The Future of Takeout Packaging

Written by Grayce Yuen

On November 16, 2023, the Federal Court retroactively declared the Single-Use Plastic Ban invalid and unlawful. But what does this mean for Canadian businesses?

The term “Single-Use Plastics” is an umbrella term for common utensils such as drinking straws, cutlery, plates, drink stirrers and bags made from conventional, degradable and compostable plastics, including bioplastic and oxo-degradable materials. Foodservice items, take-out packaging, and drink containers made from expanded polystyrene are also included in this definition. The court found that the classification of all these items as “plastics” was too broad to be listed as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), resulting in the policy being overturned.

The ban on single-use plastics gave a huge push to Canadian businesses to solely provide bamboo and paper products. With the ban lifted, will plastics be making a comeback? Many businesses are opting to remain sustainable instead of reverting to traditional single-use plastics by exploring biodegradable and reusable alternatives.

Although the rationale behind the plastic ban in Canada was valid, as petrochemicals damage the environment, the ban itself was deemed not justified as “plastics” was too wide a definition to ban an entire category. While consumers and businesses agree that reliance on single-use plastics is unsustainable, sourcing from only bamboo and paper was expensive and not always effective. Looking ahead, the future of plastic takeout packaging can find a middle ground in developing products that are compostable, biodegradable, multi-purpose, and sustainable.

To explore this further, we can turn to the cutlery market, which remains one of the most sought-after single-use utensils for businesses.

A leading alternative is compostable plastics, which are, by definition, biodegradable plastics that contain materials that degrade into the environment within six months. These biobased source options include sugar cane pulp, agave fibres, and other plants such as seaweed or sugar beets. The benefits of the industry are two-fold. As these biobased materials are not compostable under all conditions, upcycling them for further use can redirect these materials from landfills. Take, for example, agave waste, which is a material commonly used in the tequila production industry. For every litre of tequila produced, it is estimated that a corresponding 12 litres of organic waste are discarded, and when mismanaged, it can take fibres years to decompose. Therefore, biodegradable plastics companies such as The Sustainable Agave Company, not only redirects this biowaste but also fills a demand in the market for more sustainable single-use products that offer a durability advantage over paper alternatives, which also may contain PFAS, a known carcinogenic material that poses a risk to the environment and humans when ingested.

Another alternative is multi-use plastics, which focuses on creating packaging that consumers can use over and over. Companies such as Friendlier offer businesses the option to sell their products in multi-use plastic containers, aiming to minimize the demand for new container production. However, a major consideration for multi-use plastic production is the actual reuse rate of these containers. The policy change poses a notable shift, but it is not necessarily a step backward. While labeling all Plastic Manufactured Items (PMI) as toxic was both unreasonable and unconstitutional, this does not necessarily mean that plastic will return to being the best option for Canadian businesses in need of single-use products. As long as the production costs and consequent pricing for biodegradable, eco-friendly plastic replacements can remain competitive, it is likely that plastic alternatives will remain favoured products as consumers demand stronger commitments by businesses toward a greener earth.