Plastics ban could spur Canadian companies to tackle harder-to-replace packaging, say industry watchers

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at what effect the new Canadian plastics ban will have on Canadian industry, and how nickel mining could become greener.

Also: Is it the solar car's time to shine?

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This week:

  • Plastics ban could spur Canadian companies to tackle harder-to-replace packaging, say industry watchers
  • Solar cars: Is it their time to shine?
  • Nickel is a key element of electric vehicles — but mining it takes an environmental toll

Plastics ban could spur Canadian companies to tackle harder-to-replace packaging, say industry watchers

Packaged meet in a grocery store display case.

The federal government passed a ban on six categories of single-use plastics last week, but some Canadian businesses have been preparing for a while.

In March, for example, the Nova Scotia-based supermarket chain Sobeys put out a countrywide call to industry — dubbed the Plastic Waste Challenge — to design a sustainable replacement for the plastic and polystyrene (commonly known as Styrofoam) packaging used for meat.

"We decided to really pursue it as a challenge for the rest of Canada and see what people could come up with," said Doug Jones, CEO of IGNITE Atlantic, a business advocacy organization that partnered with Sobeys and government-funded non-profits to source alternatives to polystyrene meat packaging ahead of the federal action.

Details about the alternatives are protected by a non-disclosure agreement, but Jones said the proposals include a variety of "innovations" that are recyclable or compostable.

Passed last Wednesday, the federal ban targets the "manufacture, import and sale" of the following categories of single-use plastic: checkout bags; cutlery; foodservice ware made from or containing plastics; ring carriers (for six-packs); stir sticks; and straws. For most of these items, the bancomes into effect in December; plastic ring carriers will get an extra six months' grace period.

The products named in the federal ban can be eliminated "without really skipping a beat," said Tony Walker, a professor of environmental studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax who advised the federal government on itsZero Plastic Waste Agenda andOceans Plastics Charter.

Walker said it's important for Ottawa to target the "low-hanging fruit" — products for which there are ready alternatives and that can be banned without too much pushback — because it incentivizes industry to think critically about the design and deployment of future plastics that are harder to replace.

The six federal categories capture several subcategories, in some cases covering a wide variety of products. "Foodservice ware," for example, includes items ranging from clamshell takeout containers to the meat packaging that Sobeys aims to address.

For Sobeys, the exercise fits within its track record of corporate social responsibility. For Nova Scotians, it shows that plastic bans, whether provincial or federal, require industry and community buy-in to be successful. Single-use plastic checkout bags have been absent from Nova Scotia grocery stores since theprovincial government banned them in October 2020.

Advocates and researchers expect the federal ban to follow a similar pattern across the country, although it will require research-based followup and government support.

"We have to start somewhere," said Karen Wirsig, program manager for plastics with Environmental Defence. "These items really do cause havoc."

The federal government expects the regulations to cut about three per cent of the plastic waste generated in Canada over a 10-year period (from 2023 to 2032).

Wirsig said the numbers don't add up to a very large "bite" out of Canada's annual plastic pollution. "It's a nibble," she said. "But it's an important nibble."

Walker warns, however, that a reliance on single-use alternatives, such as paper grocery bags, may reduce plastic pollution but still require vast amounts of land or carbon emissions to manufacture. Wirsig called these alternatives "problematic substitutions" and said items that can be reused repeatedly are the ideal replacement for single-use plastics.

Barry Cross, a professor of operations management at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said many businesses hoping to develop a "greener vessel" for their products are pursuing plant-based fibres such as bamboo, which regenerates quickly and can be grown on relatively small plots of land.

Cross said he views the ban as a "catalyst" for business innovation but added other jurisdictions, including the European Union and parts of Asia, are outpacing Canada on legislation that targets plastic waste.

Even so, Walker said buy-in from industry players like Sobeys is critical for the effectiveness of any regulation.

"Most members of the public are on board with this," Walker said. "It's great to see that another important stakeholder [industry] … is taking the lead on this."

Ben Andrews

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The Big Picture: Solar cars

It's no mystery that automakers are pivoting sharply to electric vehicles, one of the key strategies in the broader transition away from fossil fuels. But one specific type of green automotive technology has remained something of an unrealized dream: the solar car.

The idea here is a vehicle that not only runs on electricity but also generates it through solar panels embedded in its frame. On the surface, it seems like a perfect solution. Anytime the vehicle is exposed to solar rays — whether out driving or parked in the sun — it is generating power.

