In partnership with LOCO BC, we hosted a virtual networking event for local businesses on January 26 to discuss how local businesses facing COVID-19 have adapted, creatively tackled challenges, and pursued solutions for environmental social and economic sustainability. Using the gather.town platform, participants mixed and mingled at themed virtual table discussions to connect with other businesses in a way not possible since the pandemic began.
Food Systems Lab recently worked with eight independently-run local businesses and two non-profit organizations on case studies to support a green recovery from COVID-19. We learned how they found creative solutions to support staff, safety, customer engagement, finance, and sustainability practices. Check out our newly launched video with highlights from the case studies, or read more about them on our project page.
Belinda Li from the Food Systems Lab talks about some of the findings from Social Innovation Management for BIOPlastics (SIMBIO) in this news article published in the National Observer, which has since been syndicated to the Toronto Star, Welland Tribune, and Prince George Citizen. This article is a repost of the original.
Compostable plastic is booming in Canada — but it may still end up in landfills
Bio-based plastics, most of them compostable to some degree, are proliferating across Canada. Yet millions of compostable cups, containers and bags will probably still end up in landfills.
It’s a crisis driven, in part, by bad communication.
Bio-based plastics are not made equal. Some break down easily; others need months in an industrial composting machine before they disintegrate into organic compounds. And they’re classified through a labyrinthine system that leaves everyone — from manufacturers to waste managers to consumers — confused.
“Differentiating between the different definitions, that in itself is a project,” said Belinda Li, director of innovation at Simon Fraser University’s Food Systems Lab, which is leading a research project on biodegradable plastics.
In practice, that means most conscientious Canadians trying to dispose of their plastic waste appropriately have two choices: The recycling bin or the trash can.
Over 90 per cent of the world’s plastics are produced from fossil fuels, accounting for roughly six per cent of global oil consumption.
Less than one-tenth of this plastic is recycled, and the trend isn’t reversing: Researchers estimate that on the current trajectory, a fifth of the world’s oil will be used to make plastic by 2050, according to a forthcoming study by Li.
Bio-based plastics have emerged in recent years as an alternative against this backdrop — but what falls in that category is broad. According to research by Li’s team, the term is used to describe everything from plastics made from plants to plastics that can be broken down into their molecular parts by composting and plastics that are both plant-based and biodegradable.
That’s largely because, in Canada, the words used to describe bio-based plastics aren’t consistently regulated, Li explained. For instance, a coffee cup lid could be labelled as “biodegradable” or “compostable,” but what those words actually say about the whether the plastic can be broken down into organic matter is inconsistent.
“If you have something that’s certified organic (for example), it’s actually certified” according to standards set by the federal government, she explained. “With bio-plastics, none of that exists right now. You can label something as anything you want — compostable, biodegradable, plant-based.”
Researchers estimate that on the current trajectory, a fifth of the world’s oil will be used to make plastic by 2050. Bio-based plastics present an alternative — but the definition of compostable plastic is broad.
While there are several third-party certifications available to bio-based plastics manufacturers, being certified is voluntary, she said. And each certification standard also has different requirements on how long it takes for plastics to disintegrate and the kinds of technology needed to actually break them down.
And often, those standards aren’t actually reflected in municipal waste management systems.
“The conditions that the tests have are really hard to replicate in the field,” she said.
For instance, plastic that meets the ASTM D6400 standard — one of the more common classifications for compostable plastics — assumes the plastic will spend at least 180 days in an industrial composter.
“(For) a lot of composting facilities, their process isn’t that long. They need to get their stuff through faster than that because they just don’t have the (space),” she said. “So there’s a mismatch between the types of tests being done to show compostability and on-the-ground compostability.”
As a result, many municipalities across the country — including those in Metro Vancouver — will remove bio-based plastics from the organic waste stream, even if they’re technically compostable.
Food System Lab’s Belinda Li was interviewed in a podcast for the Arrell Food Summit. This podcast series featured Arrell scholars with emerging leaders in food systems. We are honoured to be part of such a stellar line-up!
We’re thrilled to share our first case study from our Supporting Sustainable Business Adaptation during COVID-19 project featuring The Soap Dispensary, a local business that has been leading the zero waste retail movement for nearly 10 years. See how they overcame the challenges of adapting to COVID-19 and get inspired to take action in supporting local businesses in this short video.
Our research team hosted our first online session on our findings to date for the Social Innovation Management for Bioplastics (SIMBIO) project. We presented what we learned from our literature review and key informant interviews, then had discussions to help develop our convening question. In the fall, we will be moving to the workshop phase of this project.
