Will a Ban Cure the Plastics Problem?


Will a Ban Cure the Plastics Problem?

The federal government is on track to proceed with its ban of single-use plastics across Canada by the end of 2021, as part of its plan to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. The items to be banned under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, include single-use plastic checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery, and food containers. While some jurisdictions in Canada have halted their own plans to proceed with localized bans of plastic products due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no indication that the federal government will delay its plastics ban past 2021.

While it is clear that reducing plastic pollution is an urgent imperative, the ban may have harmful environmental effects and may not ultimately be effective in addressing a problem that is global in scope.

At a time when strong action on climate change is more important than ever, a ban on single-use plastics risks exacerbating global warming. The ban will require grocery and retail stores to provide customers with plastic bag alternatives, such as paper or reusable bags. Researchers at the University of Sydney recently found that bans on plastic grocery bags in California led to a dramatic increase in the use of paper bags and plastic trash bags. An increase in paper bag consumption is not ideal because paper bags have a much greater carbon footprint than disposable plastic bags, and require more energy to manufacture and transport. The manufacturing process emits greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals and contributes to deforestation. At the end of their life-cycle, paper bags that are sent to landfill emit methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases. While reusable bags are commonly viewed as a superior option, the manufacture of reusable bags is also energy-intensive; a 2011 study by the British government found that a cotton tote bag would need to be used 131 times before it was better for the environment than a single-use plastic bag. 

Another factor to consider is the effectiveness of Canada’s ban on a global scale. Studies suggest that only ten river systems, situated in Asia and Africa, carry 90% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean. Canada has a negligible impact on global plastic pollution; despite generating a significant quantity of plastic waste, it has efficient waste management systems, which means that only a small fraction of this waste ends up polluting the environment.

With plastic pollution such an urgent issue worldwide, however, it is essential that Canada play its part in tackling this crisis. The IUCN estimates that at least eight million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year and make up 80% of all marine debris. Marine species may ingest this plastic or become entangled by plastic debris, resulting in severe injury and death. There is also evidence that plastic pollution negatively impacts human health and also contributes to climate change. Plastic is rarely recycled and most of it ends up in landfills which may contaminate the surrounding environment with toxic leachate.

Canada’s ban on single-use plastics is a first step toward combatting this pervasive problem, but it is unclear whether the measure will play much of a meaningful role. Reducing the net environmental impact will require a shift away from a throwaway culture to one that embraces long-lived, durable products that are reused and recycled many times. Canada must also encourage other countries to tackle the plastic pollution problem. Like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, this issue is global in scope and no single country will be able to solve it alone.