Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said six single-use plastic items that aren't easily recycled and already have more environmentally friendly alternatives will be the first to go under Canada's new restrictions on plastics.
That means it's the end of the road for plastic straws, stir sticks, carry-out bags, cutlery, Styrofoam dishes and takeout containers and six-pack rings for cans and bottles.
The proposed ban still has to go through the government's regulatory process, but Wilkinson said the goal is to have it in place by the end of 2021.
He said a ban is just one part of a zero-plastic waste strategy that includes making plastics that aren't being banned easier to recycle by standardizing their production and creating a market for recycled plastic by requiring most plastic packaging to include recycled material.
A discussion paper released on Wednesday (Oct. 7) suggests that at least half the content of some plastic items should be recycled material by 2030, the same year more than half of all plastic packaging needs to be reused or recycled.
Canadians throw away more than three-million tonnes of plastic every year and less than one-tenth of it is recycled. Even when people think it's being recycled because they put it into the blue bin on the curb, there are so few options for recycling here or abroad that much of that is still eventually trucked to a garbage dump.
“I know it is presently hard to come back from the grocery store without a single-use plastic item, particularly around packaging on food,'' Wilkinson said. “You use it, you throw it in the recycling bin and, more often than not, it ends up in a landfill. This has to change.''
Elena Mantagaris, vice-president of the plastics division at the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, said plastic products don't belong anywhere near a list of harmful products that includes mercury, asbestos and lead.
"It's a criminal-law tool and it's intended to manage toxic substances," she said. "Plastic is an inert material. It's not toxic."
Putting plastics up there with chemicals that kill people is just giving critics of the plastics industry a chance "to use a label for their own interests," she said.
"That's reputational damage to a sector, suddenly calling it toxic,"Mantagaris said. "That's not fair game."
Wilkinson saidthe fact plastics cause harm is not in question and Mantagaris said the industry agrees that plastics should not be in the environment. But, she said, working to keep plastics out of the environment doesn't mean they are toxic.
Wilkinson said if the issue is just one of semantics, the word could be changed.
"What I have said to them very clearly is we are open to a conversation," he said. "If the issue is a nomenclature issue we're willing to engage that conversation but the fundamental issue around pollution remains and we need to address it.
Mantagaris said the industry isn't in favour of bans at all, but would rather work with the government so plastics are continually recycled and never end up in the environment. But she said the government's words on that front have not been backed up with any kind of funding or real plan.
Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada's plastics and oceans campaign, said the proposed plastics strategy is nowhere close to the full ban on producing single-use plastics that is needed.
King said at the very least, bottles and coffee cups and lids needed to be on the list of banned items. She said she is disappointed there was no funding or specific plan to show a path toward getting more plastic recycled.
“I think the government in general thinks this is a balanced approach, but the reality is this is an urgent situation,'' King said.
Wilkinson said the new standards for plastic content will spur investments in a domestic recycling industry that is currently quite small. A 2019 report commissioned by Environment Canada stated there are fewer than a dozen recycling companies in Canada.
The Alberta government announced this week that it wants to become a hub for Canada's expanding recycling industry. Wilkinson said he thinks that dovetails nicely with the plastics goals of the nation.
Canada intends to add plastics to a list of toxic items under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, a requirement for banning them. That decision is based on a scientific assessment that found plastics, including in tiny particle form, are everywhere in the environment, including in our food and water, and that while the effect on human health is not yet understood, the harm to wildlife is well documented.
Turtles, birds, marine mammals and fish often mistake plastic for food and many have turned up dead, with large amounts of plastic in their stomachs.
A need to beef up domestic recycling arose in 2018, when China stopped accepting foreign plastics for recycling because much of it arrived loaded down with garbage that could not be recycled.
Canada will join dozens of nations that have enacted various bans on single-use plastics. Last week, the United Kingdom began enforcing a ban on plastic straws and stir sticks and plastic-stemmed cotton buds.
France began phasing in a ban in January, starting with plastic plates, cups and cotton buds. Straws and cutlery will be added in 2021 and tea bags, fast-food toys and takeout containers in 2022.