Picture this: we could eliminate the equivalent of over a million garbage bags full of litter every year. Canada is trying to do just that, as the northern country has just enacted a world-leading ban on harmful single-use plastics. The ban will result in the estimated elimination of over 1.3 million tons of hard-to-recycle plastic waste and more than 22,000 tons of plastic pollution.
The US contributes more to the polluting deluge than any other nation, generating about 287 pounds of plastics per person annually.
The government of Canada is taking the lead among its international peers to ban harmful plastics and keep them out of the environment. The June 20 announcement outlined the final regulations to prohibit single-use plastics including:
- checkout bags
- food service ware made from or containing problematic plastics that are hard to recycle
- ring carriers
- stir sticks
- most straws
Three target-year milestones were presented:
- Manufacturing of plastics will end effective December, 2022.
- The sale of plastics will be prohibited as of December, 2023 (the 18 months between should allow enough time for businesses to transition and to deplete their existing stocks).
- The export of plastics in the 6 categories will be prohibited by the end of 2025.
The action is part of a larger agenda to demonstrate leadership that will protect biodiversity, promote a healthy environment at home and around the world, and help to meet the commitments of the Ocean Plastics Charter and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Quick Facts about Harmful Plastics
In Canada, up to 15 billion plastic checkout bags are used every year and approximately 16 million straws are used daily. Single-use plastics like these make up most of the plastic litter found on shorelines across Canada.
Sales of single-use flexible plastic straws will be restricted as of December, 2023. Exceptions to the ban on straws allow single-use plastic flexible straws to remain available for people in Canada who require them for medical or accessibility reasons. This includes for use at home, in social settings, or in healthcare settings, such as hospitals and long‑term care facilities. All other types of single-use plastic straws will be prohibited.
Prohibitions on the manufacture and import of ring carriers and flexible straws packaged with beverage containers (e.g., juice boxes) will come into force in June, 2023, and the prohibition on the sale of these items will come into force in June 2024. These transition timelines recognize the complexity associated with retooling manufacturing lines for these products.
The Government has also published two guidance documents: one to help businesses adjust to the regulations, and another to help businesses and people in Canada choose more sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics.
Published on October 7, 2020, the report entitled Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution helped to inform Canada’s policy development and actions, and guide research on plastic pollution in Canada.
A draft of the regulations was published in the Canada Gazette, Part I, for a 70-day comment period on December 25, 2021. The feedback received was taken into consideration in the development of the final regulations.
Moving toward a more circular economy for plastics could reduce carbon emissions by 1.8 megatons annually, generate billions of dollars in revenue, and create approximately 42,000 jobs by 2030.
In early summer, the Government of Canada will begin to consult on approaches to a federal public plastic registry and the development of labeling rules that would prevent the use of the chasing arrows symbol on plastic items unless at least 80% of recycling facilities in Canada accept them, and they have reliable end markets.
The US & Harmful Plastics
Piecemeal efforts have been put in place by some states, with New York implementing a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2020. Earlier this month, a California bill was introduced to reduce plastic production for single-use products like shampoo bottles and food wrappers by 25% starting next decade.
The US ranks as the world’s leading contributor of plastic waste and needs a national strategy to combat the issue, according to a report mandated by Congress. In it, the authors remind us that plastic waste generation is directly related to the quantity of plastics produced and used.
The harmful plastics contamination is a specific example of pollution devastation today. The visibility of global ocean plastic waste, for example, paired with increasing documentation of its ubiquity, devastating impacts on ocean health and marine wildlife, and transport through the food web, has brought widespread public awareness. The report outlines how, in theory, managed solid waste in the US should not contribute to ocean plastic waste, the authors say, because it is contained by treatment and/or conversion into other products (recycling, composting, incineration) or contained in an engineered landfill environment.
In practice, plastic waste still “leaks” from managed waste systems when blowing out of trash cans, intentionally or unintentionally through actions such as illegal dumping and littering, or where it is unregulated. Recycling presents many challenges, including incompatibility of different plastic types and large differences in processing requirements.
On World Ocean Day, June 8, 2022, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland issued Secretary’s Order 3407, which aims to reduce the procurement, sale, and distribution of single-use plastic products and packaging with a goal of phasing out single-use plastic products on Department-managed lands by 2032. The Order is part of the implementation of President Biden’s Executive Order 14057, which calls for federal agencies to minimize waste and support markets for recycled products.That includes plastic and polystyrene food and beverage containers, bottles, straws, and cups.
A resolution adopted in March by the United Nations lays out an ambitious plan for developing a legally binding treaty to reduce plastic waste. The global treaty to “end plastic pollution” could result in caps on plastic production or impose rules to make plastic easier and less toxic to repurpose.
“The high and rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution represent a serious environmental problem at a global scale,” noted the UN resolution, which also acknowledged “the urgent need to strengthen global coordination, cooperation, and governance to take immediate actions toward the long-term elimination of plastic pollution.”
However, the treaty proposals are tentative and have received pushback from the oil and petrochemical industries.
The US Orders are a starting place, but it’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to solve the US harmful plastics problem. Start locally. Contact your favorite beverage retailer and request refillable containers. Call out corporatocracies that use subterfuge to hide their plastic manufacturing responsibilities. Be a pest to your state legislators and ask them to hold plastics pollution producers accountable.