Canada's Single Use Plastic Ban

Unpacking Equity is a collaboration between the Public Policy and Governance Review and the Equity, Diversity and Public Policy Initiative (EDPP) at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. This series aims to explain equity-related policy issues and break down complicated topics involving equity, diversity and inclusion. Policy professionals can gain a better understanding of these complex issues in order to incorporate an equity lens into their practice. To learn more, please get in touch with the EDPP.

by Habiba Khaled

Credit: Jasmin Sessler 

The issue of single use plastic has been brought to the forefront as a significant policy issue on the Canadian Agenda. Environmental advocates, organizations, concerned citizens, and governmental bodies have expressed concern over the excessive use of plastic, both domestically and abroad. According to UN Environment, between 1990 to the early 2000s the global output of plastic waste rose more than it had in the previous 40 years. This problem is made worse by the rise of single-use plastics. Currently, “about one-third of the plastics used in Canada are for single-use or short-lived products and packaging” yet about 90% of of Canada’s plastic waste is not recovered or recycled, leading to a loss amounting to $7.8 billion. In addition to the economic waste generated by single use plastics, the environment and ecosystems are also negatively affected. Variousimages and videos circulate showing the detrimental effects plastic has on wildlife. If current trends persist the oceans can contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

On June 9th 2018 Canada committed to the Ocean Plastics Charter which focused on “tak[ing] action toward a resource-efficient lifecycle management approach to plastics”. However, the Ocean Plastics Charter has a broader, more international focus. On June 10th 2019 the federal government announced its Canada-wide action plan on zero plastics. The strategy outlined nine action items

  1. Banning single use plastics by 2021 at the earliest under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act
  2. Holding companies accountable for plastic waste by working with provinces and territories to introduce Extended Producer Responsibility Programs which require that companies handle the managing and recycling of their plastic waste
  3. Working with industry to retrieve lost, abandoned, and discarded fishing gear
  4. Investing in new Canadian technologies aimed at addressing plastic waste
  5. Investing in waste management solution in developing countries
  6. Diverting at least 75% of plastic waste from federal operations
  7. Reducing plastic microbeads from Canadian freshwater and marine ecosystems
  8. Supporting community led action and citizen science activities
  9. Launching Canada’s Plastics Science Agenda, an initiative focused on research regarding the lifecycle of plastics and on the impacts of plastics pollution on humans, wildlife, and the environment

The action plan on zero plastics received mixed reviews, with action item 1 on single use plastic being the object of controversy. A Nanos Research Survey covered by the Globe and Mail found that 56% of Canadians surveyed support a total ban of single use plastics, 25% somewhat support a ban, 10% percent oppose a total ban, 8% are opposed, and 1% are unsure. The study also states that most of those in support of the ban on single use plastic would be willing to pay a small fee for products that are more environmentally sustainable. 

It is especially important to consider the use of additional fees and what they mean for access, when it comes to criticisms of single-use plastics. In regards to fees, the cost of environmentally sustainable alternatives can often be prohibitive for low income individuals. Small fees charged to individuals for the use of plastic, such as the fees often charged in grocery stores for purchasing plastic bags, place the burden on the individual. While individual lifestyle choices are significant, it is undeniable that corporations are the largest polluters. Questions of transparency  regarding the potential profit made from plastic use fees have also been raised. While retailers maintain that they reinvest (at least some) of the proceeds towards efforts and initiatives aimed at environmental sustainability, it is unclear exactly how much.

When considering the question of who should bear the burden, it is also vital to consider criticisms raised by disability advocates regarding the ban of single use plastics, like straws. Individuals of various abilities may need straws due to safety and motor issues, amongst others. Often times more sustainable alternatives are not safe for risk of injury, cost, high temperature, safety, allergy, etc. Additionally, reusable straws are difficult to maintain and sterilize. 

Credit: Sarah Packwood , @sarahbreannep

In addition, banning single use straws may result in disabled individuals being dependent on caretakers, family, and friends for tasks they could otherwise perform independently. Overall, it puts disabled individuals at risk. Jordan Carlson, recounts the story of how she went to a snack bar with a no straw policy at the park with her son who has motor-planning delays on a hot day, and how he could not drink as a result. Carlson makes use of reusable straws but happened to forget to bring one of that particular day. In turn, Carlson and her son had to exit the park to search for an establishment that offered straws. This story illustrates one instance where an individual’s health and safety can be compromised due to well-intended policy choices. Had all businesses employed a “no straw” policy, the result of Carlson’s outing may have been exponentially worse for her and her son.

The single use plastic ban is still an important policy option despite the criticisms. It is undeniable that the effects of single use plastic on the environment is catastrophic. However, the criticisms raised also highlight the ways in which a well-intended policy can produce inequitable results for select individuals. In turn, it is vital that governmental bodies and environmental advocacy groups work in collaboration with disabled individuals and disability advocates in order to come up with more inclusive and equitable options.

Habiba Khaled is a 2020 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She is a senior analyst at the EDPP Initiative at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy where she focuses on issues regarding equity and diversity. Her interests lie in social, urban, and comparative policy.