Domenic Di Mondo is vice-president of GreenMantra Technologies
The Canadian federal government recently announced a policy to ban straws, bags and several other single-use plastic items by the end of 2021. It is great to see Ottawa engaged in efforts to find solutions to pressing environmental issues. However, this particular policy is misdirected.
Instead of banning single-use plastic products, we should find ways to eliminate the need for all single-use materials through better product design. At the same time, we should invest in infrastructure to improve collection and recycling of single-use materials that cannot be designed out of circulation. Government policies should support these objectives.
The problem with single-use products isn’t just what they are made of. It’s the fact that we use them once, without the right infrastructure for collection and reuse. Our biggest problems are actually product design and waste management. By banning single-use plastics, we risk driving manufacturers, retailers and customers toward other single-use solutions that are even less environmentally friendly than what we are banning.
Less environmentally friendly than single-use plastic? That seems counterintuitive. Disposable plastic degrades slowly and lingers in plain sight. It piles up in landfills. It chokes fish and birds. Our instinct to do away with it comes from the right place. But while plastic litter is highly visible, it is just one part. Take plastic bags, one of the top offenders targeted by the proposed ban. Shouldn’t we be using biodegradable paper?
Not necessarily. Paper consumes more resources to produce. By some estimates, it requires four times as much energy and three times more water than plastic, and produces 80 per cent more emissions. Manufactured paper and other biodegradable products also contain chemical additives that can readily leach into the environment.
Studies have shown that paper and cotton bags must be used a significant number of times to have less of an environmental impact than plastic. This does not mean plastic is always the best choice of material. To make that decision, we must look at the full life cycle of a product.
Again, the main issue with a single-use product is not what it’s made from, but the fact that it’s used just once, without the right infrastructure for its collection and reuse through traditional and advanced recycling technologies.
So while Ottawa is identifying the right problem, it is proposing the wrong solution. The answer isn’t a ban, but rather policies encouraging better product design for recycling and more circular use of those products and component materials.
A positive example is Starbucks moving to roll out strawless lids. Instead of simply moving from plastic to paper straws, which would arguably have a worse overall environmental footprint, they eliminated the straw altogether and now have plastic lids with a raised sip opening. These can be effectively recycled through our existing infrastructure.
Sticking with coffee cups, Tim Hortons is preparing a pilot program that offers customers reusable cups and food packaging for a deposit. The packaging is then returned to drop-off points for cleaning and sanitizing. The cups appear to be plastic, but because they are durable enough for reuse/recycling, far less waste will end up in the environment.
These are currently rare examples of companies looking at the full life cycle of a product to determine the best alternative. To promote more of this, governments should focus policy and efforts to help manufacturers, retailers and consumers understand which materials have the lowest environmental impact through their entire life cycle and design with circularity in mind. The best material could be paper, plastic, metal, ceramic or something else. Why ban what might end up being the cleanest and most practical option?
A ban also risks undoing years of good work by Canadian governments in pursuit of a more circular economy. That includes Ottawa itself, which has done a great job of supporting recycling technologies. The federal government argues on its own website that our long-term goal should be to “design out the concept of waste.” Instead of banning materials, governments should double down on their good work to create incentives that generate demand for their reuse, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has done. Ottawa has the power through its own procurement policies to dramatically increase diversion and reuse of discarded plastics.
Canada is one of the world’s healthiest ecosystems for clean tech start-ups – many that have created viable circular solutions for plastics. I am fortunate to be a leader at one of those companies. My thoughts on this topic are not about ensuring a steady flow of plastic for companies such as mine to recycle. Along with others, I am concerned about the needless depletion of virgin fossil fuel resources and the impact of their extraction. To truly improve our environmental impact, we need to select the most appropriate material for an application, use virgin only when necessary and design with reuse in mind. This will ensure that our recycling infrastructure can handle incoming material streams, and we must all take responsibility for proper disposal.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution. And a plastic ban provides the false sense of one. We must tackle the problem on multiple fronts to achieve our goal of a circular economy.
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