An environmentally conscious Toronto grocer has long sold its customers reusable bags made of cotton and jute as an alternative to plastic bags.

And for the past two years, it has also offered customers plant-based compostable bags at the checkout, which can be used to line food waste bins at home.

“We tried to help the elimination of plastic long before it was even a thing,” said Dean Virgona, co-owner of Fiesta Farms. “We’ve been in the game long before it was cool.”

Despite Virgona’s efforts to reduce plastic waste, the compostable bags Fiesta Farms believed were helping have put the grocer on the wrong side of a federal ban on single-use plastics.

When the next phase of the federal government’s single-use plastics laws takes effect in December, compostable bags will no longer be allowed. Canadians throw away about 3.3 million tonnes of plastic each year and only about nine per cent of that is recycled. The federal law is designed to cut back on the amount of plastic waste.

“It was very hard and took us a lot of research to go and find a bag that was actually compostable, not just biodegradable,” Virgona said. “And then after all that research, we only got a year or so out of the bags.”

On Dec. 20, the law is set to ramp up to ban the sale of plastic checkout bags, cutlery, foodservice ware, stir sticks and straws. That means across the country, plastic grocery bags will no longer be found at the end of checkout lines.

The compostable bags sold at Fiesta Farms are made by LEAF, a Canadian company that creates compostable alternatives to plastic products. According to the product’s website, the bags have been tested in government waste management facilities and do break down into compost.

Fiesta Farms assistant store manager Kendra Sozinho said she thought compostable bags could be an alternative for customers who forgot their reusable bags.

Fiesta Farms co-owner Dean Virgona said the grocery store started offering compostable bags at the checkout to divert from plastic. Now, the federal plastics ban means they have to find a new alternative.

“It was a great alternative to plastic,” Sozinho said. “It's something that is environmentally friendly, but also smart and convenient.”

Sozinho and Virgona say Fiesta Farms’ checkout bags should not be included in the ban — they are made from plant material, not plastic, and can be used both to carry goods and to line municipal compost bins.

Environment and Climate Change Canada did not meet Canada’s National Observer’s deadline for comment.

Plastic or not, across Canada, the bags might not actually get the chance to break down with the country’s current waste management infrastructure.

As reported by the New York Times, not all waste facilities can break compostable bags down into compost. Compostable bags are made out of plant-based materials, which microorganisms consume before the material decomposes into compost.

But for that process to work, composting facilities need enough heat, moisture and ventilation to allow the bags to fully decompose. That means only some composting facilities will accept and properly compost compostable bags.

In Canada, it’s up to municipalities to decide whether compostable bags are accepted as compost bin liners. Municipal waste facilities across the country differ in how they process compost and compostable bags.

In Calgary, the city accepts compostable checkout bags in its compost facilities. Saskatoon and Winnipeg food waste facilities also accept certified compostable bags. But in other major cities across Canada, the compostable bags would never get the chance to decompose.

In Toronto, composting facilities open and separate bags from their contents and dispose of the bags separately, whether the bags are plastic or biodegradable. So do composting facilities in Ottawa. Quebec City sends residents specific purple bags to use for food scraps, which is all it accepts at its composting facilities.

In Metro Vancouver, plastic bags are separated from compost and put into the trash whether or not they are biodegradable. Halifax also does not accept biodegradable plastic bags in its compost and recommends using a paper or a yard waste bag to line compost bins.

For now, Fiesta Farms is still offering its remaining compostable checkout bags at the tills. While the grocer can still sell the bags by the pack, Sozinho said she was confused why Ottawa wouldn’t let them keep the dual-use bags at the checkout.

“At the end of the day, (compostable bags) are going to break down,” Sozinho said. “Rather than plastic, which doesn’t at all.”

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So if Calgary accepts them, does that mean that Jen Gerson's rant at The Line is wrong?

Thanks for doing a story on it, instead of just a rant.

Perhaps some compostable bags work ok, but the ones I purchased were too thin and ripped easily. I couldn't use them. Instead I started using bags with some recycled plastic content. But I encourage customers to use their own bags, and most do now. Getting people in the habit of bringing their own bags is really the best solution to the plastic bag problem.

Toronto's recycling and compost systems are poorly enough designed that they can't even identify plastic if it's black, when most of what they accept is plastic.
Toronto's composting system is an anaerobic system, which takes much longer and needs a whole lot more intervention than the aerobic systems that generated the power to operate themselves, and were already in place in the 70s or 80s. Just not in Canada.
Given the number of anaerobic disease pathogens that exist, I won't use the city compost, as I like to be able to pull up a carrot and eat it without peeling. Then again, the one time we did get city compost, before realizing the designers were so shortsighted as to go the anaerobic route, it had to have seived out of it slimey, raw wet clayish stuff. I've wondered if that's what was left of poorly handled newspaper waste.
But thank you but no thank you: no toxins from live-vaccinated infants diapers, bodies of dead pets and pests, etc. And since people put all sorts of infested plant material in their yard waste, that's not a good idea either, unless one's committed to applying pesticides. I've used none at all, in my 35-year tenure here, except something that rode in on sheep manure compost labelled as organic. Apparently it was used as an herbicide in a fields where livestock grazed. The manure was, according to the pesticide manufacturer, to be left in situ ... and didn't account for conditions in which the livestock might be sheltered in barns or corals for part of the year.
Over a decade after the mishap, nothing much grows yet in the patch I used it on. Commercial growers who'd had the misfortune had to remove a foot and a half of soil, and replace it. I don't know if any body was made liable.
BTW, polyester is itself is derived from petroleum, and is neither compostable nor biodegradable. Much of the microplastic in water is little bits of worn-off polyester clothing that came off in the wash. I.e., it is not a sustainable substitute.

Compostable bags, however, broke down like a dream, even when they were just filled and tossed, full, into a pit that would be topped with the next year's compostables. I never used them *in* summer composting, so can't vouch for them. However, some of those bags disintegrated even in in a cool, dark drawer ... as do ordinary plastic bags left in the sun long enough. I'm not thinking the break-down products are for sure non-toxic, though.
Then again, I buy very little that's packaged in plastic, because the plasticizers migrate into the contents. If you doubt that, fill a pop bottle with water, and leave it out somewhere unobtrusive for a few weeks or a couple of months, then pour the water into a glass glass, and smell it. My olfactory sense is perhaps keener than usual, but I doubt anyone would voluntarily drink water that smells that way.

Many of these products labelled compostable just break down slowly into smaller and smaller bits of plastic. Bioplastic is made by processing the raw materials to extract its polymers — carrageenan from seaweeds and pectin from mango peelings. These polymers were combined without using a plasticizer, which is an artificial component in making the material as elastic as petroleum-based. It is impractical in large sorting facilities to separate these from conventional petroleum based products.