The Trudeau government made the completely expected, yet somehow still controversial, announcement last week that it is banning a targeted selection of single-use plastic products starting next year.
Plastic stir sticks, cutlery, straws and checkout bags are on the hit list. So are those bird-throttling plastic rings that hold together six-packs of beer, and certain types of food containers that are particularly hard to recycle.
Banning these items makes sense. They are ubiquitous, they tend not to be recycled, too many of them end up as highly visible land and water pollution, and there are multiple viable alternatives to them. It verges on insanity that they are used to the extent that they are.
Still, the announcement, which is essentially a reannouncement of a plan set out by the Liberals last year, has generated blowback.
Some of it stems from the fact that the ban comes at a difficult time for the hospitality industry. Restaurants across the country were closed to indoor dining this summer, and many are once again shut now that the second wave of COVID-19 has rolled in. And yet here they are being told that, come next year, they may be forced to manage a switch to new kinds of takeout containers.
There was also concern in Alberta, where the government announced, just two days prior to the federal plastics ban, that it aims to expand its plastic-producing petrochemical industry and turn the province into a plastics recycling hub for North America. Some see the ban as Ottawa working at cross-purposes with Alberta’s much-needed effort to expand its economy beyond pumping crude.
These concerns are real, but they shouldn’t be overblown. The coming federal ban doesn’t appear to be unreasonable, and polls suggest it has broad public support.
As for Alberta, it is party to the Canada-wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste, a national policy agreed to by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. Among other things, the policy calls for finding a solution by the end of 2021 for “single-use items that are most likely to be released into the environment" – which is precisely what Ottawa is doing with its targeted ban.
If you want something to worry about, though, it is the possibility that the Trudeau government will content itself with banning something as patently useless as a plastic stir stick and fail to push through other, more challenging reforms outlined in the zero-waste policy.
Like most pollution, the root problem with plastic waste is a matter of economics. For too long, it has been cheaper, at least on a strict dollar basis, to throw away a single-use plastic item and replace it with a new one, rather than collecting it, recycling it and making other products out of it.
That calculation was upended in 2018, when China – which until then accounted for 70 per cent of the world’s plastics recycling – banned the import of almost all waste plastics. Since then, ever more plastic trash has been ending up in landfills, and in the environment, around the world. In Canada, only 9 per cent of plastic waste is recycled.
The Canada-wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste focuses on ways of recalibrating the economics of plastic, by making manufacturers pay a price that reflects the pollution and disposal costs associated with their products.
This includes the nationwide expansion of extended producer responsibility, wherein companies that make and use plastic goods are responsible for their collection and recycling. EPR is already having a positive impact in British Columbia, which adopted it years ago.
It could also mean setting high costs for dumping plastics in landfill, and imposing regulations on the recyclability of plastics and enforcing minimum recycled content.
These are tougher, more complex moves than banning six single-use items that only make up a small proportion of the real issue.
Plastics are an essential part of modern life. They have uses from food protection to medicine to automaking. We need plastics, but we also need the responsible manufacture and disposal of plastics, so that their price represents their true cost. In the long run, that will benefit the economy, the environment and the petrochemical and plastics industries, as the Alberta government justifiably hopes.
Compared to these deeper issues, last week’s ban amounts to plastic surgery – cosmetic, in other words.
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