Canada's ban on single-use plastic items delayed until 2022
TORONTO -- Despite previously announcing that a ban on certain single-use plastic items would take effect by the end of this year, the federal government now says Canadians can expect to see the final regulations sometime in 2022.
According to Samantha Bayard, spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada, a draft of the proposed regulations will be published “in the coming weeks,” followed by a period of time allotted for public comment. Once the final regulations are published, there will be a transition period for retailers and other companies to comply with the ban before it actually takes effect, she wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca.
The ban on six single-use plastic items, including checkout bags, cutlery and straws, is part of the federal government’s larger plan to eventually eliminate plastic waste in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Canadians expect the Government to take action to protect the environment and to reduce plastic pollution across the country,” wrote Bayard. “A key part of Canada’s plan to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030 is a ban on harmful single-use plastic items where there is evidence that they are found in the environment, are often not recycled, and have readily available alternatives.”
According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canadians discard three million tonnes of plastic waste each year, and only nine per cent of it is recycled. A recent study conducted by Deloitte and Cheminfo Services Inc. shows that the majority of plastics introduced to the Canadian market and discarded as waste in 2016 were actually packaging materials. This included plastic bags, bottles and other items commonly used in the food and beverage sector.
In 2016 alone, 29,000 tonnes of plastic entered the environment as pollution, the government said, and single-use plastics make up a majority of the plastic litter that pollutes Canada’s rivers, lakes and oceans. By making changes to plastic waste management, it’s possible to reduce 1.8 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year, the government said.
“Provinces, territories, and municipalities are leaders in the recovery and recycling of plastic waste,” wrote Bayard. “The Government of Canada is also continuing to work with them to strengthen existing programs and increase Canada’s capacity to reuse and recover more plastics.”
A recent example of one municipality taking the lead in limiting plastic waste can be found in Laval, Que., where a municipal bylaw that bans single-use plastic bags and cutlery is currently in effect. The city of Edmonton also released its own plan to reduce single-use plastic items, which involves a ban on plastic shopping bags.
In her statement, Bayard noted that the government will work “to ensure that rules are consistent and transparent across the country.”
This consistency is key for members of Canada’s food service industry, explained Olivier Bourbeau, vice-president of federal and Quebec affairs for Restaurants Canada, specifically restaurant chains. With locations across the country, it isn’t feasible for companies to order different food service products for different cities based on their individual regulations, he said, and his organization would prefer to see a more unified approach when it comes to implementing the ban.
“We would like one framework that would cover Canada instead of seeing all these small municipalities coming with their own rules, which makes it extremely difficult for us to follow…from coast to coast in all regions,” he said.
In terms of enforcing the ban, Bayard pointed to government officers who perform inspections in order to confirm that companies and individuals are following laws and regulations set out by the department.
“To provide the best possible service to Canadians, ECCC’s Enforcement Branch directs its inspections and priorities based on an approach that focuses on the risks of non-compliance that may cause the most environmental harm,” she wrote.
At this point in time, she said, “it would be premature to comment on future enforcement actions related to this issue.”
Explaining the reason for its delay in implementing the ban, the government said it wanted to “ensure ready alternatives were available as the Regulations came into force.” The department also pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as another reason for the setback.
“Additional engagement with stakeholders was undertaken to reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the development and implementation of our approach to plastic pollution,” Bayard wrote.
DELAY IS ‘DISAPPOINTING’: ENVIRONMENTAL GROUP
Karen Wirsig, plastics program manager at Environmental Defence, said she was expecting more progress from the government in implementing the ban.
“We were hoping that the regulations would be in place by now, and that those bans would be in place,” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Tuesday. “It’s disappointing.”
While the formal announcement of government plans to achieve zero plastic waste was made last fall, the idea of a ban on single-use plastic items was introduced even earlier. Even with the pandemic and recent election to account for, Wirsig said it’s difficult to understand why regulations are taking so long to implement.
“The regulations themselves aren't that complicated,” she said. “It is a puzzle as to why it’s taking so long.”
The good news, she said, is that industry players have been given plenty of notice, with many already having started to make adjustments to their services, whether that involves eliminating plastic bags or finding alternatives for straws.
“We hope the implementation period is as short as possible,” she said. “So that those regulations actually do come into effect sometime in the middle of 2022, [that] would be ideal.”
While Wirsig noted that these government measures are welcome, more is needed to solve Canada’s plastic pollution problem than just banning six items. Part of the solution, she said, lies in promoting reusable and refillable products as well, rather than just recycling items. This would be in addition to expanding the ban to include other products made with plastic, she said, such as hot and cold drink cups and balloon sticks.
As of now, the government says it has no plans to ban additional items, but that as it works to implement its zero plastic waste initiative, this “may include additional regulatory and related measures.”
ACCESS AND AFFORDABILITY
For Restaurant Canada’s Bourbeau, the biggest question on his mind is how industry players will be able to source sustainable materials.
“We need to make sure that there are replacement products for what [the government] is about to ban,” Bourbeau told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Nov. 24. “Instead of just banning products, we need to take a look at the options.”
