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Paper straws will soon be a permanent fixture in Canadian milkshakes following Ottawa’s confirmation of a timeline by which they will issue new federal bans on single-use plastics.
By 2024, it will be illegal for Canadian grocery stores to issue plastic shopping bags at checkout (although you’ll still be able to buy them in the housewares aisle). Also caught in the ban are plastic stir sticks, plastic takeout containers, plastic cutlery and plastic ring carriers, although there will be rare exceptions for disabled Canadians. “By the end of the year, you won’t be able to manufacture or import these harmful plastics,” Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said at an announcement in Quebec City.
Industry groups have critiqued the policy as Ottawa chucking another cost into an already rapidly inflating economy, while environmental groups have said the bans are a mostly cosmetic measure that leaves the bulk of Canada’s plastic waste untouched.
But the government’s own science shows that the ban is likely to have a negligible effect on the one thing it is most touted to address: ocean health.
Guilbeault made Monday’s announcement in front of the Saint Lawrence River and statements accompanying the new measure touted it as a boon for the health of Canada’s “beaches” and “shorelines.”
Environment Canada has said the new regulations were based in part on a 2019 Deloitte study it commissioned to examine the state of the Canadian plastics market.
That study estimated that just one per cent of Canadian plastic waste was being lost to what they called “leakage,” meaning that it entered the environment as litter.
Of the 3,268 kilotonnes of plastic waste Canada generated in 2016, 3,239 kilotonnes was “collected”— although most of that ended up in landfills rather than getting diverted to recycling.
While the Deloitte study could not estimate how much of the leakage was reaching the ocean, they did recommend that it could be reduced 10-fold purely with efforts “to reduce litter” and made no mention of bans.
A scientific backgrounder that accompanied an early draft of the proposed federal plastics ban relied almost exclusively on data from the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup to estimate the effect of plastic on Canadian waterways.
In the cleanup’s 2018 report, plastic bags ranked sixth as the item most often recovered from shoreline cleanups, while straws were in ninth place. The worst offenders — including bottle caps — were items untouched by the new ban. Cigarette butts alone accounted for 42.1 per cent of all litter recovered, while more recent cleanups have seen rising rates of discarded surgical masks.
Nevertheless, Oceanwise — which organizes the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup — had praise on Monday for the new measures, saying it was “a victory for Canada.”
While ocean plastic is indeed a growing global problem, it’s one being driven almost exclusively by two factors: Abandoned fishing gear and poor waste management in the developing world.
The Trudeau government has actually been trying to fix the former problem — although the initiative has gotten way less attention and funding than their push to ban plastics. The Ghost Gear Program, begun in 2019, has spent roughly $8.3 million to remove 739 tonnes of abandoned fishing gear from the oceans.
This alone represents nearly one third of the estimated 2,500 tonnes of Canadian plastic litter that Deloitte estimates are finding their way into the environment each year — of which a fraction comprises the six items targeted by the new ban. What’s more, ghost gear is far more perilous to marine life due to its penchant to entangle sea creatures.
Nevertheless, Canada is not the first to begin enacting blanket bans on categories of single-use plastics. Most notably, last summer the European Union banned a slate of single-use plastics for which alternatives were available. This included all of the items on Canada’s list, as well as plastic plates, q-tips and the plastic sticks used to support balloons.
The most obvious opponent to the new regulations is a consortium of plastic producers who are in the process of suing the federal government.
Restaurants Canada — whose members will be most disproportionately targeted by the new measures — warned Monday that recent supply chain shortages have made it almost impossible to obtain sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics. “Nobody knew the supply would be that problematic,” spokesman Olivier Barbeau told The Canadian Press.
When Ottawa first raised the prospect of a ban on single-use plastics, Restaurants Canada filed a detailed reply warning that the measure could represent a “150 per cent cost increase” on an industry already decimated by COVID-19. “In other jurisdictions that have implemented bans, such as San Francisco, litter audits have revealed that the volume of litter remained the same while the composition of the litter changed,” it read.
Greenpeace — which once counted Guilbeault as their Quebec bureau chief — called the measure a “critical step forward,” but claimed in a statement that it would “only cover less than 5 per cent of Canada’s 2019 total plastic waste generated.”
Environmental Defence, a group more explicitly devoted to fighting plastic waste, was more charitable towards the Trudeau government’s new measures. “We’ve been working toward this day for many years and are relieved it has finally come,” read a statement by spokesperson Karen Wirsig. The organization added that it was looking forward to “additional bans.”
IN OTHER NEWS
Big Banks don’t often directly criticize the federal government, since they usually want Ottawa to continue treating them nicely. But economists at Scotiabank have fired a not tremendously subtle broadside at the Trudeau government for continuing to pour deficit-financed cash into Canada’s already overheated economy. As two Scotiabank economists put it in a recent report, “less government consumption would lead to a lower path for the policy rate and take some of the burden of adjustment away from the private sector.” What this means, in staid economics talk, is that Ottawa’s spending habit is ramping up inflation so badly that it’s going to take a particularly painful rise in interest rates to rein everything in.
For all the wacky things that Quebec has been doing lately (firing civil servants in hijabs, greenlighting warrantless searches of doctor’s offices by language police, etc.) the province has taken a notable break from its usual penchant of attempting to secede. Quebec Premier Francois Legault has avoided any overt separatist talk, but he has been making some really nationalistic statements of late, such as mulling over whether Quebec should just start ignoring the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If you’re the cynical type, you might conclude that Legault is simply trying to kill the Parti Québécois once and for all. Quebec’s traditional separatist option has just six representatives in the National Assembly and its 43-year-old leader has a weird habit of posting cringeworthy photos to social media.
Despite the fact that Liberals keep getting caught peeing while Zooming into the House of Commons, the party has proposed extending “hybrid Parliament” for another year. The government’s argument was that MPs keep getting sick and thus need the option to go to work in the House of Commons via laptop. The Conservatives have countered that the Liberals are just trying to duck out of going to work.
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