GOLDSTEIN: Canada’s single use plastics ban means more garbage

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The Trudeau government’s plan to eliminate plastic waste in Canada by 2030 is underway in earnest with the gradual elimination of single use plastics.

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As of Dec. 20, the manufacture and import for sale in Canada of plastic checkout bags, cutlery, takeout containers, stir sticks and most plastic straws (with some exemptions for flexible ones) will be prohibited. The sale of these items in Canada will end a year later.

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For six-pack ring carriers, the respective deadlines are six months later.

By December 2025, all designated single use plastics will be prohibited, including manufacturing, importing and sales for export.

The most visible change at first will be grocery stores ending the use of plastic bags — already underway in some chains and poised to happen in 2023 for others.

Many fast-food outlets have already eliminated or are phasing out plastic straws, cutlery and stir sticks.

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Trudeau is fulfilling a 2019 promise — a year behind schedule — which began with his verbally challenged answer to a reporter who asked what his family was doing to cut back on plastic use.

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His unintentionally hilarious response was: “We have recently switched to drinking water bottles out of … water out of, when we have water bottles, out of a plastic, sorry, away from plastic towards paper, like drink box water bottles, sort of thing.”

(Single use plastic water bottles are not included in the current prohibitions.)

Meanwhile, the government’s own impact analysis says that while banning single use plastics will remove 1.5 million tonnes of plastics from the waste stream from 2023 to 2032, it will add almost double that amount of waste — 2.9 million tonnes — from the use of substitutes for plastic such as paper, wood, moulded fibre, aluminum and alternative plastics.

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Because the production costs of these alternatives are typically more expensive than plastic, the government estimates the increased costs to consumers at $2 billion from 2023 to 2032, or $50 per capita. Even with estimated savings of $616 million from eliminating single use plastics, the net cost is estimated at $1.4 billion.

While the impact analysis says here will be a net environmental benefit from eliminating single use plastics, including the reduction of 1.8 million megatonnes of greenhouse gases annually, it also says some substitutes will have a higher climate change impact, as well as negative effects on air and water quality.

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The government says, based on 2019 data, that 15.5 billion plastic grocery bags a year were being sold in Canada, 5.8 billion straws, 4.5 billion pieces of cutlery, three billion stir sticks, 805 million takeout containers and 183 million six-pack rings.

The six categories of single use plastics subject to the ban account for an estimated 160,000 tonnes of plastic waste annually, just 5% of the overall amount of 3.3 million tonnes of plastic waste.

Of that, 86% ends up in landfills, 4% is burned, a dismal 9% is recycled — so much for all those years of faithful blue box recycling — and about 1%, or 29,000 tonnes, is discharged into the environment as litter, with 2,500 tonnes ending up in oceans, lakes and rivers.

Since only about 1% of Canada’s physical plastic waste escapes into the environment, Canada is not a major contributor to the global problem of plastics pollution in the world’s oceans, rivers and other waterways.

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As Kenneth Green, director of natural resource studies for the Fraser Institute, puts it:

“Canada’s contribution to global aquatic plastic pollution, when assessed in 2016, was between 0.02% and 0.03% of the global total. If observed market trends were to continue in the absence of ZPW2030 (zero plastic waste by 2030) the government’s regulatory impact assessment estimates plastic waste and plastic pollution could increase (from 2016 levels) by roughly one third by 2030.

“Thus, if ZPW2030 eliminated all the predicted increase, it would prevent an increase from 0.02%-0.03% to 0.023%-0.033% of the global total, an undetectable reduction of three-thousandths of one percent.”

A scavenger collects plastic waste for recycling on the Citarum river choked with garbage and industrial waste, in Bandung, West Java. GETTY IMAGES
A scavenger collects plastic waste for recycling on the Citarum river choked with garbage and industrial waste, in Bandung, West Java. GETTY IMAGES

On the other hand, Canada exported 100,000 tonnes of plastic waste to other countries in 2018 (and four million tonnes over the past three decades), ostensibly for environmentally responsible waste disposal but in the real world, often using third-world countries as dumping grounds for plastics, with a far greater chance of it ending up in the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers.

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That’s not counting plastic waste illegally dumped by some companies in other countries, often mislabelled as recyclable material.

Some of those countries have started shipping our unwanted waste back to Canada.

FILE PHOTO: The ship Anna Maersk is docked at Roberts Bank port carrying 69 containers of mostly paper and plastic waste returned by the Philippines in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada June 29, 2019.
FILE PHOTO: The ship Anna Maersk is docked at Roberts Bank port carrying 69 containers of mostly paper and plastic waste returned by the Philippines in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada June 29, 2019. Photo by Jason Redmond /REUTERS

Based on those numbers, putting an end to these practices would appear to be a more effective way for Canada to do its part in tackling global marine plastic pollution than banning single use plastics.

Canada’s plastic manufacturers are challenging the Trudeau government’s ban on single use plastics in court, as well as its legal definition of plastics as “toxic,” plus warning the policy will lead to job losses. The government says more jobs will be created.

As for replacing single use plastics in practical terms, the government has helpfully suggested, among other things, that the food industry provide customers with more options people can eat with their hands.

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