David Clement: Ottawa’s new plastics policy is radical overkill

The federal government has opted to forego consumer choice rather than work with the provinces to fix waste management

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The federal government wants to update how plastics are regulated in Canada, specifically by using the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) to regulate plastic and by banning several single-use plastic items. This elevates manufactured plastic to the status of Schedule 1 toxin under CEPA, alongside such deadly substances as asbestos, mercury and lead. In addition, the government will kick-start a national ban on plastic grocery bags, six-pack rings, stir sticks, straws, takeout containers made from polystyrene, and plastic cutlery.

Nobody likes plastic waste, but a policy change this drastic is a huge mistake. To begin with, it’s not science-based and relies on a very low bar for toxicity. The threshold to be deemed toxic is simply too low and doesn’t account for the differences between risks and hazards. Calling plastics toxic also sends the wrong message to consumers, namely, that every plastic product in their life is on par with harmful substances like lead.

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Plastics dumped into our waterways could well present a toxic hazard to humans and the environment. But plastics that are properly disposed of, either through recycling (when possible) or through incineration, as in Sweden, don’t present a toxic risk at all. A water bottle used by a consumer and then properly recycled, isn’t toxic in any way and isn’t deserving of that designation. The government’s move to declare all plastic a toxin, regardless of how it is disposed of, is a serious over-reach that will have harmful consequences.

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The first of these negative effects is that it will drive consumers to alternatives, which often have a greater environmental impact. When the Environment Ministry of Denmark evaluated the environmental impact of plastic bags versus the alternatives, it found the alternatives came with significant negative externalities, mainly stemming from the energy and carbon costs of their production.

Given these costs, paper bags needed to be reused 43 times to have the same total impact on the environment as plastic bags. A conventional cotton bag needed to be used over 7,100 times to equal a plastic bag’s net environmental cost, while an organic cotton bag had to be used over 20,000 times. We know from consumer-use patterns that the likelihood of paper or cotton alternatives being used that many times is very low, which is why regulators in Denmark and the United Kingdom have concluded that on balance these alternatives have a significantly higher negative impact on the environment.

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Another consequence of Ottawa’s over-reach is that it will immediately put a variety of other plastic products under review for additional regulation. This could include, but isn’t limited to, contact lenses, cosmetics, tampons, beverage caps, coffee pods, car parts, medical supplies/devices, and tech products. With plastic stamped as CEPA-toxic, all plastic could be under review moving forward for rules like mandatory recycled-content regulations. Those regulations will come with additional costs, and those costs will undoubtedly be passed on to consumers.

Beyond that, the industry has warned that this move will have a significant impact on Canada’s trading relationships. Moving all plastic under CEPA, regardless of how it is disposed of, could meet the definition of a non-tariff barrier. Each year more than $16-billion worth of manufactured plastic comes to Canada via international trade. Creating a new non-tariff barrier through CEPA violates our international trade obligations in the USMCA and with the World Trade Organization. The USMCA requires Canada to use a risk-based approach to the assessment of chemical substances, which is the exact opposite of what this designation does.

It is possible that Ottawa’s new measure also violates the WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement, which states that regulations can’t be more restrictive than necessary to fulfil a legitimate policy objective. If this non-tariff barrier were implemented, other countries would have just cause to enact restrictions on Canadian plastics and plastic products, of which Canada exports $12-billion worth a year.

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Everyone wants to protect the environment, and everyone wants to prevent plastic products from ending up in our oceans, lakes, streams and rivers. That said, it is important to note that 95 per cent of the world’s mismanaged plastic waste comes from 10 source rivers, all of which are in the developing world. Canada produces less than 0.01 million metric tonnes of mismanaged plastic, on par with such countries as Sweden, Finland and New Zealand.

Rather than a wide-ranging designation change, focusing on the specific goal of better managing what little waste we do contribute would be a much wiser approach. In using CEPA to regulate plastics, the federal government has opted to forego consumer choice rather than work with the provinces to fix waste management. Narrowing our sights onto appropriate disposal could curb plastic waste pollution in Canada, without the unintended consequences of negative externalities from alternative products, inflating prices for Canadian consumers, and jeopardizing Canada’s position in global trade.

David Clement is North American affairs manager with the Consumer Choice Center.

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