Environment Canada is releasing scientific evidence to support banning most single-use plastics next year, in a Jan. 30, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Editorial: Ban on single-use plastics dwarfed by pandemic plastic pollution

It’s a step in the right direction but we have a long march ahead of us

It’s January 2019 – plastic straw bans are sweeping across North America, municipalities are banning single use plastics, and there are murmurings in Ottawa of a complete ban on single use plastics.

Fast forward to October 2020, Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announces that single use plastics will be phased out by the end of 2021.

In between this pair of progressive policy pronouncements a small thing happened – the COVID-19 pandemic.

RELATED: Straws, stir sticks and bags among first targets of countrywide plastics ban

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During the pandemic, global plastic waste has skyrocketed. Reusable grocery bags were once again replaced by the traditional plastic, cooking weary eaters found refuge in disposal take-out containers, people rushed to buy disposable face masks and plastic gloves, and the plumetting price of oil made the manufacuturing of new plastics cheaper than recycling.

The total impact of COVID-19 on global plastic waste is unknown; however, global organizations like the International Solid Waste Association estimate that plastic use has increased by 250 to 300 percent.

Plastic waste was already an issue in Canada, and it seems that COVID has kicked things into overdrive. If COVID persists to the end of 2021 – which is likely – it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where single use plastics are discontinued. Even under the Liberal plan, single use plastics like garbage bags, snack food wrappers, and PPE are exempt.

Although a ban on single use plastics would certainly bring environmental benefits, it may bring economic consequences for Canadians. According to a report compiled by Deloitte and Cheminfo Services on behalf of Environment and Climate Change Canada, the plastic manufacturing industry generated $35 billion in sales in 2017.

The report noted that plastic manufacturing accounts for over five percent of sales in Canada’s manufacturing sector, and employs 93,000 people across 1,932 establishments. Outlawing single use plastics in Canada may put this sector at risk. However, the report also notes that Canada loses $7.8 billion in plastic material that is not recovered, and outlines a way forward to open the door to higher value recycling and recovery options.

The ban on single use plastics is a good start; however, Canada must also adopt an all hands on deck approach to collecting plastics. It must also establish a domestic secondary end-market for recyclables, extend the lifetime of plastics to reduce and delay waste generation, and incentivize producers to create more environmentally friendly products.

Canada’s future in dealing with plastic waste is achievable – although difficult to imagine. Let’s hope the plastic ban is only the first step in the right direction.

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