Canada Wants To Ban Single-Use Plastics. Would It Make A Difference?

A Canadian ban on single-use plastics products could go into effect as early as 2021. CREDIT: COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES DEPARTMENT PUBLIC WORKS
A Canadian ban on single-use plastics products could go into effect as early as 2021. CREDIT: COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES DEPARTMENT PUBLIC WORKS

READ ON

BY VICKY STEIN 

From Vancouver to Halifax, plastic plates, plastic bags and plastic straws may be on their way out. But a possible country-wide prohibition on certain single-use plastic products may not address the spread of the most insidious plastic litter, some scientists say.

According to Canadian officials, the potential bans — which could go into effect as early as 2021 — would not only curb litter but also cut nearly 2 million tons of carbon pollution. They claim the policy would also stimulate the economy by creating 42,000 jobs.

“I am, like a lot of scientists, excited, with a lot of caveats,” said Max Liboiron, an environmental scientist at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

Plastics can persist for hundreds, if not thousands of years in the environment. Plastic litter can entangle and kill wildlife, or break down into tiny particles — microplastics — that collect and leach out heavy metals or harmful chemicals. While recycling can repurpose plastic materials into other products, <href=”#how-much-of-global-plastic-is-recycled”>fewer than 10 percent of plastics are actually recycled. The bulk of recyclable plastic is currently in limbo, as countries in Asia have shut their doors to shipments of other nations’ trash.

A woman sorts plastic bottles for recycling at Cilincing district in Jakarta, Indonesia. Since China stopped accepting most recyclables from other countries, Western nations have begun to ship more of their waste to Southeast Asia. CREDIT: BEAWIHARTA/REUTERS

A woman sorts plastic bottles for recycling at Cilincing district in Jakarta, Indonesia. Since China stopped accepting most recyclables from other countries, Western nations have begun to ship more of their waste to Southeast Asia. CREDIT: BEAWIHARTA/REUTERS

Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is pursuing a ban of plastic products under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which was used to restrict microbeads in 2018.

Liboiron’s hesitance comes from her five years of surveying the plastic waste that washes up on the shores of Newfoundland. The major plastic problems she sees in her research aren’t addressed so far in the Canadian government’s plan.

“They say [the bans are] going to be science-based, which is great,” Liboiron said. “But my question is, ‘what science?’”

What A Ban On Plastic Bags And Straws Misses

Tuesday’s announcement references single-use items — plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates, stir sticks, takeout packaging, cups, and cigarette butts — the government argues can be replaced without disrupting day-to-day life. But Liboiron said those are not the products that plague Newfoundland’s coastline.

Plastic bags, a popular target for smaller-scale local plastic bans around Canada and the United States, make up less than 1 percent of the plastics Liboiron and her colleagues collect on shore. Likewise, plastic plates, coffee stirrers and cutlery don’t turn up in her samples. On Newfoundland’s beaches, the main culprits of plastic pollution are fishing gear and microplastics, Liboiron said.

When deciding what to ban, the government said it will account for whether the products are necessary and whether affordable, effective alternatives exist.

Plastics are vital for sterile medical and research supplies, as well as emergency food and water supplies. Those categories would likely not be affected by the proposed embargo.

Meanwhile, restrictions on plastic straws have become popular and a symbol for activists looking to reduce plastic waste, but such bans place a burden on people with disabilities. Some argue plastic straw bans represent a step backwards in accessibility.

The government said that accessibility would be taken into account as the bans are formalized.

It’s not clear, at the moment, if or where evidence-based decision-making comes into this process, however. According to Liboiron, very little research has successfu