SWRC Blog: Plastic Bans in Context

SWRC Blog: Plastic Bans in Context

The Federal government recently announced an upcoming ban on six single-use plastic items -- checkout bags, cutlery, foodservice ware made from problematic plastics, ring carriers, stir sticks and straws.

People, being human and all, have been complaining …

  • It’s not going to make any difference.
  • Why are the Feds doing this? No one else is.
  • Why don’t we just recycle them instead?

The first objection is kinda true. In terms of trying to reduce the total amount of plastic going into landfills, this won’t do much. The ban follows the determination that plastic can be considered a pollutant. These items are the ones that are most frequently found in litter studies, are not readily recyclable and can be replaced by other items (preferably reusable ones). The bans are just the first step in a larger plan to reduce plastics and keep them out of the environment. Other measures, like recycled content mandates and extended producer responsibility, should have more impact.

And no, the Feds didn’t just pull this idea out of the air. Concern over the amount of plastic being littered and landfilled is worldwide. The European Union banned a larger list of single use plastics last year. Many countries, individual provinces and communities have banned plastic checkout bags. Businesses, too have stopped using plastic checkout bags: Sobey’s got rid of them in January 2020 and weathered the pandemic without plastic (go Sobey’s!). Walmart quit plastic bags in its stores in April. Many other businesses have followed suit. So no, it’s not new and it’s not just us.

But, why a Federal ban? Couldn’t other measures work? Well, the move to replace single use checkout bags does seem to be happening already. The Federal ban does mean that all the cities and provinces that have, or were in the process of, banning the bags don’t have to worry because they won’t be sold here at all anymore.

And maybe we could have asked brand owners to reduce single use plastics voluntarily. Some of them have already. But not always … the six pack rings have been known to be hazardous to animals for decades and no one did anything to replace them until governments started talking about banning them. Now there are all sorts of innovative solutions 1 2 3 4 , but where were those solutions twenty years ago? Sometimes, regulations are needed to push things in the right direction.

And the recycling argument. So, there’s recyclable (a statement of possibility) and actually recycled. – two very different things. First, most of the banned items are small and, even if they are collected, slip through the machines, end up in the landfill. Or they clog the machines and cause shutdowns, like the plastic checkout bags. Since only nine percent of all plastics in Canada are recycled, massive increases in recycling infrastructure would be needed to make a dent. Reduce is the top strategy in the waste hierarchy and removing items that get littered, don’t get recycled and only get used for a very short time from production is a good first step.