Climate change and COVID-19 aren't the only issues on the ballot for Canadians when they head to the polls in a few weeks. Plastic is driving a global pollution problem that is choking our environment and potentially harming human health, and Canada's future efforts to end it are on the line.
Each year, Canadians produce millions of tonnes of plastic waste. Over 90 per cent ends up in landfills or the environment. The remainder is recycled, according to a 2019 report commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), but observers warn some waste destined for recycling likely ends up in incinerators and cement kilns, or is shipped overseas illegally.
Plastic also plays a role in deciding the future of the oil and gas industry. As the world shifts to renewable energy sources, fossil fuel companies are banking on plastic production to fuel their growth — a move that could drive greenhouse gas emissions.
The previous Liberal government in May listed plastic as toxic under Canada's main environmental law. The decision was the first in a suite of planned regulations — including a ban on six single-use items, like plastic straws and six-pack rings — aimed at reducing Canada's plastic waste and pollution. While environmental advocates largely applauded the move, many warn Canada's next government will need to implement stronger regulations to tackle the plastic problem.
"For so long, governments have tried to tackle plastic pollution from the waste end through trying to improve... the fiction of recycling plastic," explained Elaine Macdonald, director of Healthy Communities for Ecojustice, an organization advocating for better environmental laws. "The only solutions that are really going to make a dent now are going to be the ones that are targeting non-essential plastic production."
Canada's National Observer scoured the four main federal parties' platforms for their positions on key issues in the plastic debate, from recycling to regulations, to see what the future could hold for plastic in Canada. (The Bloc Québécois doesn't mention plastic in its 2021 platform.)
Will Canada ban single-use plastic?
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In 2019, the former Liberal government announced plans to ban six harmful single-use plastic items: plastic checkout bags, straws, six-pack rings, stir sticks, plastic cutlery and food containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics. Many of these items are ubiquitous; for instance, Canadians use up to 15 billion plastic bags each year, according to ECCC.
While environmental advocates welcomed the move, many pointed out the banned items only represent a small portion of the single-use plastic Canadians use. Ending plastic pollution will require wider bans to force companies to develop better reusable materials on top of regulations curbing new plastic production, they said.
Here's where the parties sit on the issue:
- The Liberals have pledged to pursue their planned plastic regulations, including a ban on the six single-use plastic items. Their platform also promises tweaks to federal procurement policies to "prioritize" reusable and recyclable materials.
- The Conservatives have said they will not pursue the regulations on plastic proposed by the previous government, including "showy" bans, according to their platform. However, environmental groups have noted that while bans can't solve the problem entirely, they can go a long way to reducing plastic — an essential step to ending plastic pollution.
- Single-use plastics would be immediately banned under an NDP government, the party has promised. It is also the only party to pledge support for workers in Canada's $28-billion plastics industry to transition to new, more sustainable industries.
- The Greens would maintain the previous government's planned regulations on plastic waste but expand the list of banned single-use items. Similar to the Liberals, the party has pledged to support "green procurement" policies that would see governments and businesses purchasing more sustainable plastic products.
Is plastic a toxic substance?
Earlier this spring, the federal government designated plastic as "toxic" under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), Canada's primary environmental law. A material can be considered legally "toxic" if it harms human health, the environment or biodiversity. Plastic pollution, which harms marine animals and birds, meets those criteria, according to an ECCC study.
The designation opens the door to future regulations on plastic, such as bans on some items, rules requiring plastic sold in Canada to contain a certain amount of recycled materials and potential curbs on plastic production. The decision was opposed by Canada's plastics industry, and several major plastic producers have since launched legal action against the federal government's decision.
Here's where the parties sit on the issue:
- In October 2020, the former Liberal government announced a wide-ranging plan to curb plastic pollution, including designating plastic as toxic. If re-elected, the party has committed to pushing this plan forward.
- While the Conservative platform decries the Trudeau government's decision to list plastic as toxic, it does not specify whether the party will try to take the material off the toxic list.
