Francesca Kerton has been working on ways to reduce her consumption of single-use plastics.
She’s made a habit out of carrying a set of reusable cutlery in her purse to avoid using single-use plastic cutlery when out and about.
And just recently, the Newfoundland and Labrador educator made the decision to bring small reusable bags on a trip to avoid using single-use plastic bags in retail stores, which have been banned in Newfoundland since October 2020.
That measure has had an impact on residents’ behaviours, and it’s one Ottawa intends on replicating across the country but it won’t happen overnight, experts say.
“Newfoundland introduced the single-use plastic ban for plastic bags a little while ago, and we’ve all kind of got used to that and adapted,” said Kerton, a professor of chemistry at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
“It’s a bit like a social science experiment in that it just takes time to adjust … but eventually with communication and education in terms of what benefit you’re giving to the environment, people adjust.”
Canada unveils details of single-use plastics ban
By the end of 2022, Canadian companies will no longer be able to import or make plastic bags, cutlery, takeout containers, ring carriers, stir sticks and straws, barring a few targeted exceptions to recognize specific cases.
The deadline was announced by the federal government on Monday in what Anthony Merante called “very good news” for the environment.
“A plastic bag, a plastic fork, a single-use straw … it only takes one of those plastic items to encounter wildlife … to make that a lethal encounter for them,” said Merante, a plastics campaigner for Oceana Canada.
“All these items are very important to start banning because it only takes one to have a negative effect on our environment, and potentially a lethal effect on wildlife.”
In addition to the year-end deadline, Ottawa is giving businesses until December 2023 to deplete their existing stocks, making the sale of those single-use plastics prohibited at that time. The government will also ban the export of plastics in those six categories by the end of 2025.
There are some limited exceptions for single-use plastic flexible straws to accommodate people with medical or accessibility reasons.
The ban on the manufacture and import of ring carriers and flexible straws packaged with beverage containers like juice boxes will come into force in June 2023, and the prohibition on the sale of those items will come into force in June 2024 due to the complexity associated with retooling manufacturing lines for those products.
The federal government listed plastics as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act last year, which paved the way for regulations to ban some. It hopes to eliminate all plastic waste from ending up in landfills or as litter on beaches, in rivers, wetlands and forests by 2030.
Ottawa estimates over the next decade, its ban will lead to the elimination of more than 1.3 million tonnes of hard-to-recycle plastic waste, and more than 22,000 tonnes of plastic pollution – the equivalent of over a million garbage bags full of litter.
Up to 15 billion plastic bags are used every year and roughly 16 million straws are used daily in Canada, the government said. Single-use plastics like those make up most of the plastic litter found on shorelines across Canada.
“We’ve gravitated towards carrier bags and things made of plastics that were convenient for us to use, but because they’re made from a material that once it gets into the environment, it can’t degrade, it can’t break down, it causes a lot of pollution and it causes a lot of harm to animals in the environment,” said Kerton.
“Also they’re made from petroleum, and so where there’s depleting energy resources worldwide, if there’s alternatives that can be used and set aside that petroleum, that’s a good thing, too.”
It will take time before changes are noticed, experts say
Ottawa’s announcement on Monday included a series of deadlines to help with the transition away from single-use plastics, a staggered approach that Kerton said is useful.
It took a while for Newfoundlanders to adjust to their new realities around single-use plastic bags, she said, but it’s not the only region in Canada where residents have seen the reduction of single-use items in stores.
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 got ahead of the government’s announcement, with Sobeys eliminating single-use plastic bags at its checkout counters in 2020, and Walmart doing so this past April. Loblaw announced Monday that it will drop single-use plastic shopping bags from its stores by the end of the first quarter of 2023.
Several food outlets, like A&W, Tim Hortons and Starbucks, also replaced plastic straws with paper versions over the last several years as well.
While individual action is important, systemic change is what’s needed to see widespread reduction, Merante said.
“System changes are really the biggest impact we can have in Canada in reducing single-use plastic waste today,” he said.
“One of the big things to note is that this is just the first step in that journey, and there are many more items that are not on this list that could be slated to in the future.”
Food and beverage industry working on changes
Canadian food and beverage manufacturers are working on ways to reduce single-use plastic products, such as food packaging, said Kathleen Sullivan, CEO at Food and Beverage Canada, an industry advocacy group.
A 2019 Environment and Climate Change Canada research study found 3.3 million tonnes of plastic was 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 takes hundreds of years to decompose.
When it comes to food packaging, manufacturers are trying to figure out what materials they can use to be more sustainable, but ones that will also maintain the quality of the food, Sullivan said.
“You can go some places now and you’re going to buy your strawberries in those cardboard carts … but you’re going to find that the shelf life of the strawberries is less, or you’re going to have damage to the product, and so you’ve got food waste. We’ve got to figure out how to balance these things,” she said.
“A lot of times when governments pass regulations, there’s this kind of thought that the markets will respond and the markets will migrate, and it doesn’t always happen organically. Sometimes industry has to step in and really force those changes, and that’s something that we are taking a look at now.”
Furthermore, the challenges food and beverage manufacturers also face include how to create a network of sustainable material suppliers, and a robust and consistent recycling and composting system, said Sullivan.
Ottawa is intending to impose standards requiring a minimum amount of recycled content in single-use items to create a bigger market for plastic material from recycling plants. Canada’s domestic recycling industry is very small, and the demand for recycled plastics is very limited.
“Often these vary province by province, and even municipality by municipality, and we really aren’t, as a country, going to get where we want unless we start to bring some consistency to the services that exist across the country,” Sullivan said.
When it comes to creating new sustainable products in the food industry, she hopes the federal and provincial governments find ways to support them through the process.
“Don’t stop the bans, don’t change the timelines, but let’s find ways to help us in the work that I described because it is challenging.… Everyone’s struggling with where to start; we’re all better off if we try to work on these things together and move forward together.”
— with files from The Canadian Press