Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boldly announced in June that the federal government intends to ban single-use plastics by 2021. With very few details released at the time of the announcement, the plan appeared to come out of the blue, leaving leaders from various industries wondering what kinds of adjustments will need to be made, how quickly, in what capacity and how industry can share its perspectives.
The government is currently studying bans in other jurisdictions to determine the model best suited for Canada. Some have speculated that the ban will follow the EU model, which includes plates, balloon sticks, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene and all products made of oxo-degradable plastic. However, a PMO backgrounder outlining the ban’s priorities and objectives suggests Canada’s ban could be more extensive.
The idea of a plastics ban is certainly virtuous and frankly necessary to help curb Canadians’ overconsumption of single-use plastics. But the announcement has many questioning the practicality and real-world applicability of a plastics ban. While nearly everyone can get behind the idea of reducing consumer consumption, viable alternatives to single-use plastics in senior care, pharmaceuticals and the medical field writ large remain to be seen. This begs the question: is an all-out ban really possible?
June’s announcement sought to set the tone for the upcoming federal election, refocusing the Liberals as champions of the environment and the economy. Environmental policies are expected to dominate the conversation during the election. Trudeau is covering his bases and ensuring he’s fulfilled all the commitments made to Canadians before the government goes into caretaker mode.
While the announcement came as a bit of a surprise to many, a plastics ban is aligned with the Liberal government’s environmental policy. Earlier this year the government implemented a price on carbon and last year banned the import and manufacturing of toiletries containing microbeads. The government also passed two key bills that tighten environmental assessment criteria for energy projects and protect the coast of northern British Columbia from oil spills right before Parliament rose for the summer.
Also, by introducing the plastics ban, Trudeau is fulfilling an international commitment made at last year’s G7 Summit, joining France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the European Union in signing the Ocean Plastics Charter, a central pillar of Canada’s presidency of the G7 in 2018.
Is it practical?
As noted above, the real-world implications of a plastics ban are much more nuanced than meets the eye. Any ban on single-use plastics would need to include a number of exemptions for various industries – especially in health care – as viable alternatives to single-use items like straws for seniors, latex gloves, pharmaceutical packaging, IV tubes and the like have yet to be developed.
A number of industries have already taken voluntary initiatives to curb single-use plastic use. Furthermore, many consumers have taken it upon themselves to be more eco-conscious, swapping single-use plastic items for reusables.
This isn’t to say there isn’t a role for government to play here. If we are to tackle the climate crisis, a coordinated effort to reduce waste led by governments globally is needed. However, the government must consider a phased approach rather than an all-out ban by 2021 if we are to see long-term change in consumer habits and to allow time for viable alternatives to single-use plastics to come to market. In the interim, a series of regulatory requirements will likely need to be developed to govern any exemptions where single-use plastics must continue to be used.
Shifting responsibility to manufacturers
Trudeau’s June announcement also noted that Canada will transfer the cost and collection of single-use plastics from town and cities to the companies that generate this plastic waste in the first place, in partnership with the provinces and territories. This emphasis on producer responsibility means that businesses will take responsibility for the plastics that they generate.
While a single-use plastics ban may not go forward under a Conservative government given the party’s criticism of Trudeau’s announcement, transferring costs of recycling to business is something all parties should get behind. A program is already successfully rolled out in BC, and one is currently being implemented in Ontario. Producer responsibility models have the potential to save municipalities millions of dollars while shifting the onus of recycling to companies. Accountability mechanisms will be essential to ensuring compliance.
So, what’s next?
While some have speculated that the ban could focus primarily on consumer goods, the bottom line is that it is not clear how far the Liberals are willing to go with Canada’s ban. We expect to see more details on the Liberals plastic ban emerge as part of the election campaign. Consultations, however, are unlikely to take place until after the election.
In the meantime, producers should start thinking about their POV and action plan should a plastics ban – in any capacity – go through. We advise beginning outreach to necessary ministry and party platform officials to make your voice heard.
FHR is here to be your eyes and ears, and provide guidance on how to engage on this issue over the coming months.