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A person walks with plastic shopping bags in Toronto on Oct., 7, 2020.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa intends to ban six single-use plastic items by the end of next year, plans to develop national recycling regulations aimed at diverting waste from landfills and wants to hold companies responsible for the plastic products they put into the marketplace.

Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson on Wednesday released the government’s list of single-use products that it wants to ban as part of its broader effort to reach zero plastic waste by 2030. Plastic straws, cutlery, grocery bags, stir sticks, six-pack rings and certain types of takeout containers could be restricted in Canada by the end of 2021. The items were selected based on the criteria that they end up in nature, are hard to recycle and have readily available alternatives.

Products such as coffee cups, plastic bottles and personal items like cotton swabs were not included in the proposed list because they didn’t meet thresholds related to environmental concerns or recycling challenges.

“Plastics are very useful,” Mr. Wilkinson said at a livestreamed press conference in Ottawa. “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.” Only 9 per cent of plastic in Canada is recycled after it is used, he said.

The federal government intends to designate “plastic manufactured items” as toxic under Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act – an expeditious move that will provide the Liberals with the authority to regulate and limit certain products without tabling new legislation. The Alberta government criticized the toxic designation and the ban, saying such plans will undermine the province’s petrochemical sector and its goal of becoming a plastics-recycling hub.

While the prospect of a ban on some single-use plastics has garnered much attention since the Liberals campaigned on the issue in 2019, it is two other proposed measures announced Wednesday that experts say will make a meaningful difference on reducing plastic waste: Recycled-content standards that will drive up demand for recycled plastic at a time when new plastic is cheaper to create; and a national approach to extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs, which require companies to manage the collection and recycling of the plastic waste they manufacture or sell. A national approach to EPR could include standardized performance targets and a common list of accepted materials.

“We hear the term ‘circular economy,’ and those two policy measures – more than any other – will take us closer to that circular economy for plastics,” said Usman Valiante, who helped design B.C.'s renowned EPR system and is a director with Alberta’s Beverage Container Management Board. Ottawa has touted the transition to a circular economy, in which plastics aren’t just used and discarded, but rather recycled, reused or repurposed to keep products in the economy and out of the environment.

“Everyone is talking about the ban, but a ban is the tip of the iceberg,” said David Boyd, an environmental lawyer who serves as the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and environment. “By taking leadership on EPR and recycled content standards, [the government] is getting at the submerged part of the iceberg.”

Wednesday’s announcement aligns Ottawa more closely with industry stakeholders who have been calling for national guidelines for EPR programs, as well as standards to ensure that some products comprise a certain percentage of recycled content. In a discussion paper released in conjunction with the announcement, the government reiterated its commitment to a target of 50-per-cent recycled content in plastic products by 2030.

“Recycled content requirements establish a market demand for recycled plastics, which lessens the pressures for recyclers to compete with the cost of virgin resin,” the paper says. “Robust domestic demand for recycled plastics would also drive investments in recycling operations, innovations in material separation and technologies, and opportunities to scale up emerging technologies.”

Mr. Wilkinson said the government looked to Europe for inspiration for its plastics plan. Earlier this year, the European Union adopted a regulatory framework that 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, EPR programs for tobacco filters and fishing gear, and recycled-content targets for plastic bottles. “To be honest, we’re not leading the world on this,” Mr. Wilkinson said.

He noted that here in Canada, several major companies – Canadian Tire, Loblaws and Walmart – have made addressing plastic pollution a key focus of their sustainability efforts. “Industry generally has been very much encouraging governments to address this important issue.”

But not all industry stakeholders were encouraged by all aspects of Wednesday’s announcement.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce said Ottawa should go beyond “surface issues like bans” and must properly address the “elephant in the room” – the patchwork of waste-management systems across the country. The government, the chamber said in a statement Wednesday, must clearly spell out how it plans to address the “fragmented approaches to disposing consumer products” to avoid the costs of meeting different provincial regulations.

The Retail Council of Canada, which represents more than 45,000 stores, said it has stressed to the government the importance of consistent national recycling targets, standards and regulations. When it comes to the ban, council president and chief executive Diane Brisebois said retailers are concerned that federal restrictions on certain single-use items won’t necessarily solve disparities across municipalities, which in some cases have their own bylaws banning select products. “If these municipal bans remain in effect and others emerge, it will defeat the goal of working towards a national target and operational efficiencies, and [it] may well create confusion among Canadians,” she said.

Bob Masterson, the president and CEO of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, said he is concerned about the impact of the single-use plastics ban on family-owned businesses that make products such as plastic bags. He said he hopes the government will consider ways to support people who find themselves out of work because of the regulations. “We’re with you on the circular economy, we’re with you on EPR, we’re with you on recycled-content standards,” Mr. Masterson said. “We have problems with the ban.”

Virtually all plastics produced globally are made from fossil fuels. Most plastics in Canada come from ethane, a component of natural gas. Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said Wednesday that Ottawa must ensure it signals to the market that Canada actually wants to attract investment. “On the plastics ban in particular, I think they need to recognize that we have the right to develop our natural resources,” she said. “We need to recover our economy, and part of that includes a robust petrochemical industry.”

Asked about the friction between Alberta and Ottawa on the plastics issue, Mr. Wilkinson said the single-use ban affects a very small part of the Canadian plastics industry. And since the ban targets items that are difficult to recycle, “it’s hard to see how it would have any significant bearing on the development of a recycling industry.”

Mr. Wilkinson also said the ban will have no impact on access to plastic-based personal protective equipment, which has become more important amid the pandemic.

Environmental groups had mixed reactions to Wednesday’s announcement. Greenpeace Canada called the government’s preliminary list of banned single-use plastics the “bare minimum,” and accused Ottawa of being beholden to the plastics and food sectors, which promote a “throwaway culture.” Environmental Defence applauded what it described as the federal government’s “refusal to bow to the chemical lobby,” saying it welcomed the proposed list of banned items and the pending designation of plastics as toxic.

Comments on the government’s plan, outlined in the 20-page discussion paper, will be accepted until Dec. 9. Final regulations are expected by the end of 2021.

Rick Smith decided to conduct an experiment on himself to see if he could measure an increase of microplastics in his body. The author and Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute says the lab-based tests on his stool samples are the first of their kind in North America to search for traces of the tiny plastic particles in people. Microplastics have been discovered circulating in the environment and are linked to health concerns.

The Globe and Mail

With a report from Emma Graney in Calgary

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