Making the Case for a Zero Plastic Waste Economy: Canada Moves to Ban Single-Use Plastics in an Effort to Reduce Plastic Pollution

There is no doubt that plastics provide unparalleled functionality and durability across a range of products in our everyday lives. The production and use of plastics is growing faster than any other material due to their many practical uses. However, certain characteristics that make plastics so valuable can also create challenges for their end-of-life waste management. In particular, the low costs of producing and disposing of plastics have increased the amount of disposable plastic products and packaging entering the consumer market. According to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), over half of these disposable plastic products and packaging are designed to be used once and thrown away. CCME reports that an estimated 95% of the material value of plastic packaging (or between $100 and $150 billion dollars annually) is lost to the global economy after only a single use.

In recent years, plastic pollution has emerged as a critical environmental issue, one that must be addressed globally. To reduce plastic waste in Canada, the federal government announced in June 2019 that it will ban single-use plastics as early as 2021. The ban is expected to include items such as plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates and stir sticks. The federal government will also work together with the provinces and territories to introduce Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs, which would seek to establish standards and targets for companies that manufacture plastic products or sell items with plastic packaging.

The federal government has indicated that these measures will align with similar actions being taken in the European Union and other countries. In addition, these initiatives complement Canada’s adoption of the Ocean Plastics Charter in June 2018, which lays the groundwork for ensuring that plastics are designed for reuse and recycling. In addition, the federal government’s efforts to reduce plastic pollution includes ongoing work through the CCME to develop an action plan to implement the Canada-wide 2018 Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste.

Policy Initiatives to Reduce Plastic Pollution

The specific policy initiatives announced by the federal government include:

  • Banning harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021 under theCanadian Environmental Protection Act and taking other steps to reduce plastic waste, where supported by scientific evidence and when warranted – and taking other steps to reduce plastic waste. The ban would cover single-use plastic products and packaging (e.g. shopping bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks); the specific products and measures included in the ban will be determined once a State of the Science assessment on plastic pollution in the environment has been completed. The assessment will include a peer review, public consultations, and socio-economic considerations. Additional regulatory actions could include requiring products to contain a set amount of recycled content, or be capable of being recycled or repaired.
  • Ensuring that companies that manufacture plastic products or sell items with plastic packaging are responsible for managing the collection and recycling of their plastic waste. EPR programs are recognized as an effective mechanism to support the creation of a circular economy. Under an EPR program, companies making products are responsible for the end-of-life management of their products and packaging. Through the CCME, the federal government will work with provinces and territories to support the development of consistent EPR programs across the country. This will include setting targets for plastics collection, recycling, and recycled content requirements.
  • Working with industry to prevent and retrieve abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear, known as ghost fishing gear – a major contributor to marine plastic debris. The federal government will work with stakeholders through a new Sustainable Fisheries Solutions and Retrieval Support Contribution Program. In particular, the federal government will support fish harvesters to acquire new gear technologies to reduce gear loss, and take actions to support ghost gear retrieval and responsible disposal. In addition, the federal government will seek to reduce the impacts of ghost fishing gear in Canadian aquatic ecosystems. It is important to note that a significant amount of plastic in the oceans is comprised of fishing nets. In a study by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation that was published in 2018, scientists found that at least 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from fishing nets, while miscellaneous discarded fishing gear makes up the majority of the rest.
  • Investing in new Canadian technologies. Through the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge, the federal government is helping small businesses across the country find new ways to reduce plastic waste and turn waste into valuable resources supporting a circular economy. Seven challenges have been launched so far, providing over $10 million dollars to 18 Canadian small- and medium-sized enterprises. These businesses are working to reduce plastic waste from food packaging, construction waste, marine vessels, and fishing gear. They are also improving plastic recycling through artificial intelligence and refining technologies for bioplastics.
  • Mobilizing international support to address plastic pollution. At the 2018 G7 meeting in Charlevoix, Canada launched the Ocean Plastics Charter, which outlines actions to eradicate plastic pollution in order to address the impacts of marine litter on the health and sustainability of the oceans, coastal communities, and ecosystems. As of July 2019, the Charter has been endorsed by 21 governments and 63 businesses and organizations. To assist developing countries in reducing marine litter, the federal government is contributing $100 million to help developing countries prevent plastic waste from entering the oceans, address plastic waste on shorelines, and better manage existing plastic resources. This includes $65 million through the World Bank, $6 million to strengthen innovative private-public partnerships through the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership, and $20 million to help implement the G7 Innovation Challenge to Address Marine Plastic Litter.
  • Reducing plastic waste from federal operations. The federal government is strengthening policies, requirements, and guidelines that promote sustainable procurement practices, and has committed to divert at least 75% of plastic waste from federal operations by 2030.
  • Reducing plastic microbeads in freshwater marine ecosystems. To reduce the amount of plastic microbeads entering Canadian freshwater and marine ecosystems, Canada prohibited the manufacture and import of all toiletries that contain plastic microbeads (such as bath and body products) as of July 1, 2018. A complete ban came into force July 1, 2019.
  • Supporting community-led action and citizen-science activities. The federal government has committed $1.5 million in 2019 for organizations to start new plastics projects that mobilize and engage citizens. This funding is designed to support community-led action through education, outreach, and citizen science, and support concrete actions through community cleanups and demonstrations to reduce plastic waste.
  • Launching Canada’s Plastics Science Agenda. The federal government will accelerate research into the life cycle of plastics and on the impacts of plastics pollution on humans, wildlife, and the environment. This agenda is aimed at supporting evidence-based decision-making and innovative approaches to sustainable plastics production, recycling, and recovery. Canada’s Plastics Science Agenda will also identify priority areas for multi-sector research partnerships to help achieve Canada’s zero plastic waste goals.

Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste

In July 2018, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) commissioned a study to provide insights into the entire plastics value chain in Canada, from raw material production and products manufacturing to use and end-of-life. In June 2019, Deloitte and Cheminfo Services Inc. delivered its report to ECCC – the Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste (the Report).  Highlights of the Report are set out below.

The scope of the Report encompasses most plastics types used across all key sectors. The Report’s authors found that with total sales of approximately $35 billion, plastic resin and plastic product manufacturing in Canada accounts for more than 5% of sales in the Canadian manufacturing sector. The sector employs approximately 93,000 people across 1,932 establishments. In Canada, plastic products are in demand in most sectors of the economy, with approximately 4,667 kilotonnes (kt) of plastics introduced into the domestic market on an annual basis. The packaging, construction and automotive sectors account for 69% of plastic end-use.

In terms of the life cycle of plastics in Canada, the Report notes that it is mostly linear in nature, with an estimated 9% of plastic waste recycled, 4% incinerated with energy recovery, 86% landfilled, and 1% leaked into the environment in 2016. The main generators of plastic waste in Canada are:

  • packaging (43%);
  • automotive (9%);
  • textiles (7%);
  • electrical and electronic equipment (7%); and
  • construction (5%).

The Report found that plastics materials that were not recovered (i.e. 2,824 kt of resins sent to landfill or leaked into the environment) represented a lost opportunity of $7.8 billion for Canada in 2016, based on the value of virgin resin material. By 2030, the Report estimates that Canada’s lost opportunity in respect of unrecovered plastics could rise to $11.1 billion based on a business-as-usual scenario. Given forecasted trends in waste streams and economic drivers, the Report indicates that the linear profile of the Canadian plastics economy will not improve under a business-as-usual situation. The Report concluded that:

