Canada’s Position on Packaging: The Upcoming Requirements for Federal Procurement

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Governments across the globe are grappling with the , which threatens wildlife, marine ecosystems and may negatively impact human health. To deal with this threat, the Government of Canada is demonstrating leadership by pledging to increase plastic waste diversion, reduce single-use plastic in its operations, meetings and events, and procure sustainable plastic products.

In September 2019, the federal government put out a Request for Information (RFI) on upcoming requirements on packaging in public services and Procurement Canada procurement to a variety of stakeholders, including industry, suppliers, and non-profit and environmental groups. The government requested input on how to reduce waste through more sustainable packaging requirements in federal procurement. It also sought to ascertain suppliers’ readiness for sustainable packaging requirements.

The RFI is one of a series of steps that Canada has taken to demonstrate leadership in the fight against single-use plastic. Over the past few years, Canada has spearheaded the international Ocean Plastics Chartercommitted to a ban on harmful single-use plastics by 2021 and collaborated with the Canadian Council of Minister of the Environment (CCME), an organization comprised of 14 federal, provincial and territorial ministers of the environment, on a national Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste. This Strategy has so far resulted in a Phase 1 Action Plan, but the results of the CCME’s Phase 2 consultations are still outstanding.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has reassured the public that it will continue with a plastics ban, even if a bit delayed. The government has also reiterated its commitment to designate plastics as toxic substances under theCanadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), which aims to protect the environment, human life and health from the risks associated with toxic substances. To date, the government has fulfilled one of the requirements for listing plastics as toxic substances under CEPA by releasing a Draft Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution in January 2020.

The government’s RFI process now examines the use of the federal government’s purchasing power to make smart and sustainable choices among its suppliers. Though valuable for the Government of Canada, the key lessons from industry responses obtained from this RFI process are useful for any level of government looking to demonstrate leadership and take action to reduce plastic waste in its own operations.

Key Findings of the RFI

The government reported six (6) key findings from the feedback solicited through the RFI:

  • Harmonization Challenges. Regulations around recycling infrastructure and waste management in Canada can be found at both provincial and municipal levels with capacities varying significantly between regions. This fragmentation reflects the need for harmonized definitions, regulations and infrastructures that would facilitate better waste management throughout Canada. 

This is no small task and one that the federal procurement process itself will not resolve.

  • Evidence-based Solutions. Packaging should be considered sustainable once its environmental impacts are understood using Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), third party certifications, as well as Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). The environmental impacts of packaging should be considered from the extraction of raw materials to end of life.

At present, there is no concrete plan to mandate LCA or EPD documentation as a condition of supply to the federal government.

  • Recycling and Composting Limitations. Consumer confusion around the compostability or recyclability of products leads to contamination of recycling or composting streams. Packaging marked compostable through third-party certifications is not necessarily compostable at composting facilities. All levels of government must ensure that adequate infrastructure is in place to support recycling and composting activities.

There is immediate requirement that the necessary recycling or composting facilities be available to complement supplied packaging.

  • Recycled Content Barriers. Industry indicated that the quality, availability and cost of including recycled content material in packaging was a key barrier to using such material, as compared to virgin plastics.  

Recycled content requirements remain unresolved, particularly in light of the current low prices for virgin material.

  • Take-Back Programs Effectiveness. Take-back programs would be easier to implement with greater harmonization of municipal/provincial programs to accept packaging material.  

There is a lack of current infrastructure to make take-back obligations part of the federal government procurement standards.

  • Further Engagement Required. While supportive of the federal government’s plastic reduction initiatives, RFI participants suggested that there be further collaboration with various stakeholders to ensure feasible sustainable packaging requirements.

The federal government intends to push forward with its procurement standards, recognizing that they may be imperfect when first introduced into the market.

The RFI strongly suggests that inter-governmental harmonization is necessary for Canada to move toward a zero-waste target and become a global leader in plastic waste and pollution reduction. The outcome of the RFI is likely to be congruent with the intentions of the CCME’s Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste and the results of Phase 2 of the CCME Action Plan expected to be released in the near term. In working to develop requirements for sustainable federal procurement, the RFI aligns with the federal government’s leadership on plastics to date and its actions on the CCME’s Strategy, which set the foundation to Canada’s approach to a circular economy for plastics.  There are, however, many significant implementation issues to be resolved.