Microplastics and Climate Change

Regulatory response to the current science

Microplastics and Climate Change

In October 2020, Environment and Climate Change Canada (“ECCC”) published its findings on the current state of science regarding plastic pollution in the report, “Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution.” The report provides that plastic pollution, including microplastics (defined in the report as plastics less than five millimeters in size), is pervasive and may be contributing to climate change. This article discusses the Canadian government’s proposed regulatory response to these findings.

Studies indicate that plastics emit greenhouse gases when exposed to solar radiation and suggest that, one of the most common plastics found in the ocean today, low density polyethylene, releases greenhouse gases as it breaks down. Research suggests microplastics pollution may also be impacting how effectively greenhouse gases are sequestered in the ocean. Historically, the oceans have absorbed between 20% and 40% of CO2 emissions from human-related activities. Microscopic plants (microalgae) and animals (zooplankton) capture carbon at the oceans’ surface and transport it deep into the oceans where it may be stored. However, recent research suggests that microalgae and zooplankton are being impacted by microplastics pollution. Studies show that microalgae are being contaminated with microplastics pollution, which is reducing these plants’ ability to trap carbon through photosynthesis. These same studies suggest that microplastics pollution can reduce the reproductive success, metabolic rates, and longevity of zooplankton. Accordingly, these studies suggest that microplastics pollution may be interfering with this natural carbon sequestration system in the ocean.

Global action is underway to address microplastics pollution, and Canada has been involved in these multilateral governmental efforts. Under Canada’s G7 presidency in 2018, the Canadian government helped develop the Ocean Plastics Charter with a goal to improve management of plastics, including: a) working with industry toward 100% reusable, recyclable, or recoverable plastics by 2030; and b) addressing sources of microplastics.

On October 7, 2020, ECCC released the next steps in its plan to move Canada to zero plastic waste by 2030. The first step is a proposed Order published October 10, 2020, which adds “plastic manufactured items” to the List of Toxic Substances in Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (“CEPA”). The definition of “plastic manufactured items” is still undetermined, but the addition of this category of products to CEPA will likely allow the Canadian government considerable discretion to label plastic substances as toxic. Another step is a proposed ban on plastic grocery bags, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery, straws, and food service ware by the end of 2021, imposed under the regulation-making powers of CEPA.

Alongside the proposed Order, ECCC published a discussion paper on the “proposed integrated management approach to plastic products to prevent waste and pollution,” which suggests a more cyclical economy system to reduce plastic pollution by eliminating some sources, incentivizing recovery and repurposing, and ensuring end-of-life responsibility from manufacturers. The paper also suggests establishing performance standards for things such as recycled content and posits that such a transition to a more circular economy for plastics would save costs, increase competitiveness, stimulate innovation, create new jobs, and reduce the amount of plastic entering the environment. The paper indicates that the integrated management approach would involve regulatory and non-regulatory actions to achieve the management objective.

Do you have comments on the Canadian government’s approach to plastic regulation? Submissions on the proposed Order and the discussion paper are being accepted by ECCC until December 9, 2020. Write to ec.plastiques-plastics.ec@canada.ca.

Note: Sources used in this preparation of this article are available upon request from the authors.