The Canadian government wants to improperly classify plastics as “toxic” substances, using Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) to ban six single-use plastic items: plastic bags, stir sticks, straws, cutlery, six-pack rings and certain takeout containers. Labelling single-use plastics as “toxic” substances is the quickest and easiest path to ban products in Canada because it is more expedient than to obtain multiparty support for new legislation regulating plastics. But, plastics are not toxic—they are not harmful or dangerous substances. Nevertheless, with this new classification “consumers would assume that every day and essential products that contain plastic are now toxic,” as noted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The comment period on the ban closes on December 9, providing industry, trade partners, and, ordinary Canadians 60 days to provide comments—the minimum for a federal proposal of this kind. This unilateral approach by the government could have broad ramifications that could undermine its policy goals and hurt consumers—not just in Canada, but also in the United States. The federal government will not have to consult anyone if and when they decide to add new plastics products to this list in the future, which can include anything—from bottle caps to plastic bottles to IV bags to car bumpers. The financial burden of using plastic alternatives will ultimately be borne by consumers. Businesses will incur new costs for alternative products, and those costs will be passed on to consumers through higher prices.
Toxic substances are defined under CEPA as those that cause, or may cause, immediate or long-term harm to the environment, biological diversity or human health. Substances considered “toxic” include: greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane; mercury; asbestos; lead; formaldehyde; and bisphenol A, a synthetic chemical used in some plastics. In 2016, microbeads—the tiny plastic particles found in some facial and body exfoliants—were added to the list of toxic substances.
Virtually all plastics produced worldwide are made from fossil fuels, which is why during the fall election in 2019, Liberals in Canada campaigned to ban some single-use plastics in 2021, as part of a national strategy to reduce waste and pollution. But, single-use plastics are not the problem—plastic waste is the problem and it needs to be managed globally. Up to 95 percent of all plastic found in the world’s oceans comes from 10 source rivers, which are all in the developing world. Canada on average, contributes less than 0.01 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste. China, the world’s largest plastics polluter, accounts for 27.7 percent of the worlds mismanaged plastic. Canada, when compared to European countries like England, Spain, Italy, Portugal and France, contributes four times less in mismanaged plastic.
Unfortunately, the Canadian government’s approach to plastic completely forgoes the management side of waste management, and instead opts for banning entire product classes. Those impacted the most by the ban will be consumers. The timing is particularly challenging due to the coronavirus pandemic. With stores closing due to economic challenges caused by the coronavirus lockdowns, consumers will need to spend more on everyday goods and services. In Canada, for example, 300 to 400 grocery stores are expected to close and on-line purchases are expected to increase food prices by 5 to 7 percent.
Many alternatives to plastics have worse environmental impacts due to their manufacture or their weight, which is an important factor when considering shipments of goods and the subsequent emissions. For example, common paper bag replacements for single-use plastic bags need to be reused 43 times to have the same total impact as a plastic bag. A conventional cotton bag alternative needs to be used over 7,100 times to equal a plastic bag, while an organic cotton bag has to be reused over 20,000 times. We know from consumer usage patterns that the likelihood of paper or cotton alternatives being used that many times is unlikely.
The Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, whose members include petrochemical companies that produce plastics, has been urging federal officials to instead amend CEPA’s pollution-prevention provisions or introduce standalone legislation. The association is uncomfortable with the notion that products that are used every day to keep food safe and sanitary, are going to be declared “toxic.” Some campaigners will use the designation in the future to encourage people to stop using plastics. The association is registered to lobby the government to ensure “the ban on single-use plastics does not negatively impact the chemistry or plastics industry.”
Technological innovations are expected to enable petrochemical companies to transform plastic waste into feedstock for their next production cycle. Most plastics in Canada are made from ethane, a component of natural gas.
Canada is going to extremes to ban certain single-use plastic items, by classifying them as “toxic” substances, a fashionable, but wholly ineffective gesture, given that Canada’s contribution to plastic waste is so minimal. Canada contributes very little toward plastic waste mismanagement globally and will only cause its consumers higher prices, inconvenience, and lack of safety during the coronavirus pandemic by banning single-use plastics. In the United States, eight states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont—have banned the use of plastic bags in supermarkets and other businesses. New Jersey will be added to the list as its legislature recently passed a ban that the state’s governor signed, which will go into effect starting May 2022. Fifteen U.S. states, however, enacted laws to restrict local officials from enacting a ban on plastic bags.