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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken an aggressive stance on a long-simmering issue: the glut of plastic consumer waste littering the world, especially its oceans.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

With apologies to the makers of the film The Graduate, imagine a scene set in Ottawa in which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is discussing his political fortunes with his staff.

“I need something that will resonate with voters,” he says. “Something to remind them that I am a dashing global leader ready to take on the world’s most pressing issues.”

An adviser puts her arm around his shoulder and says, “I just wanna say one word to you. Just. One. Word.”

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“Yes?”

"Plastics."

Hey, it could have happened. Mr. Trudeau announced Monday that the federal government will ban “harmful, single-use plastics,” such as grocery bags, straws, cutlery, plates and stir sticks, as soon as 2021.

In doing so, the Prime Minister has taken an aggressive stance on a long-simmering issue: the glut of plastic consumer waste littering the world, especially its oceans.

Two factors have lately pushed the issue to the front burner. One is the flood of images of sea birds and fish choked by plastic refuse that flows down rivers in developing countries, gets caught in the currents of the Pacific and is carried around the planet. About eight million tonnes of plastic waste that starts on land ends up in the ocean every year, according to a 2015 study.

The other is the fallout from China’s decision last year to stop the import of most types of used plastic commodities for recycling. Other developing countries are following suit, and governments across Canada are running out of places to send their recyclables. This is forcing up their costs and obliging them to send more plastics to landfills and incinerators.

Only 9 per cent of the 3.2 million tonnes of plastic waste generated each year in Canada is recycled, according to a study done for the federal government.

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Last week, the Ontario government named a special adviser on plastic waste and told him to report back by August on how best to transfer recycling costs currently borne by municipal taxpayers to the companies that make and use single-use plastic products.

In Prince Edward Island, plastic grocery bags will be banned as of July, a move that comes after the contractor that handles waste management for the province had to resort to burning the bags, because no recycling company would take them at a feasible price.

A recent investigation by The Globe and Mail revealed that provinces and cities across the country are struggling with similar issues.

The problem is not plastic, per se. That scene in The Graduate was telling: When a businessman advised the young university graduate played by Dustin Hoffman to get into plastics in the 1960s, the industry was in its infancy. Since then, it has doubled every decade; by one estimate, half of all plastics ever manufactured were made in the last 15 years.

Today, everything from car parts to human organ replacement parts are made from the different types of plastics that start life as fossil fuels.

The problem is the plastic water bottles, forks and stir sticks that are used for the time it takes to eat lunch, and then live on for as many as 400 more years.

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Mr. Trudeau says he wants to ban single-use plastics in short order but also plans to take into account “socio-economic considerations," by which he means he doesn’t want to put anyone out of work.

Given the size of the plastics industry, it also means he is unlikely to go as far as he is hinting. Canadians alone use 15-billion plastic grocery bags a year, according to Ottawa.

A better plan is the one Ontario is considering, and which is already working well in British Columbia.

Extended producer responsibility involves making large food retailers and consumer packaged-goods companies entirely responsible for the cost of recycling.

Doing so takes a load off of taxpayers. It also encourages companies to use less plastic, or to find biodegradable alternatives. And it could help develop a recycling industry in Canada and eliminate the need to ship waste overseas.

Above all, it is more realistic than changing consumers’ food-buying habits overnight. Signalling a willingness to be a global leader on single-use plastics by banning them in record time makes for a good headline, but Mr. Trudeau knows the issue is more complex than that. Enough said.

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