A number of companies have toyed with the concept. A couple of years ago, a German startup called Sono put out promotional videos for the Sion, a compact vehicle that contains "456 half cells seamlessly integrated into the body of the car," which could add 112 kilometres of range, on average, per week. Sono plans to roll out a family car next year. Meanwhile, Mercedes has revealed plans to produce an upcoming EV model with solar panels on the roof.

Dutch company Lightyear, which has been developing similar technology for years, is set to release its Lightyear 0 in November. The sleek sedan (see image below) is clad in five square metresof curved solar panels. A recent test drive by the Guardian suggests the Lightyear 0 is a very smooth machine, but that its ultimate selling feature — that it's essentially a solar array in motion — might not provide enough bang for the buck.

The vehicle, which will have a driving range of about 625 kilometres on a full charge, will sell for 250,000 euros (about $337,000 Cdn). (For comparison, the Tesla Model 3 has a range of 575 km and goes for about $77,000 Cdn.) But the Lightyear 0's solar panels will only add about 73 kilometres of range a day — in "optimal conditions," as the Guardian story notes.

A solar car, with panels on the roof and hood, drives down a highway.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Nickel is a key element of electric vehicles — but mining it takes an environmental toll

A nickel mine.

As the world moves toward renewable sources of energy, the production of batteries used for storing electricity, including in electric vehicles, is growing. As a result, demand for nickel is projected to grow significantly by 2040, according tofigures from the International Energy Agency.

Because of the energy-intensive processes required to extract the metals and minerals used in batteries, battery production has its own environmental footprint. Air pollution, water contamination and the destruction of habitats are all potential side-effects of mining nickel, of which Canada is the world'ssixth-largest supplier.

"It's really a situation where having good environmental regulations and controls in place on the mining industry is going to make a big difference," said Maddie Stone, a U.S.-based journalist who covers climate change. "They can be quite dirty without the right environmental safeguards in place."

Nickel mining in Russia — which produces some of the "worst" air pollution in the world, according to Stone — supplies Western automakers in Europe. Indonesia and the Philippines are also major global suppliers of the commodity.

Mining experts say Canada has stricter regulations on the industry, which, coupled with the country's climate commitments, means mining companies here are taking a more environmentally friendly approach.

Greg Dipple, for example, wants to turn the waste from nickel mines into large-scale carbon sinks.

"We can see a pathway towards nickel mining in the future where it produces a net positive environmental benefit from the context of greenhouse gases," said Dipple, a professor at the University of British Columbia and founder of Carbin Minerals, an environmental services company.

Dipple's approach would use the tailings — pulverized rock byproduct that comes from extracting metals and minerals from ore — as a giant sponge for carbon in the atmosphere.

Once absorbed, the carbon would become rock and remain in the earth over time in a process known as carbon mineralization. But Dipple said projects like his should be the "last thing" mining companies do — instead, they should be opting to green their operations more holistically.

"That starts with renewable electricity. It includes decarbonizing the haul fleet. You look at all your operations, you make it as low-carbon as you can and then the hard-to-abate … you take care of with your tailings," he said.

Dipple's strategy is just one example of how mine operators are reducing their environmental footprint.

There's a lot of discussion about "the social licence" to operate mines, including that local communities are benefiting, said Sasha Wilson, an associate professor and the Canada Research Chair in biogeochemistry of sustainable mineral resources at the University of Alberta.

"This has been a really major shift in the last half century or so, and it's continuing to progress in that direction."

Current changes include shifting mine operations to greener energy, such as wind and solar, and reducing reliance on fuel-powered transportation.

Nickel mining remains a necessary step toward the transition to green energy — and to power the modern conveniences societies have come to rely on, said Simon Jowitt, an economic geologist and assistant professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"If you look at some of the predictions that the World Bank, the International Energy Agency have put out there, then there's no way we can even move towards carbon neutrality without mining a heck of a lot of stuff."

Angela Asuncion, a researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario who studies the impact of mining on the global south, said stronger safeguards against ecological and social harms are needed.

"Mining is critical to the just transition towards carbon neutral economies, but we can't be complicit [in] the exploitative ways that natural resources are being extracted within vulnerable nations."

Asuncion said improving recycling processes for nickel, and other elements, will be essential in reducing the negative impacts associated with mining.

While it's likely that most nickel can be recycled, the existing stock won't be enough to meet projected demand, and more still will need to be mined, say Jowitt and Dipple.

For Dipple, the need to green mining operations is an existential issue — one that isn't limited by technology, but by political and social will.

"This is a chance for the mining industry to fix its problems," he said. "If they don't, we're not going to transform our economy."

Jason Vermes

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