Canada’s countdown to banning single-use plastics begins

By The Canadian Press and Claire Fenton

Canadians will need to find alternatives for plastic straws and grocery bags by the end of the year as the federal government puts the final motions in place to ban some single-use plastics.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault released a report Monday which outlined the next steps to enact the ban, which will first be placed on manufacturers.

“By the end of the year, you won’t be able to manufacture or import these harmful plastics. After that, businesses will begin offering the sustainable solutions Canadians want, whether that’s paper straws or reusable bags,” Guilbeault said.

Businesses will be banned from offering or selling the items to their customers as of December 2023.

Only six specific manufactured plastic items will be affected by the initial ban after the government determined they were hard to recycle but have easy alternatives.

They include straws, takeout containers, grocery bags, cutlery, stir sticks, and plastic rings used to hold six cans or bottles together. Single-use straws will still be available for people who need them for accessibility or medical reasons, such as in a hospital.

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Some retailers moved faster than the government, with Sobeys eliminating single-use plastic bags at its checkout counters in 2020, and Walmart following suit this past April. Loblaws announced it would be moving away from plastic bags on Monday. Several municipalities, including Vancouver, have also banned single-use plastics. Some fast-food chains have already stopped supplying plastic straws to consumers.

The move comes almost three years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promised that his government would phase out the production and use of hard-to-recycle plastic items as Canada aims for zero plastic waste by the end of the decade.

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Initially, he said the ban would happen in 2021, but the scientific assessment of plastics that was needed to put the ban in motion was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following that assessment, which was finalized in October 2020, the government designated manufactured plastics as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

That designation was needed before any items could be banned.

A coalition of plastics makers sued the government over the designation in May 2021, with the case expected to be heard sometime this year.

Malaysia’s Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Yeo Bee Yin shows a sample of a plastic waste shipment in Port Klang, Malaysia, Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Malaysia’s environment minister says 11 shipping containers of plastic garbage have been returned to Canada after they arrived illegally on Malaysian shores last year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Vincent Thian

Canada will also be a world leader if it meets its goal of prohibiting the export of plastics in six categories by the end of 2025.

In early 2020, Canada’s garbage problems made international headlines when the Philippines returned shipping containers full of garbage that had arrived illegally from Canada years prior. 

The garbage was eventually processed at a waste-to-energy plant in B.C. at a cost of more than $1.1-million, but not before Malaysia’s environment minister condemned Canada, saying Malaysia is not “the garbage can of the world.”

Canadian officials, citing privacy laws, refused to clarify the details of the shipments, including who paid to ship them. The fiasco highlighted the ongoing global issue of garbage disposal after China stopped accepting most recyclable plastic garbage in 2018. It created an international black market for garbage, as few countries, including Canada, have the domestic capabilities to deal with all of their waste.

Only about 10 per cent or less of most manufactured plastic is actually recycled globally.

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A research study published by Environment and Climate Change Canada in 2019 found 3.3 million tonnes of plastic were thrown out, almost half of it plastic packaging. Less than one-tenth of that was recycled. Most of the plastic ended up in landfills, where it will take hundreds of years to decompose.

The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup project in 2019 removed more than 163,000 kilograms of plastic waste from nearly 4,000 kilometres of shoreline in Canada. The documented haul included more than 12,000 plastic bottles, 12,480 plastic straws, and almost 17,000 plastic bags.

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