The federal government intends to designate plastics as toxic substances, a move industry stakeholders say is unduly aggressive and detrimental to the sector’s brand.
Listing plastics as toxic under Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) will provide the government with the authority to regulate and limit certain products. The Liberals campaigned during the fall election on a promise to ban some single-use plastics as early as 2021, as part of a national strategy to reduce waste and pollution. In a minority parliament, it is considered more expedient for the government to use the existing act than to curry multiparty support for new legislation regulating plastics.
In an e-mail, Environment and Climate Change Canada signalled that the government will, indeed, designate plastics as toxic. “In order to take concrete regulatory action to reduce plastic waste and pollution under CEPA, substances must first be added to Schedule 1,” the department said in an e-mail.
Bob Masterson, the president and CEO of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, said he is disappointed the government is poised to go that route. Over the past several months, the association, whose members include petrochemical companies that produce plastics, has been urging federal officials to instead amend CEPA’s pollution-prevention provisions or introduce standalone legislation.
“We’re uncomfortable with the notion that products that are used every day to keep food safe and sanitary, are going to be declared toxic,” he said. “We understand that it’s just a designation for rulemaking, but it will be used as a reason by some campaigners to encourage people to stop using plastics.”
The association is registered to lobby the government with the goal of ensuring “the ban on single-use plastics does not negatively impact the chemistry or plastics industry,” the federal registry shows. Several environmental groups, consumer associations and major petrochemical companies are also registered to lobby on the issue.
Toxic substances are defined under CEPA as those that cause, or may cause, immediate or long-term harm to the environment, biological diversity or human health. Substances already on the list include: greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane; mercury; asbestos; lead; formaldehyde; and bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical used in some plastics. The Liberals added microbeads – the tiny plastic particles found in some facial and body exfoliants – to the list in 2016.
Virtually all plastics produced globally are made from fossil fuels. Most plastics in Canada come from ethane, a component of natural gas. Alberta’s associate minister of natural gas, Dale Nally, said Ottawa is exhibiting a “knee-jerk reaction” to the challenges caused by the growing use of plastics. “Single-use plastic is not the problem – waste is the problem,” he said in a recent interview, adding that technological innovations will enable petrochemical companies to transform plastic waste into feedstock for their next production cycle.
Earlier this year, the federal government released a draft state-of-the-science assessment on plastic pollution, which says that macroplastics with particles greater than five millimetres cause harm to the environment. The impacts of microplastics were found to be less clear and sometimes contradictory.
The final version of the report, which will be released some time after public consultations on the draft close on April 1, will provide the government with the scientific basis to regulate plastics. The Liberals’ national strategy is expected to include standards that ensure some products comprise a certain percentage of recycled content, as well as a move toward waste programs that require manufacturers and sellers to fund the collection and recycling of the plastic they put into the market.
Environmental Defence Canada is among the advocacy organizations that for months have urged the government to deem plastics toxic. In a report slated for release on Wednesday, the group recommended that Ottawa include plastics in Schedule 1 as a precursor to a ban on specific polymers (such as polystyrene, which is used to make Styrofoam) and certain single-use items (such as cutlery and lightweight plastic bags).
Sarah King, who heads Greenpeace Canada’s plastics campaign, said she had expected the Liberals to use Schedule 1 because that is how they approached the ban on microbeads. The evidence to support the tactic, she said, is clear. “We need to move away from our reliance on fossil fuels, regardless of what format they’re in,” she said. “We’re in a climate crisis. We’re in a plastic pollution crisis. We’re in an oceans crisis. We’re in a biodiversity crisis.”
Mr. Masterson said he fears that declaring plastics as toxic could drive away investment at a time when the U.S. is already doing a far better job of attracting new petrochemical projects and expansions. The government, he said, must signal that it supports the industry’s growth and transition to a circular economy, in which materials are kept in use beyond their typical end of life.
With a report from Emma Graney in Calgary
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