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'One step at a time': Canada's retailers tackle packaging waste

Loblaw, Canadian Tire, Maple Leaf Foods, IKEA, others detail their efforts

From left, Heléne Loberg, the head of sustainability at IKEA Canada; Marie-France Gibson,  vice-president of private brands at Metro Inc.; and Stéphane Crevier, vice-president of brand strategy and growth at Pigeon Brands. (Tyler Choi, SustainableBiz)

As Canada’s retailers and suppliers wrestle with phasing out plastic packaging against the tide of convenience and cost, industry figures at the inaugural Retail Sustainability Conference outlined solutions and challenges in this delicate dance.

Major retailers outlined existing initiatives and exploratory steps to reduce packaging waste, educate consumers and how to untie the knots around using plastic. The Retail Council of Canada event was held in Mississauga at The International Centre on Oct. 3.

“As an industry, plastic is 100 per cent within our control,” Galen Weston, the president and chairman of Loblaw Companies Ltd., said.

Approximately one-third of all plastic waste is within the control of retailers, he added, creating a “powerful, profound reality of plastics.”

Others, like IKEA Canada, have begun reducing plastics use although this has led to both positive and negative responses from consumers.

Individual efforts and corporate initiatives on collaboration and engaging with suppliers were identified as cornerstones to remedying the mountains of packaging produced by Canadians.

Current efforts by retailers

Loblaw is planning for full recyclability or reusability for all control brands by 2025, with changes impacting its stand-up pouches and coffee canisters; and switching from Styrofoam meat trays to RPET (a recycled plastic).

Though it costs Loblaw $10 million to $15 million more per year, Weston said it’s imperative the grocer “put our money where our mouth is” and not backtrack on sustainability targets because the industry will face increased regulation and carbon taxes.

Loblaw collaborated with major brands such as Maple Leaf Foods, Unilever, McCain, Kroger and Canadian Tire on Golden Design Rules, which promote principles like reducing plastic overwrap and eliminating headspace in packages. Golden Design Rules will soon be factored into Loblaw’s listing decisions for all goods.

“I don’t think we should be aspiring to get out of the plastic business,” Weston said, pointing to plastic waste as the problem. “Plastic needs to be embraced. We need to figure out how to use it effectively.”

Maple Leaf Foods moved away from multi-layer film on its packaging in favour of a single-layer plastic film, has a fully-recyclable plastic pack for its lunch kits and will phase out foam in poultry containers by the end of the year and replace it with a recyclable plastic, according to Joe McMahan, vice-president of sustainability and shared value.

In a case of trial and error, George Soleas, the president and CEO of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), recounted how the LCBO’s initiative to bottle wine in PET (recyclable plastic) bottles did not succeed because of consumer concerns. Instead, the LCBO developed the Lightweight Glass Bottle Program to cut down waste and carbon emission from transportation, which affects its suppliers.

IKEA Canada plans to phase out plastic packaging by 2028, though limited uses will be kept for some products, including food.

Heléne Loberg, head of sustainability at IKEA Canada, said the furniture retailer is exploring paper wrapping in lieu of plastic, and employing honeycomb paper filler as a replacement for Styrofoam.

Educating customers on sustainable packaging

Though Canadians have shown a desire for sustainable products and packaging, as evidenced by various surveys, speakers at the event said there are knowledge gaps about recycling and the changes that would arise from eliminating plastic.

IKEA replaced plastic packaging for its bed sheet sets with paper, but then faced questions from consumers over whether paper is hygienic.

“Customers and IKEA together, we need to make sure it’s clear and understandable,” Loberg said.

Marie-France Gibson, Metro Inc.’s vice-president of private brands, said most Canadians want solutions for packaging waste, but do not always notice more sustainable products on shelves. To address this, Metro developed symbols for its e-commerce, marketing, social media and merchandising to indicate what can be recycled.

Stéphane Crevier, the vice-president of brand strategy and growth at Pigeon Brands, said retailers need patience as they navigate sustainability. Surveys have shown most consumers believe brands must take the initiative on sustainability, but have given contradictory messages when it comes to buying.

He gave the example of Hellmann’s, which was criticized for changing its mayonnaise jars and squeeze bottles to post-consumer recycled plastic.

“If we’re looking for perfection, it will not happen, but if we take one step at a time in creating this longevity and message behind it, this is where the result will happen.”

How to push for better packaging and packaging life-cycles

From left, Kim Saunders, vice-president of ESG strategy at Canadian Tire; Gemma Hinksman, senior director of the Canada impact team at McDonald's Canada; and Joe McMahan, Maple Leaf Foods' vice-president of sustainability and shared value. (Tyler Choi, SustainableBiz)

With government policies and consumers demanding packaging solutions, retailers discussed how they are encouraging change internally and within their supply chains.

Geraldine Huse, the president of P&G Canada, said employees are encouraged to suggest ways to reduce waste, which resulted in higher-concentration Dawn dish soap to reduce packaging.

Kim Saunders, the vice-president of ESG strategy at Canadian Tire, recounted its engagement with its suppliers.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about how we use our relationships, our partnerships and our scale to influence the national brands,” she said.

Its efforts have focused on waste reduction and giving its products a second life through capacity for repair, reuse and refurbishment.

With extended producer responsibility arising as a key matter, Weston said Canadian retailers have to figure out how to standardize plastic packaging, build a robust collection system, advance recycling technology and improve reuse systems.

Gibson said accurate data collection is key to taking on packaging waste, and it is vital to consult with experts to get the answers.

Systemic change, Weston said, is driven by consumers who care, governments motivating industry through regulations like single-use plastic bans, and economic incentives like cost avoidance. 

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