What are refillables and how can they save the ocean from plastic pollution? - Oceana Canada
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April 16, 2022

What are refillables and how can they save the ocean from plastic pollution?

Estimated reading time: 0 minutes

Topics: Plastics

Credit: Jo Galvao
refillable soft drink bottles glass pop bottles


The federal government has a goal to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. But what is a goal without a clear path forward to achieving it?

Currently, 87 per cent of all plastics in Canada go directly to landfill or end up in the environment. To get to zero plastic waste by 2030, we have a lot of ground to make up. The first step forward towards this zero plastic waste goal was the single-use plastic ban, introduced by the federal government earlier this year. But a ban on a handful of single-use plastics alone isn’t enough to achieve zero waste.

Enter a wave of new and bold regulations on plastics that could help us get there.

The federal government recently introduced a new tactic to reduce our plastic waste through “Recycled Content Standards.” This is a regulation that could: 1) reduce the need for new plastics and; 2) help us introduce refillable programs in Canada. Let’s walk through these two outcomes in real world scenarios.

1) Reduce the need for new plastics

Say you buy a pop bottle at the grocery store or on-the-go with your meal. Most likely, that pop bottle is made from plastic. In Canada, it is also likely that the plastic bottle is brand new, and you are the first person to use it. Sometimes the bottle says something along the lines of “made from recycled plastic,” meaning a percentage of the plastic in that bottle came from another, recycled plastic bottle. However, we have no way of knowing what portion of recycled plastic is actually in that bottle.

With the proposed Recycled Content Standards, the federal government can regulate the minimum amount of recycled plastic content in new plastic products sold in Canada. The federal government is suggesting a minimum of 50 per cent recycled content in plastic products. So, in the future, that plastic pop bottle you just bought could confidently read “made from 50 per cent recycled content.” This would mean that legally half the plastic used to make that bottle came from recycled plastic products.

Sounds good so far, right? While mandating 50 per cent recycled content in plastic products cuts a ton of waste from our environment, it means the other half of the plastic in that pop bottle is still new, virgin plastic. Furthermore, that plastic pop bottle is still designed to be used once and then put into the recycling or tossed out. That is a lot of resources and energy required to get you 500 millilitres of sugary, or sugar-free, goodness.

Fifty percent recycled content would be a huge win for the environment. Plastic is made from oil and gas, so anywhere we can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels will help cut our carbon footprint. But 50 per cent cannot be the end game. Ultimately, we need 100 per cent recycled content to stop using new plastics and ween ourselves off oil and gas. To achieve 100 per cent recycled content, that pop bottle must be made from 100 per cent recycled plastic, with no new plastic entering the supply chain, using a closed loop of materials. Can we do even better than that? Yes, by tossing away the idea of single-use bottles all together and bringing in “refillable” programs.

2) Introduce refillable programs in Canada

What is a refillable program and how exactly does it work? For starters, you purchase your bottle, same way you always did, only this time the bottle is made of a more durable plastic or another material like glass or aluminum. Once you’re done enjoying your beverage, you don’t toss the bottle into a recycling or garbage bin, but instead save it and return it the next time you go to the grocery store or wherever you purchased the bottle. Once returned, the bottle will be sent back to the producer directly to be cleaned and refilled while you pick up a fresh pop bottle. This system of returning, cleaning and refilling is financially backed by the producers of the plastic products, in turn giving the pop bottle multiple lives and directly recycling.

The next time that refilled bottle is used by another customer, it is considered 100 per cent recycled content, because it has been used once and then cleaned and reused for the exact same purpose. Only after hundreds of uses, that bottle is put into the recycling stream where it is broken down and reformed into another refillable bottle. This system has a substantially smaller carbon footprint, relies on no new inputs of plastics and results in zero waste – our end goal.

Now here’s the kicker. Recycled Content Standards can apply to so much more than plastic bottles of pop; they can apply to anything made of plastic. From detergent bottles to milk cartons to food packaging – all these plastic manufactured items can be made out of 100 per cent recycled content through a refillable system.

refillable plastic bottles on conveyor belt
Credit: mladenbalinovac/iStock

So, what needs to change for refillable systems to become our reality? The federal government needs to implement Recycled Content Standards so that producers and companies are pushed towards refillable systems. If a producer can only deliver their product in a single-use manner, we need regulation to force them to be innovative. A true ban on single-use.

Refillable systems may seem farfetched to some, but the truth is in Canada we’re sheltered from such systems that already exist in other countries. Canada used to have many refill and reuse systems, like glass pop and milk containers, but moved to a low-cost single-use plastic system in the 80s. However, in many countries around the world, refill and reuse systems still exist.

We know implementing such systems here in Canada will take time, so a commitment to achieve 50 per cent recycled content in plastic manufactured products by 2030 is a good start. But if we want to make zero plastic waste a reality, and not just a vision, we cannot stop there.

Join us and tell the Canadian government you want it to prioritize refill and reuse systems >>