Take-out containers and other plastics are on the way out. Here’s how companies are adapting

Mithun Mathew, owner of the SpiceX restaurant in St. John’s, welcomes the plastic ban, but fears it will affect both the availability and cost of other options. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

When the federal government announced this week that it would ban six types of single-use plastic, St. John’s restaurant owner Mithun Mathew was caught off guard.

While he agrees with the federal government’s desire to end the use of many plastics, he worries what the changes will mean for SpiceX, the Indian takeout he owns – including meet the expense of finding alternatives to the take-out containers that are ubiquitous to thousands of small businesses across the country.

“Everyone is going to switch to paper containers. So the price is going to be…very high,” Mathew said.

Mathew said the Newfoundland and Labrador government’s 2020 plastic bag ban has caused issues, both in terms of cost and the availability of paper alternatives. Paper bags, he said, cost about five to six times more than plastic bags.

He fears the same thing will happen again.

Mathew says he currently uses paper and plastic take-out containers, depending on what is available from the supplier.

“Sometimes we get… paper containers, but sometimes they run out, so you have to find another option. We can’t close the store just because of that,” he said.

The federal ban includes six types of single-use plastics — straws, stir sticks, cutlery, take-out containers, plastic bags and six-pack rings.

Ottawa, which aims to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030, plans to ban such products in stages, with take-out containers to be phased out by the end of the year.

“It’s something we agreed with”

At least one St. John’s business will not be affected by the upcoming ban on these items.

The Quidi Vidi brewery switched to cardboard packaging for its cans about two years ago.

A young man smiles at the camera.
Justin Fong is Director of Sales and Marketing at Quidi Vidi Brewery in St. John’s. Fong says the brewery switched to paperboard packaging for its cans about two years ago to be more environmentally friendly. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

“It was a pretty easy decision to make,” said Justin Fong, the company’s director of sales and marketing.

“We use millions of beer cans a year. And if each, you know, eight or 12 of them are plastic, that’s no good.”

He said the cost associated with the decision was worth it.

“Any time you do something environmentally friendly, there’s usually a little more cost value,” Fong said. “But it’s something we were okay with.”

‘Those are definitely baby steps

Environmental organizations in the province and across Canada have been calling for the ban for years.

Atlantic Healthy Oceans Initiative (AHOI), a non-profit organization based in Norris Point on the west coast of Newfoundland, organizes beach cleaning and litter audits throughout Gros Morne National Park since 2019.

WATCH | Restaurant owner Mithun Mathew has mixed feelings about an impending plastics ban:

Banning plastic take-out containers will cause complications, restaurant owner says

Mithun Mathew, owner of SpiceX in St. John’s, tells Henrike Wilhelm he supports a new federal ban, but also expects additional costs to make the change

While founder and executive director Rebecca Brushett welcomes the ban, she has some reservations about its scope.

“These are definitely baby steps,” Brushett said. “We commend the federal government for taking these steps. But there is certainly much more to do.”

Brushett says banned items make up just 2.7% of all plastics picked up during AHOI cleanups. Of 20,000 pieces audited over the past two years, 427 were straws, 11 six-pack rings, 115 plastic bags, 145 cutlery and 77 take-out containers.

She thinks more plastic items should be banned, such as plastic tampon applicators, bottles and flea bags, as they often end up polluting the environment.

“It seeps into our river systems and it goes into our oceans, … and eventually breaks down,” she said. “But it doesn’t actually biodegrade.”

The problem may affect the food chain

Animals, Brushett said, often mistake small pieces of plastic, called nurdles, for zoo and phytoplankton, eat it, and pass it to humans through the food chain.

Brushett added that the plastic in the water acts like a magnet and attracts chemicals, and it also harms animals and humans.

The federal government intends to ban a variety of single-use plastic items over the next few years. (Lauren McCallum Radio Canada)

Lucy Bain, coordinator of the Problem with Plastics project with the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, said the ban is not broad enough.

“More of those six items need to be banned,” Bain said, citing hot and cold drink cups, pouches, produce bags, cigarette filters and pouches as examples.

“We are in a plastic crisis for many different items.”

The ban will come into effect in phases over the next 18 monthsa timeline which Bain criticizes.

“It was originally announced in 2019. We are now in 2022. And some of the bans won’t come into effect until 2025,” she said.

Rebecca Brushett, far right, and workers after a beach cleanup in July 2020 at Cow Head. (Rebecca Brushet)

For Mathew, the timing means it’s time to look for plastic-free alternatives.

He would like to see more government support, such as grants, during this period to address both cost and availability issues.

But, he also sees the positive side of the ban.

“It’s going to help the environment… For my kids in the future, it’s going to be really helpful,” Mathew said.

“If we have a cheaper option, of course we’re not going to go for plastic, we’re going to go for paper, right? Like, because we also want to support the environment.”

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