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Straws, stir sticks and bags among first targets of countrywide plastics ban

shutterstock_700694767Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says six single-use plastic items that aren’t easily recycled and already have more environmentally friendly alternatives will be the first to go under Canada’s new restrictions on plastics.

That means the end of next year will be the end of the road for plastic straws, stir sticks, carry-out bags, cutlery, dishes and takeout containers and six-pack rings for cans and bottles.

Wilkinson says many of the items that aren’t on that list, such as plastic bottles, will be getting new standards to require them to contain a minimum amount of recycled material.

He says there is also a push to standardize how plastic items are made, from the types and amounts of plastic used to the dyes and adhesives, so recycling them is easier.

The Alberta government announced Tuesday it wants to become a hub for Canada’s expanding recycling industry.

Canada currently recycles less than 10% of the three million tonnes of plastic it produces each year, and along with the provinces has set a goal of have zero plastic waste ending up in landfills by 2030.

“There is an enormous amount of opportunity for improvement,” said Wilkinson, in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Canada intends to add plastics to a list of toxic items under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and is issuing a discussion paper on the banned items and recycled content standards and other plans.

Wilkinson said the aim is to have everything in place by the end of next year.

A 2019 report commissioned by Environment Canada found Canada’s recycling industry was hampered by cost and access. It is cheaper and easier to produce new plastic than it is to recycle it, reuse it or repair it, and without minimum standards requiring the use of recycled content, the market for recycled plastic was small.

The report said in 2016, Canadians threw 3.3 million tonnes of plastic away, 12 times what was recycled.

It said there were fewer than a dozen recycling companies in Canada, employing about 500 people with about $350 million in revenue between them.

Until recently, Canada and most other wealthy nations shipped much of the recyclable plastic tossed in their blue bins across the ocean to Asia. China in particular was the biggest buyer of the items, which were recycled into plastic pellets used in its massive manufacturing sector.

But China slammed the door shut to that option at the beginning of 2018, tired of being the world’s garbage dump. So much of the material arriving by the shipload could not be recycled and ended up in landfills in China instead.

Canada will join dozens of nations that have enacted various bans on single-use plastics. The United Kingdom just began enforcing a ban on straws, stir sticks and plastic-stemmed cotton buds just last week.

France began phasing in a ban in January, starting with plastic plates, cups and cotton buds. Straws and cutlery will be added in 2021, and tea bags, fast-food toys and takeout containers in 2022.

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Plastics bans, environmental monitoring get short shrift during pandemic

shutterstock_1250226013e-360x240In mid January the British Columbia government announced it was looking at a wide ban on single-use plastic grocery bags to put an end to a piecemeal, city-by-city approach to the problem of plastic pollution.

Ten weeks later, the province’s chief public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, issued guidance saying the exact opposite. Stores were to provide clean carry-out bags, she told retailers on March 30, as the province was closing in on 1,000 positive cases of COVID-19.

“Customers should not use their own containers, reusable bags or boxes,” reads the written instruction.

It was but one sign that environmental policies were to be among the first things cast aside or suspended as the COVID-19 pandemic descended on Canada.

Fear of contamination from reused packaging and the need to operate with reduced staff and with fewer interactions between people, prompted retailers to bar reusable packaging, from bags to coffee cups. Restaurants were forced to go to a take-out only model, pushing the need for plastic and Styrofoam containers through the roof.

And as the use of plastic containers went up, some cities were forced to cut back, or even cancel outright, municipal recycling programs.

Last week Calgary suspended blue-bin operations entirely because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the city’s recycling plant. Edmonton has said about one-quarter of what it collects from blue bins is going to the landfill now because it don’t have the staff to handle all the material. In eastern Ontario, Quinte Waste Solutions, which provides recycling to nine municipalities, suspended collection of most hazardous and electronic waste for proper disposal. In Nova Scotia, several recycling depots were closed.

Alberta’s Energy Regulator has suspended almost all environmental monitoring requirements for the energy sector, including soil, water and air pollution. Initially just applicable to some oilsands operations, on Wednesday the regulator expanded the exemption for the entire energy sector, saying it was no longer safe to do so with the threat of COVID-19.

In early April, Ontario passed a regulation under its Environment Bill of Rights that suspends the requirement for a 30-day consultation with the public on any policy that affects water, air, land or wildlife. The government cited the need to be able to respond quickly to COVID-19 as the reason, although the requirement was not lifted only for any COVID-19 policies, but for anything.

