EcoLog,  4/18/2019

COLUMN: How far can Canada go to eliminate plastics?

by Colin Isaacs

An Angus Reid opinion survey for CBC’s Marketplace television program indicated that nine out of 10 respondents say they are concerned or very concerned about the impact of plastic waste on the environment. Many of them believe that the solution is for governments to phase out the use of certain plastic products. Some people believe that the solution is a total phase-out of plastics. 

Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna has promised that the Canadian plastics strategy — supposedly a federal-provincial strategy though one has to wonder in these times of strained federal-provincial relations — will be released in June 2019. Though so far there have been no significant leaks regarding the contents of that strategy, it is a pretty safe prediction that the strategy will not be considered satisfactory by any of the interested stakeholders. 

The plastics and plastic-using industries will be frustrated that it includes a mandatory phase-out of certain products, while the environmental community and many concerned Canadians will be shouting from on high that it does not go far enough in getting rid of all plastics, or at least of all single-use plastics. This is a no-win situation for governments, brought about in part by their own dallying on the environmental file and in part by their treatment of the issue as if it were simple when it is in fact very complex. 

Plastics are a desirable category of materials that contribute great value, both environmentally and economically, to our modern society. To name just three of its multitude of uses, plastic packaging extends the life of, and reduces loss and damage to, foods and almost all consumer products. Without plastics we could have no electronic devices, telephones, televisions, computers, cell phones, and so on. No one has yet invented one of these devices made only of wood, metal, or similar non-plastic materials. Our electricity is brought to us through cables that are coated in plastic. While we may eventually find plastic-free alternatives, there are no readily available plastic-free options for many of these uses, and those that look promising, such as plastic-free reusable packaging, may not always pass a rigorous life-cycle assessment for full-cycle environmental benefit. 

It is certainly true that we have not been sufficiently responsible in our use of plastics. Like nuclear power, which generates waste for which there is no long-term disposal system in place, like fossil fuels which produce waste which we dump into the atmosphere without sufficient regard for the risk it poses to the climate, and like antibiotics which are so overused and dumped into our waterways that we are being involuntarily medicated to the extent that the antibiotics are losing effectiveness, so too plastics have been used with wanton disregard for their severe environmental impact. 

The solution is not to ban plastics but to change the ways in which we use them, regulate them, and manage them at the end of their life. We must change society so that it becomes as socially irresponsible to throw away a plastic package or product as it is to pour outdated pharmaceuticals into the toilet. 

When faced with this kind of problem, our governments usually turn to others for leadership, and that is almost certainly what we can expect in June 2019’s announcement. There is no point in turning to the United States (U.S.) for leadership on the plastics problem because there is no leadership on environmentally sound management of plastics in the U.S. any more than there is national leadership on climate change. 

The European Parliament, however, did pass a Directive on the Reduction of the Impact of Certain Plastic Products on the Environment on March 27, 2019. There is a very good chance that Canada’s plastics strategy will be based on the European approach, bearing in mind that the system of governance in place in the European Union (EU) is not the same as the Canadian system of governance. EU directives must be implemented by the member countries, unlike in Canada where the federal government has virtually no power to direct the provinces to do anything. 

The EU Directive involves two components — measures to achieve a significant reduction in consumption, with the choice of measures (the difficult part) being left to member countries, and mandatory extended producer responsibility programs implemented for certain products in all EU countries:

The above is not a complete summary of the measures but it covers many of the key points and most of the product and packaging types. Implementation dates vary for each of the measures but range from two to five years from now (2019). 

So while there is a good chance that the Canadian strategy will incorporate many of the above measures, it is not a given. Both the North America Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization will condone product bans only if there is scientific evidence to support the need for the ban. Such science-based data is difficult to obtain in Canada. 

Canada is much more likely to receive a trade complaint from its neighbour than European countries are to receive an environment-denying trade complaint from their neighbours. The concept of extended producer responsibility has not been accepted by all provinces and one can imagine that some might view it as an unwanted tax, as happened in Ontario a few years ago with the plan to show extended producer responsibility fees for hazardous household products on cash register receipts. 

Many EU countries use various forms of combustion to dispose of plastic waste but this has many detractors and is unlikely to win popular support in Canada. Perhaps most importantly, the EU’s suite of measures, while sounding impressive, will go only a tiny way toward addressing the serious plastics problems, such as marine and aquatic plastic pollution, which have been identified. 

Canada has already taken the first easy steps towards a plastics strategy with industry phasing out use of plastic microbeads in personal care products and with a commitment to consider reduction of plastic waste in government procurement. To be a leader in removing plastics from the environment, Canada needs to do much more than the EU has done so far. 

Our system of governance and our trade situation may make it difficult, but hopefully not impossible, to implement the kind of initiatives that could keep plastics out of the environment. The federal government will deserve kudos for trying, but it is going to need much more help from industry, academia, environmentalists, and concerned consumers if we are to achieve zero-waste from plastics in any reasonable time frame.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He was selected by Environment Canada to be the principal author of the waste management chapter in the report The State of Canada’s Environment 1991. Colin can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone), (416) 362-5231 (fax), and (e-mail).

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