A few years back, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was criticized for appearing to use plastic knives and forks to eat pizza at a constituency meeting.
The problem wasn’t so much that pizza is meant to be eaten by hand — although some folks did comment on this — it was that just two weeks earlier, Trudeau promised the world Canada would ban single-use plastics beginning as early as 2021.
Fast forward two and a half years and the Liberals have labeled plastic utensils “harmful” and “toxic.”
The government is also facing criticism over regulations meant to ban these and other single-use plastics.
That’s because the draft rules, published Tuesday by Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, include an exemption that will allow Canadian manufacturers to make and sell these items, so long as they’re destined for export.
So while Canadians could soon find themselves without plastic checkout bags, straws and stir sticks, it’s palatable for the Liberals if Canadian companies continue profiting off them.
“The proposed regulations seek to minimize costs to government and industry, while at the same time meeting the policy objectives of preventing plastic pollution and protecting the environment,” a spokesperson for Guilbeault said.
This argument is similar to the argument put forward by Conservative leader Erin O’Toole when it comes to oil and gas.
O’Toole has repeatedly said he doesn’t support regulations that could harm the Canadian oil and gas sector because lost output will simply be made up by producers in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Russia.
This is bad for the economy and the environment, O’Toole has said, because Canada has stricter standards than many other countries.
And then there are the jobs — hundreds of thousands of them in the oil and gas industry in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Atlantic Canada.
Plastics is also big business.
A 2019 study by Environment and Climate Change Canada found that plastics make up about five per cent of Canadian manufacturing sales and are worth $35 billion a year, including $10 billion of “virgin” or “primary” plastics.
The industry also employs about 100,000 people across 4,000 different businesses.
“Prohibiting single-use plastics manufactured or imported for export would not lead to a global reduction in plastics,” Guilbeault’s spokesperson said.
“Rather, global demand would likely be met by businesses in countries that still allow for export.”
Guilbault’s argument also seems to contradict the government’s position on other environmentally-harmful materials.
During the most recent federal election campaign, the Liberals vowed that Canada will stop exporting thermal coal. The Liberals made this promise because they recognize thermal coal is harmful to the environment, no matter where it’s burned.
Banning thermal coal exports also aligns Canada’s trading practices with its domestic policies, which aim to phase out the use of thermal coal in generating electricity by 2030.
Environmentalists say the government should take the same approach when it comes to single-use plastics.
“From a marine health perspective, this is simply not enough. Our ocean knows no borders,” said Nic Schulz, a spokesperson for Ocean Wise.
“If Canada is going to be a leader on single-use plastic, this should extend to what is produced in Canada, but used elsewhere.”
Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental concerns of the 21st century.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, more than a million plastic bottles are sold every minute worldwide. That’s about 500 billion bottles a year. Another five trillion plastic bags are used globally each year.
The UN also says about half of all plastics manufactured today are designed to be used only once. A lot of this waste ends up in waterways where it kills marine animals, threatens ecosystems and infiltrates the food-web as it breaks down into smaller pieces of microplastic.
A paper co-authored by University of Toronto researcher Chelsea Rochman and published in the journal Science estimated that between 24 and 34 million metric tonnes of plastic waste was released into the world’s rivers, lakes and oceans in 2020. The researchers said this figure could rise as high as 90 million tonnes a year by 2030 if plastic use doesn’t change.
“When and if humans go extinct, and whether there’s some new type of archeologist looking for what was here before, plastic will be the signature,” Rochman said.
The risks created by plastic waste have caused local and provincial governments across Canada to move ahead with their own bans.
In July 2019, Prince Edward Island banned plastic checkout bags. In October 2020, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland followed suit. There are some exceptions to these rules, for things like bulk food items, drycleaning and transporting live seafood, but for the most part, plastic bags are no longer available in these provinces.
Other governments have gone even further.
Vancouver banned polystyrene foam cups and takeout containers in January 2020. Three months later, the city banned plastic straws and required restaurants and food vendors to ask customers before giving away plastic utensils.
Plastic grocery bags will also be banned in Vancouver as of Jan 1. Paper alternatives can be purchased, but they must contain at least 40 per cent recycled material.
And customers must also now pay a minimum fee of 25 cents for every disposable cup they buy.
There are so many rules that the Retail Council of Canada created a reference guide to help businesses sort through the “patchwork” of single-use plastics bans passed by different levels of government.
All of this — from Tofino, B.C. to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L. — happened without the federal government stepping in.
“It’s better late than never, but obviously we would have liked to see this done sooner,” said Karen Wirsig, plastics program manager at Environmental Defence.
Wirsig said she’s pleased the government has taken action to ban single-use plastics, but she believes much more needs to be done.
She’d like to see the list of items banned expanded to include more kinds of packaging. Otherwise, she said, Canadians will continue to see more and more plastics filling landfills and littering shorelines.
“To really end plastic waste will require some significant, exciting and systemic changes that need to start sooner than later,” she said, “or we won’t get there.”