Within hours of the official announcement that Canada would ban single-use plastics as early as 2021, the plastics industry was simultaneously claiming the initiative would have no impact on demand for petrochemical feedstocks and suggesting there are more effective ways to address plastic pollution than by banning products outright.
On one hand, the executive vice-president of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, Isabelle Des Chenes, told The Canadian Press the federal announcement Monday was not unexpected, and that industry was generally onside. CP notes that capital spending on plastics production is at a five-year high, partly thanks to federal and provincial subsidies, with two Alberta companies building new propane-to-polypropylene plants worth a combined C$8 billion.
“We are pleased to see they want to take a science-based approach,” Des Chenes said. “Certainly, our only caution is that we don’t predetermine the outcomes until the science is in,” which would mean only imposing bans where there are “viable, cost-effective, and environmentally sustainable alternatives.”
In their coordinated announcement in three different cities Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and two federal ministers said they would determine the precise list of banned products based on scientific review.
One of Canada’s biggest plastic producers told CP the plan still leaves plenty of room for future growth. “Our fundamental belief is that globally, plastics will continue to grow and that we’ll need multiple plants to be built year over year to enable that growth,” said John Thayer, senior vice-president of polyethylene at Calgary-based Nova Chemicals Corporation. “We believe if you couple that growth with the proper collection, repurpose, reuse of plastics, it’s going to continue to make the products more in demand.”
Thayer said a $2-billion expansion of Nova’s polyethylene complex in Sarnia, Ontario would be unaffected by the federal announcement.
But despite Des Chenes’ and Thayer’s comments, Chemical Industry Association President and CEO Bob Masterson was still critical of the federal plan.
“We would believe there’s better ways,” he told CBC Calgary’s Eyeopener morning show Tuesday. “The problem of marine plastic litter is a pretty serious global problem. Canadians see the images on the news and they do want to see a response.” But “that’s only looking at part of the life cycle of the product.”
He added that the environmental impacts of some alternatives to plastics add up to a more complicated assessment. “That lowly plastic bag—if you want to replace that with a carry bag that you will reuse over and over—you need to reuse that carry bag 300 times before you’ll have an environmental improvement over using 300 plastic bags.”
Masterson added that Alberta’s $16-billion chemistry industry “is mostly plastics-related”, with about $14 billion in new investment under way, and pointed to British Columbia as a province doing a “fantastic job” recycling plastic waste. “They have a 100% industry-paid, industry-designed, industry-delivered, extended producer responsibility program,” he said. “75% of all the material that goes in the municipal blue box—paid for by industry, not by municipal taxes—gets recycled. That’s more than five times better than the case in Alberta.”
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business chimed in, as well, calling for an economic impact assessment before the ban goes into effect. “It would be irresponsible to put such a sweeping measure into place without fully studying the possible impacts on Canada’s small businesses first,” said President Dan Kelly. “If done hastily, this policy could add a whole lot of new red tape to their plates.”
Environmental Defence plastics program manager Vito Buonsante predicted precisely that kind of pushback. “What we need now is swift implementation,” he told National Observer, adding that the “plastics industry will be doing everything in their power to water down these regulations, limit the ban list, and lower the collection targets.”
In his Monday announcement, Trudeau said the federal government may require plastic bottle manufacturers to pay for recycling programs that would run alongside the ban on single-use products. “If businesses understand that they are also responsible for the recycling of the material they’re putting in their products, they will think about the circular economy, they will think about the consequences of the choices they make and how they are going to efficiently fund the recycling and the recuperation of the materials they use,” he told media.
The Canadian Beverage Association declared itself “pleased” that Trudeau “highlighted that industry-led recycling programs are the most effective way to collect and recycle plastic beverage containers,” with President Jim Goetz saying his members “continue to play a leadership role in managing and supporting recycling programs in every province across Canada.” He added that beverage container recycling programs have hit recover rates of about 70 to 85%.
But Observer says Canada currently recycles less than 10% of the plastic it uses, with more than three million tonnes thrown out each year. One-third of it is single-use, but another issue is that recycling is more expensive than producing new plastic, according to an analysis for Environment and Climate Change Canada produced by consultants at Deloitte and ChemInfo Services.
In mid-May, the Globe and Mail produced a detailed report on the panic that gripped Canada’s recycling industry after China decided in 2018 to cut its scrap plastic imports by 96%.
“China’s refusal to continue its role as the world’s biggest recycling bin has pushed up recycling costs by as much as 40%, pulling back the curtain on the shaky economics that underpin curbside recycling,” the Globe wrote. “To cope, cities and companies have been scrambling to upgrade equipment and add labour to sort, handle, and prepare paper and plastic cast-offs. There is also a movement to transfer more recycling costs onto the mostly multinational companies that sell packaged consumer goods.”
“We are in a crisis that could really undermine the success of our industry,” said Christina Seidel, executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta. “We’re going to have to shine a light on those materials that we’ve been sort of hoping would get recycled but, really, at the end of the day, aren’t,” added Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario.
Trudeau said Ottawa had designed the recycling plan with big companies in mind. “We recognize that it is the large companies—the Coca-Cola Bottling Co.’s, the Unilevers—that will be, and are always, the most significant contributors to plastics around us, that will be made responsible for the full life cycle of the products they sell to consumers,” he said, adding that the combination of measures would create about 42,000 jobs, cut 1.8 million tonnes of carbon pollution, and “generate billions of dollars in revenue.”
And Trudeau wasn’t alone. Last week, Ontario appointed David Lindsay, president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities, as a special advisor on plastic waste and recycling, with a mission to report back on “how quickly it can fully transfer recycling costs from municipalities to companies that generate plastic and paper-based packaging in the first place,” the Globe and Mail reports, citing internal government documents.
On the international scene, the non-profits and businesses behind the 3R Initiative unveiled what they described as the “first global effort designed to reduce the plastic and packaging footprint of consumer goods companies, producers, retailers, and others by standardizing their efforts and creating tradable instruments that can scale up reductions via a market-based credit scheme.” They said the credits would “jumpstart the circular economy—incentivizing and encouraging corporates to take leadership both within and beyond their value chains to address the plastic waste issue at scale.” 3R Initiative founders include Danone, Veolia, Nestlé, and Tetra Pak along with two non-profits—environmental market developer BVRio, and Verra, an international standard developer.