Environmental Defence executive director Tim Gray said governments that were already less inclined to care much about the environment are abandoning policies the fastest, but there are also delays to promised protections because of COVID-19 that could become a longer-term problem.

Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said last week the government remains committed to its climate-change and plastics ban plans, but that some policies are being delayed a bit because of the virus.

“My concern is that this will go on for so long it will push it so far down the road it can’t get done before another election,” said Gray.

He said decisions to suspend plastic-bag bans are a “panicked response” that may cool as more information and science is understood about the virus. Just this week, the Centers for Disease Control in the United States changed its wording about how the virus is transmitted to say it does not spread easily from touching contaminated surfaces.

Canada’s deputy public health chief Dr. Howard Njoo said Friday rigorous and frequent hand washing and not touching your face without washing your hands will prevent any virus you may have picked up on your hands from making you sick.

The plastics industry has seen an uptick in demand in the midst of the virus, said Bob Masterson, the president of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada.

“What I would say has changed is people, as a result of COVID, have a much better appreciation of the benefit of plastic as a sanitary material for the food industry,” he said.

Stores across the country rushed to wrap their checkout counters with plastic shields and equip their employees with plastic gloves and face shields. Demand for hand sanitizer _ mostly bottled in plastic _ soared.

John Thayer, a senior vice-president at petrochemical manufacturer Nova Chemicals, said while some orders were cancelled because of COVID-19, demand has increased for plastics used to make food packaging, e-commerce packaging and shipping requirements and medical packaging and protective equipment. Everything from face masks to surgical gowns to ventilators, test tubes and COVID-19 testing kits, use plastic.

“Polyethylene and other polymers are helping prevent COVID-19 transmission and treat those impacted by the virus,” said Thayer.

Sarah King, head of the oceans and plastics program at Greenpeace Canada, disputes that plastics are safer as a means to protect consumers. She said plastics have a place in the medical world but studies have shown the virus actually lives longer on plastic than any other material.

A cloth bag that is washed regularly is less likely to be contaminated than a plastic one, she said.

“There is a lot of misinformation about plastics as a healthy alternative,” said King.

 


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Plastics ban can’t be instant, restaurants warn Ottawa

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Canada’s restaurant owners are eager to do their part to curb this country’s addiction to plastics, their association says, but they want the government to leave time for them to adapt to a ban on plastic take-out containers.

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said Thursday Ottawa’s promised ban on many single-use plastics is coming in 2021 after a scientific assessment of plastic pollution released Thursday found that the waste is harmful to the environment.

The list of what will be banned is still in development.

Carol Patterson, national vice-president at Restaurants Canada, said the industry needs a reasonable time to find and procure alternatives that are both affordable and better for the environment.

“We are really calling on the government to have an approach that takes into account the full life cycle of products but also providing those reasonable timelines for safe and functional alternatives to enter the market,” Patterson said.

At the same time as restaurants are grappling with finding non-plastic options, they are seeing a surge in demand for take-out containers from the explosion of online food-delivery services. Restaurants Canada reports between 2017 and 2018, ordering via apps and websites grew 44 per cent.

The Ipsos Foodservice Monitor found in 2018, sales via food delivery grew 54 per cent and take-out grew 18 per cent. While in-person dining is still a majority of restaurant sales _ 79 per cent in 2018 _ there is no growth in that segment of the market.

Patterson said restaurants need to make sure alternatives are also safe and accessible for customers. She said the government has been open to hearing from the industry so far.

Chelsea Rochman, an assistant professor of ecology at the University of Toronto whose lab specializes in water pollution caused by people, said when it comes to deciding what products to ban there is some “low-hanging fruit” like plastic grocery bags and straws. The bags, said Rochman, are easily replaced with reusable options and plastic straws can be eliminated for most people entirely. Many stores and restaurants have already replaced or eliminated both.

Paper-based take-out containers are already popular and are better for the environment than plastic or Styrofoam versions, even if the paper ones end up landfilled, she said.

Other items, like cutlery, may be harder to figure out, at least in the short term, because most people aren’t carrying around their own reusable forks and spoons.

“It’s a huge societal switch,” said Rochman.

She said questions is what is likely to happen to a product at the end of its first use. Some compostable plastics might be able to go industrial composting facilities in cities but there are few cities that offer that service, and there are no standards nationwide for what can be called “compostable plastic.”

The scientific assessment on plastic pollution released by Environment Canada found there was little evidence most packaging labelled as biodegradable will fully break down.

