Banning single-use plastics worldwide: What's in and what's out?
TORONTO -- Thirty-two countries have banned at least some single-use plastics, with many more provinces, states and cities around the world imposing or considering bans of their own on things like grocery bags and straws.
Canada announced Wednesday that plastic grocery bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and food containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics will be eliminated from use by the end of 2021. In the future, stores will be expected to provide alternatives to these plastic products.
Canada joins a growing list of countries using bans to confront the problem of excess waste that often ends up littering oceans, lakes and other waterways.
China announced plans earlier this year to phase out most single-use plastics, including plastic bags and straws, by 2025, becoming the largest country to commit to such measures.
The European Union has also vowed to ban single-use plastic cutlery, cotton swabs, straws and stir sticks by 2021. The list also covers single-use polystyrene cups and those made of oxo-degradable plastics, which fragment into small pieces.
The EU commitment requires member states to introduce measures to reduce the use of plastic food containers and plastic lids for hot drinks. It calls for plastic water bottles to be made of 25 per cent recycled content by 2025 and that by 2029, 90 per cent should be recycled.
The United Kingdom has made a similar plastics ban commitment and has targeted 2042 to end needless plastic waste.
Some jurisdictions in the Middle East and Africa are promoting oxo-degradable plastics or even making them mandatory. But it has been shown that the plastic does not biodegrade, but simply breaks down into fragments and then further into troublesome microplastics that pollute air, soil and water.
The strictest ban is believed to be in Kenya, where producing, selling or even using plastic bags can net up to four years in jail or a fine of more than $50,000 CAD.
Some Canadian jurisdictions already have their own bans in place. Prince Edward Island became the first province to ban plastic bags outright, followed by Newfoundland. Tofino and Ucluelet in B.C. have enacted bans on plastic bags and straws. Vancouver has approved a ban on plastic straws and will enact a plastic bag ban by 2021. Victoria has already banned plastic bags, along with Montreal.
During the pandemic, plastic bags became commonplace as many grocery stores refused to allow reusable bags in stores due to safety concerns. The federal government’s plan to ban plastics was delayed due to the pandemic.
'WE CAN SOLVE THIS PROBLEM'
Canada made the issue one of the pillars of G7 presidency in 2018. Five of the world’s top economies, excluding the United States and Japan, signed the Oceans Plastics Charter, vowing that by 2040 all plastic produced in their countries would be reused, recycled or burned to produce energy.
The Chemistry Industry Association of Canada has worked with the federal government on the charter and its plan to tackle single-use plastics, says executive vice-president Isabelle Des Chenes. The organization, which represents the country’s largest plastics manufacturers, product designers and brands, including Dow, NOVA, Procter & Gamble, and BASF, has also set targets that mirror the charter.
Industry is supportive of both a science-based approach and holding producers responsible for the life cycle of their products, she says. Research and development is underway into a range of new products and processes that will keep harmful plastics out of the environment, she says, but there is a long way to go.
“Plastics shouldn’t be wasted or left in the environment. We need to do a better job of collecting them and keeping them in the economy,” said Des Chenes. “It’s going to be hard, but we can solve this problem.”
Among the innovators searching for solutions is Montreal-based Pyrowave, which has developed microwave technology to handle polystyrenes found in things like take-out packaging. It breaks down polymers into elements that can be reused.
Concern only mounts about what many see as a plastics crisis with every image of a bird, turtle or fish entangled in a grocery bag or an otherwise picturesque beach or waterway strewn with plastic trash. Giant garbage patches swirl at sea, including the largest in the Pacific that is more than twice the size of Texas. Whales are washing up with hundreds of kilograms of plastic in their stomachs.
The United Nations Environment Programme has estimated that if current pollution rates continue, it will mean more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.
Plastic is cheap, durable and resistant to most natural processes of degradation. It’s estimated that, of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic produced in the world since the 1950s, about 9 per cent has been recycled and 12 per cent has been incinerated.
A garbage-truck worth of plastic finds its way into the ocean every minute worldwide and that rate is growing, says the Canadian government.
So calls for reductions and bans on single-use plastics are growing across nations and cities around the world, and even from huge multinationals.
For years, concern around plastics centred on lightweight plastic grocery bags. According to a United Nations report, 127 countries had implementing some type of restriction on plastic bags as of July 2018 since the first in 2002.
Many Canadians are now used to taking reusable bags to the supermarket and attention has expanded to other sources of plastic pollution, such as straws, cup lids, drink bottles and take-out containers.
In 2018, a group of 250 major brands pledged to cut all plastic waste from their operations. That means eliminating all single-use plastics and investing in new packaging that is fully recycled by 2025.
The pledge was signed by all three of the worst plastic polluters, according to the Break Free from Plastic Movement, namely Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle.
McDonalds and Starbucks have said they intend to phase out the use of plastic straws, as have a growing number of airlines, hotels, theme parks, cruise ships and food service companies.
IKEA Canada phased out all single-use plastic straws from its stores last year.
This story was originally published in June 2019 but has been updated to reflect Canada’s plan to ban plastics, announced Oct. 7, 2020