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Only 9 per cent of plastic in Canada is recycled after it is used.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The federal government is one step closer to banning a range of single-use plastics, now that it has completed a science assessment that provides the basis for taking broad regulatory action.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in June to regulate plastic waste as part of a national plan to reduce the amount of packaging that has inundated municipal waste programs and is polluting Canada’s waterways. At the time, the government said the list of products that would be included in a ban – which could come into effect as early as 2021 – would be determined after a state-of-the-science study on plastic pollution.

A spokeswoman for Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson confirmed to The Globe and Mail that the assessment, which was done in partnership with Health Canada and has been peer reviewed by international experts, is complete. Sabrina Kim said the study will prove critical in identifying which products should be covered by the ban.

In the announcement last spring, the government said it may also require some products to contain a set amount of recycled content – a move aimed at increasing the demand for recycled plastic and decreasing reliance on virgin plastic. Virgin plastic is derived from fossil fuels and is cheaper to produce than purchasing recycled plastic. On the waste-management front, the government said it would work with provinces and territories toward extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs, which require manufacturers and sellers to manage the collection and recycling of the plastic waste they put into the market.

“The science is out there,” said Usman Valiante, a senior policy analyst at consulting firm Cardwell Grove, who was involved in the development of B.C.'s EPR program for paper and packaging that launched in 2014. “This provides the basis for doing something meaningful to drive a circular economy that will keep plastics out of the environment and allow them to be used in the most advantageous ways.”

The use of plastic packaging has grown because it is cheap to make and extremely lightweight, making it less costly and more fuel-efficient to ship. Only 9 per cent of plastic in Canada is recycled after it is used, according to a report last year by Deloitte for Environment and Climate Change Canada. Because plastic is not as durable for recycling purposes as metal or glass, demand for recycled plastic is low, which contributes to waste. That problem has intensified since 2018, when China said it would no longer buy recycling waste from other countries, including Canada.

Canadians are heavily in favour of a single-use plastics ban on items such as cutlery and straws, and most would be willing to pay a small premium for environmentally sustainable products, a Nanos Research survey found last year.

Some companies are not waiting for the government to make its move. Last week, Starbucks said it would cut its carbon emissions and waste in half by 2030, including by shifting from single-use to reusable plastics. Empire Co. Ltd. is phasing out plastic bags in all of its Sobeys stores, taking an estimated 225 million plastic bags out of circulation each year. Others, including chemical companies and industry associations, have lobbied federal officials on the issue of a single-use plastic ban and on the government’s approach to reducing plastic waste overall. The federal lobbying registry does not provide details on what, exactly, was discussed.

David Boyd, an environmental lawyer who serves as the UN special rapporteur on human rights and environment, said the assessment arms the government with the scientific basis it needs to take action under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act – an avenue that is unquestionably more swift than attempting to pass legislation as a minority government, he said.

Prof. Boyd, who teaches at the University of British Columbia, said he hopes the government will emulate the regulatory framework adopted in March by the European Union, which addresses the 10 items most often found on EU beaches. The regulations, which take effect in 2021, include a ban on single-use plastics for which alternatives exist (for example straws, coffee stirrers and cutlery), EPR schemes for tobacco filters and fishing gear, and recycled content targets for plastic bottles.

“Prime Minister Trudeau has said Canada is a world leader in addressing plastic,” Prof. Boyd said. “So far, we’re a world leader in rhetoric. We need to take action to match the rhetoric.”

Chelsea Rochman, a University of Toronto professor of ecology who focuses on microplastics, said she is in favour of recycled content standards because it would inevitably lead to a decrease in the use of raw materials, such as oil. The International Energy Agency forecast in 2018 that global oil demand for plastic production would surpass oil demand for road passenger transport by 2050.

“I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all strategy,” Prof. Rochman said. “We need to pull hard on the solution levers that have to do with waste management, plastic production and clean up."

The assessment is expected to be publicly released soon. Once it is out, Prof. Boyd said, the government must act fast. "The problem is getting worse by the day,” he said. “Every day counts.”

With a report from Susan Krashinsky-Robertson

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