Federal government puts final motions in place to ban some single-use plastics

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault makes an announcement on the ban of some single-use plastics, in Quebec City, on June 20.Jacques Boissinot / The Canadian Press

The federal government is banning companies from importing or making plastic bags and takeout containers by the end of this year, from selling them by the end of next year and from exporting them by the end of 2025.

The move will also affect most single-use plastic straws, as well as all stir sticks, and cutlery. Six-pack rings used to hold cans and bottles together will get slightly more time before the ban affects them, with June 2023 targeted for stopping production and import, and June 2024 to ban their sale.

There are some exceptions for flexible straws to accommodate people with disabilities. Juice boxes can also be sold with disposable plastic straws attached until June 2024.

“Our government is all-in when it comes to reducing plastic pollution,” Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Monday at a news conference on a St. Lawrence River beach in Quebec City.

Guilbeault said the government is open to adding more items to the list one day, but is targeting the ones that were most common and easiest to replace first. He said Canada cannot ban its way out the plastic waste problem, promising additional action to enact new standards for recycling in the coming months.

“Banning certain items is certainly part of the solution but regulating to ensure that companies who produce plastics use more and more recycled plastic as part of your content is also part of the solution,” he said.

The Liberal government is targeting 2030 to eliminate all plastic waste from ending up in landfills or as litter on beaches, in rivers, wetlands and forests.

Federal data show in 2019, 15.5 billion plastic grocery bags, 4.5 billion pieces of plastic cutlery, three billion stir sticks, 5.8 billion straws, 183 million six-pack rings and 805 million takeout containers were sold in Canada.

A 2019 Deloitte study found less than one-tenth of the plastic waste Canadians produce is recycled. That meant 3.3 million tons of plastic was thrown out annually, almost half of it plastic packaging.

Sarah King, head of the oceans and plastics campaign for Greenpeace Canada, said banning the six items is a step forward but disagrees it’s a sign Canada is all-in on plastic waste as Guilbeault claimed.

King said the six items on the list make up only about five per cent of the plastic waste Canada generated in 2019.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” she said. “Until the government gets serious about overall reductions in plastic production we’re not going to see the impact we need to see in the environment or in our waste streams.”

King said recycling is not going to solve the problem, and the only way to end plastic waste is to stop producing most plastic.

But the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters said in a statement Monday that “an outright ban” will not reduce plastic waste.

“As industry has repeatedly said, the better approach is to develop a circular economy that treats plastics as a resource to be managed and recycled back into the Canadian economy rather than ending up in a landfill,” the group’s statement reads.

The Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, a lobbying group for chemical and plastics companies, also did not welcome the ban.

“We are disappointed that safe, inert plastic materials that play such important roles in Canadians’ lives are being banned when innovative technologies like advanced recycling are available to manage them effectively,” said Elena Mantagaris, vice president of the association plastics division.

She said the plastics industry represents 100,000 direct jobs and adds $ 35 billion to the Canadian economy.

Olivier Bourbeau, vice president of federal affairs at Restaurants Canada, said the government needs to do more to ensure alternatives to the banned items are readily available.

Bourbeau said there are supply chain issues at play, noting one restaurant chain with dozens of restaurants in Ontario and Quebec is only receiving half of its orders for non-plastic takeout containers, and those containers cannot be branded with the restaurant’s logo.

“Nobody knew the supply would be that problematic,” he said.

Bourbeau is calling on the government to work with suppliers to make sure production can meet the pending demand.

The plan to ban exports of the six items is a change from December, when the draft regulations were published. Several environment groups were dismayed that Canada’s initial plan was to ban the items at home but continue to ship them abroad.

The ban itself was expected last year, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first floated the idea in June 2019. But COVID-19 delayed the scientific assessment that was needed.

Six months after that assessment, which was finalized in October 2021, the federal government listed plastics as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

A consortium of plastics producers is suing the government over the toxic designation in a case expected to be heard later this year. The Canadian Press has reached out to that group for reaction but has not yet received a reply.

Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia have already taken their own action against plastic bags, as have some cities including Regina, Victoria and Montreal.

Some retailers also 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 Monday morning it will ban bags by spring 2023.

Many fast food outlets replaced plastic straws with paper versions over the last several years as well.

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