Why this compostable checkout bag will soon be banned, and how some are fighting back
Calgary businesses and Alberta politicians are pressuring the federal government to exempt compostable checkout bags from its single-use plastic sales ban, which takes effect in December.
The Calgary Co-op is petitioning Ottawa to allow the use of the bags. The store's director of communications, Sage Pullen McIntosh, said they replaced all their plastic bags with an alternative that has a silky feel.
"Immediately, our members said how much they loved them," Pullen McIntosh told CBC. "And they also serve double duty."
The co-op and the bag supplier — working with the city of Calgary — developed a bag that will break down in the city's compost facility in about a month.
The store assumed, because the bags contain no plastics, that Ottawa would permit the bag as it phased out single-use plastic bags — a ban the store supports.
The bags weren't exempted, which "shocked" Pullen McIntosh. The store launched a public petition to get Ottawa to reverse its decision.
"We're just hoping to get enough attention. Enough interest so that we can have more conversations at the federal level," Pullen McIntosh said. "Because we do feel that these bags are worth fighting for."
Both Calgary's mayor and the Alberta government support the store.
"If (Ottawa wants) to do a blanket approach that doesn't work for everybody, we've got that right now," said Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek.
"We want to make sure federal legislation isn't inadvertently hampering or hindering innovation in that space," said Alberta Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz.
The bags will be phased out under Environment and Climate Change Canada's Single-use Plastics Prohibition Regulations, which prohibits their sale in Canada after Dec. 20.
Those regulations are part of the department's plan to address pollution and prevent plastic waste.
The department said 15 billion single-use plastic checkout bags were sold in Canada in 2019.
In a statement, the federal environment minister's press secretary, Kaitlin Power, said compostable checkout bags could end up in the wild.
"And when these bags become litter, they pose a threat to wildlife and the environment just like conventional plastic checkout bags," Power said.
She added North America doesn't have any accredited standards that "ensure the biodegradation of a plastic item in the Canadian environment within an acceptable time frame and without causing harm to the environment."
Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault was more emphatic when CBC asked him about exempting Leaf products.
"We won't change the regulation for one company. It makes absolutely no sense. We would prevent the ability to tackle the most common form of plastic pollution," Guilbeault said.
"That's really unacceptable."
Fiesta Farms, an independent family-run store in Toronto, also sells the bags for 10 cents.
"To me, [the regulation] doesn't make sense. You can sell a compostable bag on the shelf, but you can't have it at the checkout," said Kendra Sozinho, the assistant store manager.
An environmental group warns about the increasing number of plastic alternative items appearing on the market, some of which don't break down, becoming micro-plastics.
Karen Wirsig, the senior program manager with Environmental Defence, worries about what would happen if compostable bags and containers were diverted to the green bin system.
"Imagine if we just replaced all that with so-called compostables. It would overflow all our organics programs, and we wouldn't have any room for actual organics," Wirsig said. "In the end, we would not have healthy, good soil amendment."
Leaf Environmental Products makes the Calgary grocer's compostable bags. The company's founder, Jerry Gao, said the bags are made of polylactic acid (PLA) and polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT). Both are widely described as compostable resins under certain conditions.
Gao said his bags do not contain polyethylene, a chemical compound typically found in plastics.
"We were quite shocked at the decision to lump them into a category called non-conventional plastics as there is no plastic in the product," Gao said. "I do hope they start listening and start looking at the science."
A York University researcher who studies recycling and waste systems says some compostable alternatives are not worth the hype.
"Not all compostable plastics are created equal," said Calvin Lakhan, a research scientist at York University's Faculty of Environment and Urban Change and co-investigator of the university's research project "the Waste Wiki."
However, in most cases, the ones that meet the international benchmark from the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) will break down in many municipal compost facilities.
Leaf's bag, Gao said, meets the BPI standard.
Lakhan says that the general public needs help to distinguish between a compostable item and a regular plastic one.
And many municipal composting facilities, he said, like the city of Ottawa, divert compostable items to landfills where they produce methane, a more potent greenhouse gas.
If discarded in the wild, BPI-approved items, he said, do tend to break down, but at a slower rate than in a compost facility, which can pose a risk to wildlife.
"If a sea turtle eats a compostable bag or an ethylene bag, I am pretty sure a sea turtle is in bad shape either way," Lakhan said.
Lakhan agrees compostable bags and items are not a "turnkey" solution for tackling plastic waste, but they could be a step toward getting there.
"I think that it is something that we should explore, something that we should embrace and be exempt at this current juncture," he added.
Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent
David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He can be reached at [email protected]