  • Given current market prices, structures, business models and the low cost of disposal, there is limited direct economic incentive for plastics recycling and value recovery in Canada. Primary (i.e. virgin resin production) and secondary (i.e. recycled) plastics compete against each other in the same market, based on price and quality of the resins. This competition is difficult for the recycling industry, which has to deal not only with prices, but also with quality issues as a result of uneven feedstock composition. While secondary plastics producers enjoy lower upfront investment than their counterparts in the primary market, they face greater financial exposure during periods of low oil prices (which bring down the price for virgin resins) because their cost structure is more labour intensive. Key barriers to the recovery of plastics include a combination of factors including low diversion rates (only 25% of all plastics discarded are collected for diversion), process losses in the sorting (e.g. shredded residues containing plastic are sent to landfill) and reprocessing stages, and the near absence of high volume recovery options for hard-to-recycle plastics (such as plastics waste coming from the automotive sector).
  • A zero plastic economy would deliver significant benefits to Canada. The Report’s authors modeled a 2030 scenario to examine the potential costs and benefits of achieving zero plastics waste. This scenario used a 90% landfill diversion rate as a proxy for zero plastic waste and assumed that: (i) plastics production and end use applications increased, but followed the same patterns as in 2016; (ii) mechanical recycling was quadrupled from its business-as-usual level; (iii) chemical recycling was significantly scaled up, taking into account readiness levels and associated learning curves; and (iv) energy from waste was leveraged to deal with the remaining volumes and hard-to-recycle plastics. An analysis by the authors demonstrated that the 2030 scenario would result in benefits including $500 million of annual costs avoided, 42,000 direct and indirect jobs created, and annual greenhouse gas emission savings of 1.8 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalent.  
  • The analysis indicates that zero plastic waste cannot be achieved without concurrent, strategic interventions by government, industry stakeholders and the public across each stage of the plastic lifecycle and targeted at sectors. According to the Report, achieving 90% plastic waste recovery will require significant investment to diversify and expand the capacity of current value recovery options including mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling, and waste-to-energy. The Report also notes that significant improvements to current plastic waste diversion rates will be required. In particular, a systematic approach across sectors will be needed because no single public or private sector action can shift the system.
  • The Report identifies the following five sets of interventions (including policies, measures and calls-to-action) to achieve zero plastic waste in Canada:
    1. Creating viable, domestic, secondary end-markets. This includes:
      • Creating stable, predictable demand for recycled plastics that is separate from virgin markets (e.g. requirements for recycled content, taxes/fees on virgin resins).
      • Improving the quality of recovered plastics at both the point of collection and in materials processing.
      • Improving access to domestic supply of recycled content.
      • Supporting innovation in product designs and uses for secondary plastics.
    2. Getting everybody onboard to collect all plastics. This includes:
      • Creating sector-specific requirements for collection (e.g. extended producer responsibility, performance agreements).
      • Restricting disposal (e.g. landfill taxes or bans).
      • Requiring/incentivizing collection (e.g. industry targets, deposit refund).
      • Developing more consistent requirements and rules across Canada (e.g. common curbside recycling).
      • Improving public information on collection and recyclability.
    3. Supporting and expanding all value-recovery options. This includes:
      • Supporting development of innovative value-recovery options, such as advanced mechanical and chemical recycling.
      • Focusing primarily on improving mechanical recycling.
      • Increasing the ease and speed at which new value recovery facilities can be developed by removing policy barriers and investing in innovation.
    4. Increasing efficiency throughout the value chain. This includes:
      • Facilitating collection and value-recovery by creating requirements for the reusability and recyclability of product design (e.g. standards and public procurement).
      • Improving performance by investing in sorting and separation.
      • Educating and engaging actors and consumers throughout the value chain.
    5. Extending plastics lifetime to reduce and delay waste generation. This includes leveraging opportunities to extend the lifetime of durable goods, which account for approximately 51% of total plastics waste, but have a very low recycling rate (2%) compared to that of non-durable goods (15%). In addition, the Report recommends introducing measures that contribute to increased reuse, repair and remanufacturing such as standard requirements for reparability or reusability, and tax exemptions to reduce and delay waste generation from durable goods in Canada.

In order to achieve zero plastic waste, radical changes will be required across the life cycle of plastic products. This includes not only changes in consumer behaviour, but also a significant increase in the number of recycling facilities in Canada, investments in recycling technology and the need for innovative government policies such as landfill taxes or product standards. As noted above, there is no single public or private sector action that can shift the system. Taking into consideration international benchmarks from ten European jurisdictions as well as US and Australian case studies, the Report’s authors note that a systemic approach is needed that is supported by a wide range of policies and approaches. Given that a majority of plastic marine debris comes from fishing nets and abandoned fishing gear, efforts to protect marine life from plastic pollution will require governments to take action to restrict the use of driftnets, reduce gear loss, increase ghost gear retrieval and incentivize responsible disposal of fishing gear.

 

plastic Zero Plastic Waste Economy plastic pollution

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