Last week the federal government announced a ban on single-use plastics, a first step in its goal to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. I think most of us would agree this is a laudable goal. We have all seen the pictures of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, sperm whales dying with bellies full of plastic, and heard how literally every living thing is being poisoned toxic microplastics. Plastic is choking our rivers and streams, filling our landfills and polluting our communities. So, who wouldn’t want to see government taking action to solve these crises? Most of us are pretty dependent on plastic and have questions. What will be banned? How will we manage? Some may ask – does a ban even make sense?
The government is being targeted in their initial approach, starting with six plastic categories it considers most harmful to the environment and hard to recycle and whether there are readily available alternatives. (Source: CBC) The list of items that will be banned in 2021 include:
- Grocery checkout bags
- Stir sticks
- Six-pack rings
- Plastic cutlery
- Food takeout containers made from hard-to-recycle mixed plastics (like black plastic packaging with clear lids)
It seems a good list, but let’s consider the problem. We’ve established that plastic pollution is bad, and this particular list of single-use baddies do seem particularly egregious. Are they hard to recycle? Yes. And no. At least, probably not for reasons you’d think. And it’s complicated. Are there replacements? Again, yes, and no. And it depends. Canadians throw away three million tonnes of the stuff per year, and only nine per cent of that gets recycled. (Source: CTV) Provincial authorities claim diversion rates of 40% to 69% – but that’s because they only count the stuff that’s recyclable. Unfortunately, much of what seems, or even says recyclable, isn’t. So why not? It’s partly consumer behaviour, but also bad design and inefficiencies in the system.
Prior to 2018, most of Canada’s recycling was shipped overseas, with China by far the biggest market for our cast-offs. In 2018 the Chinese government enacted “Operation National Sword” which banned nearly all foreign recycled materials which caused the global recycling market to virtually collapse. Why? It ends up we are really bad at managing our recycling. Improper sorting, food waste from unwashed containers and just plain poorly designed packaging can contaminate waste streams, making them unrecyclable. British Columbia, which leads in waste diversion in Canada, still sent 11,500 tons of contaminated plastic to landfill in 2017. In 2019, specifically citing the Chinese regulation Ontario’s largest waste contractor began sending virtually all recycling to landfill. Manufacturers spend huge amounts of time and money designing packaging to make their products fabulous, however there are virtually no industry standards for design, let alone any thought to end-of-life – what happens when we toss the packaging away.
With global recycling markets currently valued at over $40 Billion USD and a projected 3% annual growth, the future for recycling still looks bright. Recycling also reduces GHG emissions, achieving CO2 emission reductions ranging from approximately 28% for paper to 600% for aluminum over primary production. Most provinces’ recycling systems are managed through producer-municipal partnerships, with some costs recouped through tariffs on producers. This has led to an inefficient and overly bureaucratic system without standardized practices, leading to market conditions that allowed for incineration or landfilling of over 30% of Ontario’s recyclables. Currently, Recycle BC is the only province to run a 100% producer-paid and managed system, known as “Extended Producer Responsibility” which means the companies that sell products to British Columbians are fully responsible for the waste produced from the goods they sell. The result has been that BC’s system is touted as one of the most efficient systems in North America, with diversion rates nearing 70% and 99% of materials reprocessed in-province. Other jurisdictions are taking note, with Ontario announcing it is moving forward with plans to adopt British Columbia’s model.
The quest to design better alternatives has been challenging, with the end-result trading off one environmental issue for another. Canadians currently use about 15 Billion plastic bags a year, the main components of which are natural gas and petroleum. Extraction processing and transport of those bags is equivalent to the average annual electricity consumption of 192,466 Canadians, producing about 1.3 million tonnes of CO2. While this may seem bad, the manufacturing and distribution of paper bags in fact produces nearly twice as much CO2 as plastic. Moreover, paper processing contributes to deforestation and causes eutrophication and pollution of waterways. If not recycled, paper uses three times as much space in landfills. Our cloth bags are no better. Cotton production is extremely land and water-use intensive, with land, water and transport impacts far worse than plastic or paper. Several studies have shown a cloth tote would have to be used thousands of times to mitigate its environmental impact over a single-use plastic bag! If you are looking for a good trade-off between cutting plastic waste, CO2 emissions and land/water impacts, hemp may be a promising solution, with much lower environmental footprint than cotton or wood pulp, but currently there is not significant production for demand. Currently, a durable, reusable spun plastic bags are probably the best, readily available alternative.
Food containers are a notable target of the government’s plan because food contamination and mixed plastic design make them nearly impossible to manage. Compostables are promoted as a top solution, however they present a range of issues. Many “compostable” plastics do not truly compost but break down into microplastics that persist in the environment indefinitely. Some plastics are compostable, but often end up in with recycling where they can potentially contaminate regular plastics recycling. Hybrid compostable / recyclable bioplastics are gaining popularity, but most automated systems can not yet distinguish them from their non-recyclable cohort. Most municipalities will not allow compostables in their commercial facilities as too many are not compatible with the municipal systems, which uses specific temperatures and timelines. While molded paper products generally will compost, some use oil-repelling additives containing PFAS, a fluorinated compound that is a known carcinogen. Compostable technology, while promising, is changing faster than regulation can keep up. Consequentially, most compostables and bioplastics are either landfilled or incinerated.
Most agree that something needs to be done about plastic but at present there are few viable alternatives that allow us to carry on status-quo. At least some onus is on the consumer to start making better individual choices, but many of us are effectively captive to a system where disposable is cheaper and easier. A tax is a blunt, but effective tool, however the risk is that those costs are downloaded to the consumer in the short term. The same concern exists for simply passing on producer responsibility – that economically disadvantaged and northern communities who rely on pre-packaged food will bear the highest costs. An equitable transformation will put the onus on producers to design smarter while keeping costs down. Governments must incentivize producers and the plastics industry to standardize designs, consider end-of-life processing, and design for the emerging circular economy. Producers who are made responsible for what they send to market will invest in making cost-effective domestic recycling and composting programs that effectively manage our end of life products. We need to end the dependency on fancy and convenient plastic, but we also need to make sure we get the balance right or we are just trading off one problem for another.