Plastic products that are really hard to replace with reusable options, like much of the packaging for shelf-stable foods such as condiments, need to be standardized so they can be recycled, said Rochman. It is hard for one recycling facility to turn bottles into plastic pellets for reuse if every bottle is made of different kinds of plastic polymers.

Only about a dozen firms across the country constitute Canada’s recycling industry. Policies that require more things be made using recycled materials are also needed to spur action, said Rochman.

Wilkinson said the plastics ban is only part of the government’s plan to eliminate plastic waste by 2040, noting standards and policies to make producers responsible for the full life cycles of their products are also in the works.


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Plastic ban coming in 2021 after report concludes there is evidence of harm

shutterstock_700694767A national ban on many single-use plastics is on track for next year after a government report concluded Thursday that there is more than enough evidence proving plastic pollution is harmful.

“We will be moving towards a ban on harmful single-use plastics and we will be doing that in 2021,”” said Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

The federal Liberals promised last June they”d seek to ban plastic versions of a number of products such as straws, take-out containers and grocery bags. The ban would happen under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which requires a scientific assessment of the problem first.

A draft version of that assessment was released Thursday. It will be open to public comment until April 1.

The report says that in 2016, 29,000 tonnes of plastic garbage, the equivalent of about 2.3 billion single-use plastic water bottles, ended up as litter in Canada _ on beaches, in parks, in lakes, and even, says the report, in the air.

Some of the litter is easily visible” pieces bigger than 5 mm are called “macroplastics.”” But much of it is plastic that most of us can”t easily see, known as “microplastics”“ and “microfibres.”” These are tiny remnants of plastic smaller than 5 mm, that come when larger pieces of plastic are broken apart. They are also shed off things like clothes made of synthetic fabric, fleece blankets, and tires.

The science looked at the impact of all types of plastics and concluded that evidence is clear macroplastics are hurting wildlife” Dead birds found with plastic in their intestines, whales that wash up on shore with stomachs filled with tonnes of plastic they ingested as they swam, including flip flops and nylon ropes.

In one case, a turtle was found emaciated and dying. When the plastic was removed from its digestive tract, the turtle recovered.

The evidence is less clear about the harmful impacts of people or wildlife ingesting microplastics, and the scientists recommended further study be undertaken. A new fund of $2.2 million over the next two years will fund research on microplastics.

Wilkinson said the finding on macroplastics is enough to proceed with the ban.

He said the specific items that will be banned are still being worked out with scientists. A list will be released in the next few months, he said.

Plastic bags, straws, bottles and Styrofoam containers meant to be used once and discarded are all expected to be on the list but nothing has yet been confirmed.

Wilkinson said there will be time given to businesses who rely on those products to adapt but he is firm that the government is not going to wait several years.

“I think the Canadian public wants to see action quickly so certainly if there is a phase-in period, it won”t be an extensive one.””

He noted Canadians expect quick action on the file. Some companies are moving on their own. The Sobeys grocery chain is removing all plastic bags from its stores as of Jan. 31, taking 255 million plastic bags out of circulation over the next year. Canadians use as many as 15 billion plastic bags every year.

The Canadian Plastics Industry Association is not in favour of banning plastic items, saying it removes choice and alternatives are often worse.

“Given that scientific and economic studies around the world demonstrate that in most cases plastic packaging, plastic shopping bags and some single-use plastics are a better environmental choice when managed properly, bans are not the answer but rather managing them at their end of life is,”” the association says in a statement on its website.

Sarah King, head of the oceans and plastics campaign for Greenpeace Canada, said she doesn”t want the ban to result in alternative single-use items because that would simply be trading in one problem for another.

Rather she said the focus has to be on changing delivery models so we reduce unnecessary packaging and reuse that which cannot be avoided.

King said 2021 is fast enough for a ban to start “as long as the ban list is comprehensive,”” and includes both specific products and specific types of plastics.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, however, said there is no reason to wait until 2021.

“We know that single-use plastics will stick around forever,”” said Singh. “The idea that plastics and a product that is being designed to be used one time and it will last forever is simply irrational and it doesn”t make sense. We”ve got to put an end to it.””

Wilkinson said a plastics ban is only part of the government”s plan to address the problem of plastic waste. He said there is also work underway with the provinces to make the producers of plastics responsible for ensuring they don”t end up as garbage anywhere.

In 2018, when Canada hosted the G7 leaders” summit, Canada and four other leading economies signed a charter pledging that by 2040 all plastic produced in their countries would be reused, recycled or burned to produce energy. The United States and Japan stayed out.