Restaurants Canada, a not-for-profit association advocating for members of Canada’s food service industry, notes that the ban’s impact on these businesses will be significant with five of the six items included in the ban – plastic checkout bags, stir sticks, cutlery, straws, and food service ware made from problematic plastics – frequently used.
Part of the issue stems from difficulties in finding alternative options that are affordable, said Bourbeau. This is especially challenging for independent restaurants. Not only have disruptions to the supply chain made it difficult to source sustainable alternatives to food service packaging, but restaurants in general continue to struggle to break even. Out of about 90,000 restaurants in Canada, half continue to be at risk of closing, said Bourbeau.
“We need to take into consideration that an average restaurant has a pre-tax profit margin of only five per cent,” he said. “It is more around two per cent right now [because of the pandemic]. So every cent counts for us.”
Access to supply is especially important given the increased demand in takeout and delivery from restaurants due to COVID-19 lockdowns. While the country is seeing more and more restaurants slowly reopening from coast to coast, Bourbeau said this won’t stop customers from continuing to place takeout orders.
“Our customers are using takeout and delivery more than ever and they will continue to,” he said. “We see that [this trend] will stay for a certain time. So in terms of sustainability, it's really important for us to continue to have products that are not too harmful to the environment.”
Going forward, Bourbeau said he hopes to see reasonable timelines for the ban’s rollout, especially considering businesses in the food service industry often purchase their supplies well in advance of using them. He also calls for greater collaboration between associations like Restaurants Canada, as well as members of the government and product specialists for guidance on the best materials to use.
“We are looking to sit down with them and be part of the discussion,” he said. “If we are to make some changes, we need to take a look at the next 10 and 15 years, not only the next two, three, five years.
“It’s not a Band-Aid that we should put on the situation, we should heal the wound.”
WHAT SOME CHAINS AND RETAILERS HAVE DONE SO FAR
Aside from members of Canada’s food service industry, retail stores across the country offering plastic checkout bags will also be impacted by the ban.
Sobeys Inc. is one food retailer that has already made the transition away from plastic bags, to more sustainable material such as reusable and paper bags. The company started eliminating plastic checkout bags in 255 Sobeys grocery stores on Jan. 31 of last year. Since then, the project has expanded to include most of the company’s banner stores, such as Foodland and FreshCo.
By June of this year, the transition was complete across Sobeys Inc.’s network of stores, said Eli Browne, the company’s director of corporate sustainability. The only exception is Longo’s, which parent company Empire Co. Ltd. purchased a majority stake in earlier this year. The goal is to remove plastic checkout bags from this banner as well, she said.
“It's a big organization…1,200 stores across the country [with] 134,000 employees,” Browne told CTVNews.ca in a video interview on Nov. 22. “So it does take a lot of people to make an initiative like that happen.”
As a result, about 800 million plastic bags have been removed from circulation each year, said Browne. The store’s more environmentally-friendly options include a range of different sized reusable bags as well as paper bags.
Browne said customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Hearing about customer concerns over the use of plastic items in general was one of the driving forces behind making the decision in the first place, she said.
“We heard from our customers that they were concerned about the amount of plastics, generally in society, but also understood that as a grocery store, you have a role to play in addressing all the plastics that are in our environment and in our society that we use,” said Browne.
Between May 2020 and April 2021, based on transactions across the company’s network of grocery stores, customers either brought their own reusable bag or didn’t use one at all eight out of 10 times, on average.
“That's probably the best example of the response and the impact that we're having [on] customers,” she said. “This just goes to show what could have been or would have been plastic bag output.”
Yet another retailer working towards eliminating plastic checkout bags is Walmart Canada.
According to a statement from Adam Grachnik, the retailer’s director of corporate affairs, Walmart Canada has already removed more than 1.1 million pounds of plastic from across its supply chain. This was accomplished by eliminating plastic wrap from certain produce items, reducing the use of polystyrene, a hard-to-recycle plastic, increasing post-consumer recycled content in packaging, and limiting the use of plastic bags at checkout.
“We are on track to take approximately 1.1 billion plastic shopping bags out of circulation by 2025,” Grachnik wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca on Nov. 23.
Starting in August of this year, Walmart Canada also implemented a pilot program to remove plastic checkout bags at 10 of its more than 400 stores across the country. Customers at these locations will be able to use their own bags for checkout or buy reusable ones from the store.
“Since its launch, the pilot program has prevented nearly five million plastic shopping bags from entering circulation,” said the email.
Here is a list of the participating Walmart locations in Canada.
Additionally, both Starbucks Canada and Tim Hortons have each pledged to phase out the use of plastic straws in locations across Canada, introducing paper straws as an alternative. As of now, all 1,376 Starbucks locations in Canada are plastic straw-free, with the retailer offering paper straws, strawless lids or alternative straw options for those who require it for accessibility reasons, instead. Plastic straws have also been phased out of the nearly 4,000 Tim Hortons locations across Canada, the company said.