Single-use plastics—or SUPs—are a very hot topic for Canadians. SUPs are used only once, then discarded or recycled. They include most food and product packaging, plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, and beverage bottles. Reduction of SUPs has emerged as a key environmental concern in Canada and around the world.
The Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University has just released the results of an exploratory study of societal attitudes in Canada toward SUPs: The single-use plastics dilemma: Perceptions and possible solutions. The aim of the study is to better understand the views of Canadian consumers on SUPs in the food industry, and to explore possible solutions.
The vast majority of Canadians surveyed—93.7%—said they are personally motivated to reduce single-use plastic food packaging because of its environmental impacts. 89.8% believe that regulations to reduce use of SUP packaging for food should be strengthened.
Study co-author Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, Senior Director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab, points to the complexity of reducing single-use plastics in the food supply. “Respondents were more concerned about the environment than food safety, but food safety is still a key issue for retailers and food producers,” he explains. “We recommend standardization of plastic packaging across Canada, and better alignment between food safety regulations and agri-food’s environmental obligations at all levels of government.”
Other study recommendations include incentivizing compostable packaging (plant-based polymers); encouraging the use of recyclable materials like cardboard, paper and foil wrapping; a voluntary phase-out of plastic bags; and enhanced support for research and commercialization of compostable packaging.
“One interesting finding is that 89.1% of respondents said they could use more education about recycling, plastic use and overall environmental impacts,” says study co-author Dr. Tony Walker of Dalhousie’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies. “This might be somewhat surprising, considering how much airtime environmental issues are getting these days. It points to an opportunity to bring more Canadians on board with reducing single-use plastics and adopting other environmentally sustainable practices.”
Other important findings include:
71.2% of respondents support a ban of all single-use plastics used for food packaging. The study found that region, age and socio-economic determinants are significant factors in how Canadians view the SUP issue. Millennials and Gen Zs are generally more mindful of SUPs than previous generations, and people earning more than $150K per year are slightly more motivated than those earning less. Participants in the Atlantic Region and Quebec were most motivated to reduce SUPs, while participants in the Prairies were the least.
56.4% of respondents reported actively shopping for food with non-plastic packaging. Women are more likely than men to actively shop for non-plastic packaging, but 56.6% of respondents say that in the next six months they intend to increase purchases of food in green packaging.
89.8% of respondents believe plastic packaging should be changed to green alternatives. 37.7% of respondents are willing to pay more for an item in biodegradable packaging; the younger the respondents, the more willing they are to pay a premium.
52.9% would accept paying a government tax to disincentivize use of plastic food packaging, but there is little interest in paying fees to food companies to reduce SUPs. Bans on SUPs are not as popular as developing and using new packaging technologies—biodegradable/compostable solutions are most popular with Canadians.
Co-authors on this study include Janet Music, Research Associate from the School of Information Management and Eamonn McGuinty, Research Associate and student in the Master of Resource and Environmental Management program. The study was conducted over six days in May 2019. It surveyed 1,014 people across the country. The margin of error is 3.2%, 19 times out of 20 (margin of error not applicable to categorized data).
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Dean of the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Also at Dalhousie, he is Professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculty of Agriculture. His current research interest lies in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety, and has published four books and many peer-reviewed journal articles in several publications. His research has been featured in a number of newspapers, including The Economist, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Globe & Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star. Follow him on twitter @scharleb.