Green Transformation in the Aisles: Canada’s Bold Journey in Sustainable Food Packaging

It’s easy to see non-environmentally-friendly packaging at the grocery store and think you can change the world with a couple of obvious tweaks, but it’s a lot tougher than it looks.

Dana McCauley, CEO of the Canadian Food Innovation Network (CFIN), says perishable and non-perishable items have travelled a long bumpy road before they end up in your shopping cart.

First, food producers need to get their products to a distribution centre safely and without contaminants. There they’ll get moved around by forklifts, put on skids and loaded into trucks before being placed on a store shelf.

“A lot of the cutting-edge packaging ideas don’t work in that system,” she says. “The food gets damaged, goes bad or gets contaminated, which leads to more food waste. It’s very complicated. It’s like playing Jenga — you change one thing and everything could topple,” she says.

That’s why CFIN, a national not-for-profit, is investing in innovative companies that want to help food producers improve their businesses and go green at the same time. 

Since launching in 2021, CFIN has received more than 351 funding applications from innovative companies across the country and has approved $16.8M in funding to 51 projects.  

One of its most recent investments is a $1.6-million infusion into Food Cycle Science, an Ottawa-based company that has designed a system that quickly degrades biodegradable plastics and transforms them, along with food waste, into a soil amendment. That end product can not only be sold to farmers and gardeners, but it also reduces reliance on artificial fertilizers and contributes to a circular food economy. One of Food Cycle’s partners is Bridgehead Coffee, which has 20 locations in the nation’s capital.

“Bridgehead would have had to pay to have their recyclables and compostables taken away. That would have been a cost. Now they have a soil amendment that they can sell. It’s a great example of improving your business and adopting greener technologies,” she says.

Changes are being made on a larger scale, too. For example, soft drink cans used to be made of tin but today they’re made out of aluminum.

“It’s not the same can of Coke that you got after riding your bike to the convenience store to spend your allowance,” she says.

McCauley says Canadians throw out about 4.4 million tonnes of plastic waste every year and she’s well aware of the food industry’s heavy reliance on plastics.

There is plenty of reason for optimism, though, as Canada is at the forefront of innovation because of its leading scientists, research capacity and post-secondary research centres. “We’re also seen as a less expensive place for purchasing technology. An American dollar goes a lot further here than in the U.S.,” she says.

“On top of that, we have a (federal) government that really cares about the environment and has put out a lot of information and challenges about how to reduce reliance on single-use plastics. You don’t have that in other countries.”

McCauley admits that Canada’s role in the food-packaging industry is under appreciated outside our borders. “There is a big opportunity to position ourselves as a food innovation hub and packaging solutions provider for the world. We’re a bit under cover right now,” she says.

It’s where a gathering such as Food & Beverage Manitoba’s Cultivate Sustainability Conference can play a key role. According to Mike Mikulak, executive director of FABMb, “One of the reasons we are holding Cultivate is because the food system is so complicated and simple solutions, like the banning of single use plastics, can have unintended consequences. It is important to think in systems and consider how all the pieces interact. This will be the only way we can move towards a more circular economy that creates opportunities for new value creation.”

The journey towards a greener future in food packaging is not just a path of simple choices or straightforward fixes. It’s a complex, intricate dance of innovation, perseverance, and collaborative and creative problem-s[DM1] olving. As Canada continues to emerge as a leader in sustainable packaging solutions, initiatives like the Canadian Food Innovation Network and Food & Beverage Manitoba’s Cultivate Sustainability Conference are vital catalysts, bringing together the best of scientific research, practical business solutions, and a profound commitment to environmental stewardship.