to see plastic packaging in grocery stores, researchers noted that we generally expect to see less packaging when it comes to fruits and vegetables, making their position as one of the most highly packaged groups a concerning finding for researchers.

“It is alarming to see all this plastic on our grocery shelves, particularly in the aisles where you’d expect to find the healthiest, safest options like baby food and fresh produce,” Wirsig said. “The plastic pollution crisis has never been more obvious and urgent but despite this, no government or grocery chain has announced plans to address the plastic packaging identified in our report.”

The report noted that grocery stores appeared to be incentivizing customers to purchase produce packaged in plastic at a higher rate — products that were pre-packaged together in bulk tended to be cheaper by weight than those that weren’t packaged.

Grocery stores have made moves in the last few years to attempt to align with Canada’s phasing out of single-use plastic. Loblaw announced in June 2022 that they would be phasing out all single-use plastic shopping bags by the end of the first quarter of 2023, while Metro stopped offering them in September 2022.

The grocery store data in this new report came from an audit that Environmental Defence commissioned MCA Inc. to perform on their behalf in the fall of 2022. The audit focused on the four departments of products, soups, baby food and pet food because these all involve products that, they say, can largely be sold without the need for plastic, using either metal, glass or paper packaging, or no packaging at all in the case of produce.

Soup had the lowest percentage of plastic packaged items, at 35 per cent.

Although pet food had a lower percentage of products packaged in plastic compared to baby food and produce, the report found that this percentage appears to be increasing with time rather than decreasing.

They noted that “flexible” plastic pouches, which stand upright and usually are sealed with a zip-lock, are often found in the baby food and pet food aisles, “where plastic is rapidly replacing recyclable materials, such as metal and paper.”

Around 66 per cent of pet food products were packaged in plastic, but this varied widely across chains, from as low as 58 per cent having plastic packaging to as high as 76 per cent depending on the store.

This was the only category in which there was significant variations between stores.

“If you shop at a major local grocery store, you will not be able to avoid single-use plastic packaging,” the report stated.

The report recommended that governments step up their attempts to erase single use plastic by banning plastic packaging that is not generally recycled, or is not possible to recycle, as well as setting a legal requirement for labelling chemicals in food packaging and setting higher targets for the safe recycling of plastic packaging.

Canada launched two consultations in July 2022 to develop rules for labelling products as recyclable or compostable, and to establish a federal plastic registry for producers of plastic products. The new labelling rules would prevent manufacturers from labelling a product as recyclable if the majority of Canadians did not have access to a recycling system that could process it. By 2030, all plastic packaging in Canada will also be required to contain at least 50 per cent recycled content, as part of the zero plastic waste plan.

The report also had recommendations for retailers, saying that between now and 2025, retailers should eliminate plastic packaging from 90 per cent of produce and encourage the use of reusable produce bags, eliminate the use of plastic packaging in baby food and introduce or ramp up reuse and refill options in their stores, among other recommendations. 

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