plastic ban

Canadian foodservice is well-placed to embrace the federal single-use plastic ban

COVID-19 complicates things but the push to go greener shouldn’t be too troubling for operators, experts tell RestoBiz.

By Tom Nightingale

Canada’s officially moving to go greener. The federal government proclaimed this month that it intends to ban certain single-use plastics by the end of next year. Given that the announcement focused on foodservice items like plastic straws, plastic cutlery, and certain takeout containers, this plastic ban may seem at face value a tall order for restaurateurs and operators to adhere to.

But, while the pandemic certainly hasn’t made things any easier, the foodservice industry is largely well-positioned to embrace the change. With everything that’s happened in 2020, it’s easy to forget that in the pre-COVID-19 world – which seems a lifetime ago, in many respects – there was already a visible trend towards more environmentally-conscious operations in the Canadian foodservice industry.

Long-term planning

For a start, this has hardly come out of the blue. Justin Trudeau previously confirmed his intention to outlaw single-use plastics and make companies responsible for their own plastic waste back in June 2019, so there’s been over a year of preparation even before October 2020’s announcement.

In the meantime, too, some Canadian cities and companies have been jumping ahead of the curve.

For example, Vancouver implemented a Styrofoam ban from January 1 of this year and then prohibited most plastic straws as of April. From January 1, 2021, the city is banning plastic bags and will start charging 25 cents for single-use plastic cups. Over in Quebec, Montreal actually banned single-use plastic bags back in 2018 and intended prior to COVID-19 to extend that ban to all plastic bags.

Meanwhile, chain giant Tim Hortons swiftly followed up the government’s plastic ban announcement by reaffirming that it has already eliminated plastic stir sticks and remains on course to say goodbye to plastic bags and plastic straws next year.

A range of alternatives

In response to measures like those, and the overarching recognition that less harmful methods need to be found, many operators have been providing sustainable alternatives to those kinds of plastic items for some time now, such as recyclable cutlery, plate ware, napkins, and packaging, notes Sophie Mir of research company Technomic.

Indeed, Jeff Dover of consulting firm fsSTRATEGY acknowledges that most operators support the initiative and shouldn’t have issues in general in complying with the new federal regulations once they are officially enforced, given the pre-existing trend of moving away from plastics. However, he does harbour some concern that the timing of the announcement may have rankled with some operators given the myriad challenges being posed by COVID-19 right now.

The takeout conundrum

In particular, Dover notes, the alternatives to these kinds of single-use plastics can come at a higher cost. This could be somewhat problematic, especially in the light of the surge in takeout and delivery operations during the pandemic. Dover notes that off-premises consumption is the fastest-growing restaurant segment right now, and that necessitates takeout containers, bags, and the option for supplying cutlery and napkins.

That shifting trend has been reflected in consumer habits, according to a Dalhousie University report published in August. The report, which compared two studies carried out in May and July, noted that 29 per cent of Canadians surveyed admitted they were buying more plastic packaged goods due to COVID-19. That percentage rose to 47% in the 18-25 age demographic. This is a notable jump, although it seems reasonable to suggest that since these studies were carried out more than three months ago, both restaurateurs and customers have likely got more of a handle on how to continue selling and buying food during the pandemic.

No price surge

When it boils down, though, David Hopkins of The Fifteen Group doesn’t believe operators or customers should expect to see any troublesome surge in prices as a result of the ban. He notes that while the likes of birch cutlery, bamboo, and paper packaging may slightly increase cost margins, it will likely only be a matter of cents.

Hopkins, who has urged restaurateurs to be bold heading into the colder months of the pandemic, explains that a mitigating factor should be that the plastic utensil market is “massive.” As such, with a large volume of that market shifting to alternative materials, he expects those bumped prices will actually come down as a result of the increased volume and what he says is sure to be a wealth of new competition in that space. In short, if more operators and businesses provide the options, the widespread supply should increase price competitiveness.

Consumer support

There’s also the fact that while some pivots may be required when it comes to factors like pricing and the mechanics of takeout and pickup, the move towards a more environmentally-friendly way of operating is one that is generally supported by foodservice consumers and the general public.

As Mir explains from Technomic studies, green initiatives have always been a consumer preference but the industry is now seeing a shift in attitudes where going green isn’t just a preference, but now an expectation of customers. In fact, she notes, over half of consumers agree it’s important to them that major chains are socially responsible, perhaps another explanatory factor in the likes of Tim Hortons making big moves.

All in all, then, Trudeau’s recent declaration that the “innovative” foodservice industry should have little trouble in adapting to a reduced-plastic world seems fair. There will be teething problems, as with any big shift, but this industry requires constant adaptation, and this is no different.