Packaging Misconceptions Unwrapped

RECIPE TO RETAIL: Part 23…

In this age of plastic dependency and growing mountains of packaging waste, brand owners need to take responsibility. The consumer conscience is shifting in favour of sustainable packaging and affecting purchase decisions.

Before jumping on the bandwagon and giving misinformed consumers what they are asking for, consider the following misconceptions about packaging.

Misconception #1: All plastics are recyclable.

Unfortunately that is not the case. For example, up to 30% of blue box recycling materials in Ontario end up in landfill. Non-recyclables that contaminate the recycling stream include black plastic containers, snack food bags, plastic squeeze tubes, beverage bottles with plastic shrink sleeves and bio-based plastics. Resealable stand-up pouches are increasingly popular but problematic for recycling. Most facilities cannot process multi-material laminates and during the sorting process pouches get mixed in with paper. 

Misconception #2: Biodegradable and compostable packaging is the perfect solution for our waste woes.

Consumers and eco-conscious brands have a penchant for biodegradable and compostable packaging. And scientists are working feverishly to develop innovative solutions like bio-plastics, made from a variety of bio-based materials like cornstarch, milk protein and seaweed.

However, these materials may not be viable solutions due to waste processing limitations. Biodegradable and compostable packaging ends up in landfill or contaminates the recycling and composting streams. The City of Toronto considers it a composting contaminant because of its incompatibility with anaerobic digestion, stating “anything that behaves like a plastic, regardless of what it is made of, is removed and sent to landfill”.

According to Health Canada’s Draft Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution,“although biodegradable plastics and bioplastics are increasingly being used as alternatives to conventional plastics, they may not degrade more readily than conventional plastics once in the environment.” 

Misconception #3: Recycling and waste management programs are the same everywhere. 

What makes waste management especially challenging is that recycling programs in Canada are managed by municipalities, with each having their own system, capabilities and material restrictions. Ontario, for example, has 240 municipal recycling programs with various requirements for recyclable materials.

When evaluating packaging options don’t rely solely on claims made by packaging suppliers.

Misconception #4: The brand’s responsibility ends when the product is sold.

One of the challenges is that brands can’t control how and where consumers discard packaging. Consumers struggle and often give up when sorting waste because it is virtually impossible to distinguish between recyclable, compostable and biodegradable and dispose of it in the right place.

Under Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations producers of packaging are responsible for paying the environmental costs after the materials are discarded. Legislation already exists in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

For beverage containers, most provinces and territories have beverage container deposit-return laws. Some require licensing or registration of beverage manufacturers and distributors; registration of all products; and container labelling.

How can brands step up to the challenge?

Multiple packaging components can negatively impact recyclability and compostability. This includes packaging material, colour, container size and shape, barriers, additives, closures, sleeves, labels, inks and adhesives. To understand your legal obligations contact Canadian Stewardship Services Alliance www.cssalliance.ca.

When evaluating packaging options don’t rely solely on claims made by packaging suppliers. Consult with municipalities regarding processing capabilities. Contact PAC Packaging Consortium www.pac.ca for tools and resources to understand the full scope of sustainability and make environmentally conscious packaging decisions.

Tackling proliferating packaging waste is a monumental undertaking. There is no simple solution for this complex problem. Ultimately, consumers will play a pivotal role and must change behaviours to clean up our future. And we’re all consumers.


As a packaged foods consultant, Birgit Blain helps clients think strategically to build a sustainable brand. Her experience includes 17 years with Loblaw Brands and President’s Choice®. Contact her at Birgit@BBandAssoc.com or learn more at www.BBandAssoc.com

© Birgit Blain

This article appeared in Food in Canada magazine.

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