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A person walks with a plastic shopping bag in Toronto on Oct., 7, 2020.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

For those who clamour for Alberta to take some steps to diversify its economy away from the bread-and-butter industry of getting oil and gas out of the ground and piped away, this was a key week. There were announcements on a major push for the development of a hydrogen sector, and using old wells for geothermal energy. But perhaps most surprising was the unveiling of a plan to establish Alberta as a hub for plastic recycling in western North America by the end of the decade.

It’s an intriguing ambition for the province’s United Conservative Party, a government more closely associated with its mantra focused on oil and gas, and pipelines. The province is pitching itself as a home for processing recoverable plastic waste materials, a global issue since China started refusing the stuff at the beginning of 2018. Despite what we all might hope for in our municipal waste systems in this country, discarded plastic products from food clamshells to children’s toys usually end up in landfills. But as a silver lining, the Chinese ban on imports has contributed to a necessary North American rethink of how much plastic we use, and could spur the creation of domestic plastic recycling systems.

But have no doubt, in tandem with that green-branded plan to become a centre for the repurposing and recycling of old plastic, Alberta also wants to get involved in much more new plastic-making. It wants to leverage its massive natural gas reserves (plastics are almost always made with chemicals derived from fossil fuels) to expand its already significant petrochemical sector.

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This ambition has created the potential for yet another major fault line between Alberta and Ottawa.

Premier Jason Kenney says the new ban will be added to an inventory of items on which Alberta wants Ottawa to “do no harm” – to back down from new laws and policies the province says hamper job creation and any kind of economic recovery here.

The province’s announcement on its plastics plan came just before the bigger plastic news of the week, that Ottawa will ban six single-use plastic items – straws, cutlery, grocery bags, stir sticks, six-pack rings and certain types of takeout containers – potentially by the end of 2021. Those items were selected, federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said, because they’re found in the environment, are often not recycled, and all have readily available alternatives.

But just like the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, an industry group, Alberta takes exception to a full-out ban on any specific products, and to the plan to classify plastic manufactured items as “toxic” under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

The association says putting plastics in the same category as mercury or lead is unnecessary “reputational damage.” Alberta officials would mostly agree – saying that international petrochemical chief executives would think long and hard about putting money into Canada, including for plastic recycling projects, with this type of designation. “One thing that we know for sure is the federal government has to send a signal...to investors that Canada is open for business,” Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said this week.

In the midst of what Mr. Kenney regularly refers to as an economic emergency for his oil-focused province, the Premier’s main concern is the uncertainty the federal policy creates as the province tries to attract tens of billions of dollars in new petrochemical investment as a “super-booster” for diversification and job creation in Alberta.

“Let’s realize that if those petrochemical plants don’t come to Alberta because of restrictions of this nature, they’re still going to be built, and the plastics will still be built, and the natural gas will still be consumed. But probably in Texas and Louisiana instead of Canada," the Premier said.

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The federal government says the items subject to the ban represent a tiny fraction of all plastic production. Mr. Wilkinson also said he’s willing to talk about the language around the ban, if that’s a stumbling block. The details of the ban are still a work in progress, and the minister has emphasized the federal strategy is far from the end of plastics in Canada.

“Plastics are very useful,” Mr. Wilkinson said this week. “We just need to make sure that we’re not throwing them in the landfill or dumping them in the ocean. We need to ensure that they stay in the economy.”

But if you’re thinking there are some parallels in the political wrangling on plastic feedstocks and on oil production, you would be right. Like oil, there’s loads of global competition in plastics. There are massive industrial complexes. There are big environmental effects. There is continued, although now changing, consumer demand.

Like producing oil, producing feedstock for plastics is the sometimes unpretty work required for making a lot of stuff – the pretty, polished products everyone uses every day. Because of its massive oil and natural gas resources, a lot of this primary production work takes place in Alberta – a position that often puts the province’s economic interests at odds with environmental goals.

However, Mr. Wilkinson maintains the federal plan isn’t in conflict with Alberta’s ambitions. Both governments say they want to keep plastic waste out of the environment. Both want to develop industry-operated plastic recycling programs. There are, of course, some common-ground starting points if anyone in Ottawa or Edmonton cares to look.

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