Simon Fraser University’s Tammara Soma is a food systems-planning researcher. She tackles food issues from farm to table to dump and breaks down traditional silos to create communities through food. Her work also addresses problems, such as food waste and waste management in general, food education, food access, and farmland preservation.
Q: How can we maintain healthy food consumption during this time?
A: Urban populations generally have more access to a diversity of food options (restaurants, cafes, take-outs, etc.) and it’s easy to take all of this for granted. With the need for social distancing and many food outlets limiting services and hours, it is best to make sure you have enough food at home and to choose versatile, easy-to-cook options. In general, it is best to avoid regularly consuming ultra-processed food. A lot of fruits, vegetables and protein (both meat and plant-based) can be purchased frozen, and for the most part, are as good as fresh, as most of it is flash-frozen. They have the added benefit of potentially reducing food waste.
Q: Can you suggest food options for emergency preparedness?
A: Having a household food plan is a key part of planning for an emergency. You can maintain a stock of dry pulses, such as beans, lentils and chickpeas, which are tasty, affordable and nutritious. Canned goods such as salmon and tuna are versatile; if possible avoid those with high sodium content. Nut butters (peanut or almond) are also great as easy snacks. Plant-based milk packaged in UHT/tetra packs also have a long shelf life. B.C. has great options for locally produced and long-lasting fruits and produce; apples last a long time in or out of the fridge.
Q: How can we avoid food panic and vulnerabilities? And how do we boost food system resiliency in times of disruption?
A: People’s worries about continued access to food, which is a food security issue, have also surged. It is critical that we invest/protect local food infrastructure – both built infrastructure (food hubs, farms, processors, etc.) and natural infrastructure (land, watersheds, forests) – to ensure stable supply and maintain public confidence. Also, we need to invest in people (farmers, farm labourers, grocery workers) who grow/cook/serve food for us. Educating people about the importance of local farms and the massive effort that goes into food production is important, as global disruptions such as the current pandemic may in some cases disrupt international supply chains.
Q: What is your view of the public’s tendency for panic shopping and its impact?
A: The general population’s rush to hoard or panic shop could be fueled by a heightened sense of vulnerability. However, whenever we see an increase in people facing layoffs or unemployment, it is critical that others don’t burden the food system by placing communities in need at greater risk. Not everyone has the financial resources or space to stock up on food. Vulnerabilities around income may push more people into poverty, precarious housing, and food insecurity. This is when emergency food services like food banks or charities will be inundated. While preparing for an emergency is important, hoarding food will impact many food charities, which rely not just on people’s donations, but also on supermarket donations of surplus foods to stock their warehouse shelves.
Q: What do you make of the craze for buying toilet paper?
A: Many global cultures around the world are not heavily reliant on toilet paper and depend on other cheaper and more sustainable alternatives. Most toilet paper is produced using virgin paper, contributing to deforestation and the degradation of boreal forests, as well as GHG emissions. Chemicals are used to bleach toilet paper, and a significant amount of water (an estimated 37 gallons to produce just one toilet roll.) Canadians could use the current health crisis as an opportunity to transition towards more sustainable and affordable options, such as bidets (including the handheld ones).
This past year, Food Systems Lab has been working on a project to map food assets in Vancouver using a community-based approach. In the first phase, we hosted a community charette in July to explore what Vancouverites see as food assets in their city and what food assets mean to them. Here are some photos from the charette. This spring, we will be sharing more results from this project, including a photo voice book and web map.
Food Systems Lab is excited to announce that we have published an open-access journal article titled Food Waste Reduction: A Test of Three Consumer Awareness Interventions. This article presents findings from our research on household food waste reduction awareness campaigns in Toronto. We have some promising signs that gamification can be an effective means to help reduce food waste in homes!
Halving food waste by 2050 as per the Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 is key to securing a food system that is sustainable. One approach to reducing household food waste is through education campaigns. We recruited 501 households divided into three types of intervention groups and compared with a control group to better understand the efficacy of diverse education campaign approaches. Food waste interventions included a passive approach (handouts), a community engagement approach, and a gamification approach. We conducted waste audits, household surveys (pre- and post-intervention), and a focus group at the end of the campaign. The passive and gamification groups had similarly high levels of participation, while participation in the community group was very low. The passive group and the gamification group had higher self-reported awareness of food wasting after the campaign and lower food wastage than the control group. Waste audits found marginally significant differences between the game group and the control (p = 0.07) and no difference between the other campaign groups and the control group in edible food wasted. Frequent gamers were found to generate less edible food waste than infrequent gamers. We conclude that the evidence about the potential for gamification as an effective education change tool is promising and we recommend further study.