Canada’s prime minister has vowed to ban single-use plastics across the country if re-elected this fall. Environmental advocates and critics welcomed the pledge, but some are wondering why the government is waiting until after the fall election to implement the ban.
In an announcement Monday morning, Justin Trudeau said the Liberals would “ban harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021” including plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks, “where supported by scientific evidence.”
Under the ban, Trudeau promised to transfer the responsibility for plastic waste from towns and cities to the companies that manufacture plastic products in the first place “so they become responsible for their plastic waste.” The plan would require the federal government to work with provinces and territories to implement the ban.
An Abacus Data poll in June 2018 found that 88 percent of Canadians believe plastic garbage in oceans and waterways is either the most important environmental issue today, or one of many environmental issues that concern them.
Standing in front of a lake at the Gault Nature Reserve in Quebec, Trudeau said some municipalities and provinces had already taken steps to ban single use plastics, but “a real solution needs to be nation-wide.”
“We know that the European Union is moving forward on a science-based approach, many other countries around [the world] are doing that, and Canada will also be one of them,” Trudeau told reporters.
In June 2018, Canada signed the Ocean Plastics charter along with the E.U. and countries including France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. Signing the charter committed Canada to taking action toward a more sustainable approach to managing plastic waste.
Canada throws out three million tonnes of plastic every year, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna told reporters in Toronto on Monday. “By 2050, if we fail to act, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean.” There’s also a relationship between plastic pollution and climate change, she said, because when we don’t reduce plastic waste, we have to produce more, which increases emissions.
Environmental groups celebrated the news Monday, but some questioned why the government doesn’t immediately introduce legislation to ban single-use plastics.
“Acting now to ban the most problematic and unnecessary plastics while holding corporations accountable for the waste problem they have created can set us on a better course,” Sarah King, Greenpeace Canada’s Head of Oceans & Plastics Campaign, said in a statement. “But the government must act as quickly as possible so this announcement isn’t a single-use election promise.”
King said Canada needs to phase out all non-essential plastics. “Every day until a ban comes into effect, millions of throwaway plastics are produced, consumed and disposed of, with massive costs to Canadians and wildlife. The federal government’s announcement marks the first step in an essential journey to break free from plastic.”
“It’s going to take a little bit of time to make sure we get it absolutely right because this is a big step,” Trudeau told reporters Monday. “But we know we can do this for 2021.”
NDP MP Gord Johns introduced a private member’s bill to fight marine plastic pollution that passed unanimously in December 2018, so he was in a celebratory mood Monday after hearing the announcement. He said the ban is a good start, but he called for the ban to go further, to ban plastics in industry as well. He sees chunks of plastic from the aquaculture industry washing up on beaches in his Courtenay—Alberni B.C. riding all the time.
He understands that the government wants to give industry a chance to phase out plastics, but questioned why the government waited so long to act.
“We’ve been long waiting for action, here we are four years into the term and they’re finally making an announcement, which is two years out” Johns said. “We wish they made this announcement a couple years ago so that we’d see implementation before this government finishes its term.”
Catherine Abreu, Executive Director of the Climate Action Network, was excited to hear about the idea of a ban on single-use plastics, but said the announcement was thin on details and doesn’t make the hard commitment she would like to see.
“Plastics are the second-largest source of emissions in the industrial sector globally, the production and incineration of plastics, and so from a climate perspective eliminating single-use plastics can have a huge impact,” she said. Plastic pollution in the ocean also reduces the ability of our oceans to remain a carbon sink and mitigate climate crisis impacts, she said.
Knowledge of the damage caused by plastic pollution has been building for years. The world’s plastic waste has caused a massive “garbage island” the size of Texas in the north Pacific. Dead whales have washed up around the world with plastic in their stomachs. And new research shows microplastics, tiny bits of plastic caused when larger plastics break down, are sneaking into human bodies; we inhale and ingest about 330 tiny pieces of plastic daily.
Canada’s export of plastic waste is nothing less than an international embarrassment. The Philippines and Malaysia announced last month they are shipping non-recyclable plastic garbage back to Canada. These countries have become unofficial dumps for waste from first world countries, including the U.S., U.K. and Canada.
A recent Global News investigation found that Canada’s recycling industry is basically broken: “with few exceptions, more recycling is being sent to landfill, fewer items are being accepted in the blue bin and the financial toll of running these programs has become a burden for some municipalities.”
In a painful moment, Trudeau stumbled on Monday when a reporter asked how he and his family are reducing plastic waste. Here’s what he said, verbatim:
“We have recently switched to drinking water bottles out of water out of when we have water bottles out of plastic uh, sorry, away from plastic toward paper, um, like drink box water bottles kind of things.”
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