- The NDP has committed to banning single-use plastics, a move easily done now that plastics are considered toxic under CEPA. The party also supported the Liberals' decision to list the material as toxic.
- The Green Party has pledged to maintain the Liberal government's planned regulations for plastics, including the toxic designation.
Can recycling solve the problem — and who pays for it?
Plastic recycling didn't exist until the 1970s, when it was "formalized and launched" by the Container Corporation of America in response to growing concern over the material's environmental impact. Recycling promised to transform used plastic into new products — if people and governments took on the responsibility for sorting and collecting millions of tonnes of used material each year, explains Max Liboiron, a plastic expert and professor at Memorial University.
Decades later, recycling has mostly failed. Only about 305,000 of the millions of tonnes of plastic waste generated in Canada is recycled, according to a 2019 ECCC report. Despite these dismal numbers, all the parties have promised to improve Canada's plastic recycling:
- The Liberals have pledged to continue supporting provincial and territorial efforts to make plastic producers pay for recycling and waste disposal, and have said they will create a federal registry of plastic producers. The party has also promised $100 million to support "technologies and solutions" for the reuse of plastics.
- The Conservatives promise to ensure plastic waste is "responsibly" recycled but make no mention of implementing rules that would force plastic producers to cover the costs of recycling their products. However, the party has promised to invest heavily in technologies that transform plastic waste into fuel — an approach critics say will do more environmental harm than good.
- The NDP has pledged to boost requirements forcing plastic producers to cover the cost of recycling their products. However, unlike the Liberals, their platform suggests these would be national standards, not left to the provinces and territories. The party has also pledged to help municipalities develop better waste management systems.
- The Greens make no mention of requirements to make plastic producers pay the recycling costs of their products. However, the party has promised to implement tax rebates or waivers on recycling initiatives, and says in the party platform it will promote "sustainable waste management."
Plastic pollution is a global problem. Will Canada help solve it?
Every day, Canadian companies send about 80 truckloads of plastic waste into the U.S. The shipments are a key part of a plastic trade between the two countries worth $18.8 million, but it's unclear whether they are recycled, stuffed in an American landfill or shipped overseas in contravention of Canada's international commitments.
Canada (and most countries except the U.S.) has signed the Basel Convention, an international agreement that bans countries from exporting hazardous waste, including plastic, minus a few exceptions. However, advocates worry Canadian waste is passing through the U.S. — an exemption lets Canada trade its trash with our southern neighbour — for disposal or recycling in lower-income countries, where it can more easily threaten the environment and local food security.
Unlike other global environmental issues like the climate crisis and persistent toxic pollutants, there are no international treaties on plastic pollution that tackle everything from production to disposal, making a co-ordinated solution to the problem nearly impossible. Still, observers say efforts by several countries to create a legally binding global plastic treaty could be minted within a few years — but Canada's support for the effort remains unclear.
Here's where the parties sit on the issue:
- In 2018, the former Liberal government and five other countries, including the European Union, launched the Oceans Plastic Charter, a voluntary pledge by countries and businesses to help reduce ocean plastic pollution. The party has promised to continue working on this effort in addition to supporting the development of a global agreement on plastic. However, the party has expressed support for a legally binding treaty on ocean plastic pollution, which experts say is essential to end the crisis.
- The Conservatives have pledged to ban the export of plastic waste, except waste destined for recycling, a promise that echoes a private member's bill put forward last year by Conservative MP Scott Davidson. The bill has been criticized by environmental groups for allowing plastic waste to be exported for recycling in countries without adequate recycling infrastructure or strong environmental laws and monitoring. The party makes no mention of supporting a legally binding plastics treaty — an essential tool, experts say, to ending plastic pollution worldwide.
- All plastic waste exports would be banned under an NDP government. The party's platform doesn't mention its position on international efforts to end plastic pollution.
- If elected, the Greens would push for a legally binding global plastics treaty — a position no other party has yet made. They have also pledged to tighten Canada's plastic waste export laws.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on September 9, 2021, to clarify that the Liberal party supports a legally binding global treaty on ocean plastic pollution.