Plastic Waste: How Insufficient Policies are Failing Us 

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By: Lisa Alers-Hankey 

Government recycling markets and policies cannot keep up with the waste Canadians generate. The pandemic has increased reliance on single-use plastics through personal protective equipment and deliveries, further exacerbating the waste problem. The federal government has two policy proposals: a ban on select single-use plastics and a commitment to “Zero Plastic Waste by 2030” that attempt to tackle the problem; however, they employ strong rhetoric and weak policy tools that do not go far enough to effectively reduce waste and landfill usage.

Canada has committed to a net-zero economy by 2050, meaning the economy either produces no greenhouse gas emissions or offsets its emissions. However, a Deloitte commissioned study from 2019 revealed that only nine percent of Canada’s plastics are recycled, thus Canada uses vast amounts of energy to produce single-use items with no clear way of recapturing the energy spent. Currently, 86 percent of recycling in the blue bins ends up in landfills, and four percent is incinerated. Incineration is the process of burning waste to reduce its volume and reliance on landfills; however, the energy required to run incinerators negates the environmental benefits. The failure to recycle in Canada comes from insufficient infrastructure, contamination, and gaps in the recycling market.

Recyclables are marketed goods. China used to accept much of the world’s recycling, including half of Canada’s waste; however, in 2018, they closed its doors as the world’s recycler. Now, Canada exports just 12 percent of its waste for ‘recycling,’ but the countries it is sent to do not have the proper infrastructure, leading to incineration. Since 2018, domestic recycling markets have not kept up with demand. Like any other product, recycling is only worthwhile when there is a profit to be made. Currently, cheap plastic resins set price ceilings for recycling, reducing the amount and types of plastics that can be recycled cost-effectively. Therefore, any policy addressing the problem of waste must grapple with the intersection of climate and market forces.  

Canada signed the Oceans Plastics Charter in 2018, which hopes to reduce the volume of plastics that end up in the oceans by reducing plastic consumption while increasing reuse and recycling markets. Subsequently, the federal government has made two commitments to fulfill these goals: the proposed ban of single-use plastics and the platform commitment for Zero Plastic Waste by 2030.

The proposed ban of single-use plastics targets only six types of single-use plastics: checkout bags, cutlery, food service ware made from problematic plastics, ring carriers, stir sticks, and straws. The ban was supposed to come into effect by the end of 2021; however, draft regulations were announced in late December 2021. Currently, the proposal is open for public consultation until March 5, 2022.

The government’s narrative around this policy is deceptive because this policy fails to ban all single-use plastics and falls far short of the robust government action it appears to promise. One guiding principle of the single-use plastics ban was to: “seek to minimize costs to government and industry” while protecting the environment. This principle led to a massive loophole in the draft regulations because manufacturers can still make the banned items for export. Through this loophole and by targeting the lowest hanging fruit, this policy favours maintaining the economic status quo rather than taking the leap towards an economy that supports the environment.

Second, the platform commitment to “Zero Plastic Waste by 2030” is grossly misleading. The proposal hopes to create internal recycling markets by requiring 50 percent of input material for plastics to be recycled by the target year. The goal is to drive a circular economy by increasing the responsibility of plastic producers to involve recycled materials in the production of plastics. The rhetoric clouds the policy’s goal because this policy alone will not create zero plastic waste by 2030. The problem and origin of plastic waste are not solely a result of absent recycling markets in Canada but also contamination and failure to capture our waste. Contamination occurs when recycling is soiled with non-recyclable material, often food, which can result in the entire bag or load being sent to the landfill. Before getting to that point, plastics must make it to the recycling facilities, and in Canada, only 25 percent of plastic waste is collected and diverted from landfills. Furthermore, most plastics can only be recycled once, after which the quality is too low to be profitable for secondary recycling.

The six targeted single-use plastics are a start; however, one-third of plastics in Canada are created for single-use or packaging. The six included plastics do not target packaging for food or parcels, which would greatly help reduce the plastic waste Canada creates but requires target action. Rather than focusing solely on the plastics industry, a commitment to creating a circular economy should also focus on incentives for industries that create other goods. For example, incentivizing the use of more durable packaging and working with companies to take back and reuse their packaging post-consumption would be more effective ways to facilitate a circular economy. Although this alternative method would be more costly to implement, we need to get there, and the sooner we start, the better off Canada will be in the future. Plastic pollution degrades the environments we live in, and its production and end-of-life care emit vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Tackling plastics is an important part of getting to net -zero.

Neither of these policies is ambitious enough to achieve the goals of the Oceans Plastic Charter or a net-zero economy by 2050. Their problem definitions are apt; Canada should make strides to ban single-use plastics and must act on circular economy principles to combat climate change. However, the tools the federal government has chosen are weak and insufficient.

Lisa Alers-Hankey is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy with a collaborative specialization with the School of the Environment. Her interests include climate change, environmental and economic policy. Lisa is interested in making public policy development and implementation accessible and reflective of communities. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and Ethics, Society, and Law from the University of Toronto.

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