OTTAWA — Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson offered an unambiguous “no” when asked Wednesday if he’s concerned about retaliation from the United States over Canada’s new plastic ban.
Federal ministers received letters from nearly 70 American industry groups, according to Politico, warning that a ban on any plastics produced in the U.S. could violate market access terms under the renegotiated United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
“I think those concerns that are being expressed are simply wrong,” Wilkinson said. “This proposal is really focused on ensuring that we’re treating all products irrespective of whether they’re manufactured here or elsewhere… in the same way. I do not see a trade concern.”
The Canadian government is moving ahead on banning six plastic items by the end of 2021. Those items on the initial list include plastic cutlery, straws, single-use grocery bags, stir sticks, dishes and take-out containers, and six-pack rings used for cans and bottles.
Canada is on track to meet the government’s goal of zero plastic waste in landfills by 2030, Wilkinson said, though he conceded the six soon-to-be-prohibited items constitute a “fraction” of a per cent of available plastic products on the market.
“With respect to the six items on the ban, those are things for which there are readily available alternatives,” the environment minister said. “And to be honest with you, most of the folks that actually sell products have moved away or are in the process of moving away from those already.”
He referenced early moves made by large American chains such as A&W and Starbucks to eliminate their use of plastic straws in anticipation of a country-wide ban on single-use plastics.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans last year to move forward with a ban on “harmful” single-use plastics. The promise was included in the Liberals’ re-election platform.
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Conservative environment critic Dan Albas responded to the ban by acknowledging the issue is a “real problem” that needs nuanced solutions, particularly during a public health pandemic that has seen an uptick in the use of single-use plastics.
Albas suggested the six-item ban jeopardizes “thousands” of jobs in Canada’s plastic manufacturing industry, adding switching to alternative products will bring additional costs to small businesses.
“The middle of a pandemic is not the time for desperate attempts to keep campaign promises,” he said in a statement.
The prime minister was pressed about the potential impact on domestic jobs during question period Wednesday. He responded to criticism about the timing of the ban by accusing the Conservative of playing “political games.”
“We have made very clear that none of these bans on single-use plastics will affect any sort of medical supplies, which obviously are essential during this pandemic,” Trudeau said. “We will continue to have a thriving industrial response as we move forward on plastics.”
Wilkinson said one of the aims of the government’s push to ban single-use plastics is to remove polystyrene, commonly used to make foam containers, out of circulation. The other two objectives were to remove “harmful” plastics from ending up in the environment and to phase out items deemed too difficult or too costly to recycle.
The products poised to be banned are ones for which alternatives are readily available, the environment minister said.
Details are unclear about the timeline for when extended producer responsibility rules will come into force to make companies liable for collecting and recycling their end-of-life products. Wilkinson said the department needs to move through the necessary regulatory steps, and that it is his hope to get the ban finalized within the next 12 to 24 months.
Scientific reports have repeatedly flagged concern over the omnipresence of plastics in the environment. Plastics, weathered by the elements, can break down into microscopic pieces called microplastics.
The rate of which plastics break down depends on temperature and light.
Those microplastics, if ingested by organisms, can cause “inflammation and changes in gene expression,” reads a scientific assessment of plastic pollution published this month by the federal environment and health departments.
Bigger “macroplastic” pieces, the report reads, can lead to physical damage or mortality if animals ingest them or get entangled in items.
More than three million tonnes of plastics ended up as waste in 2016, according to a newly published government discussion paper on plastic pollution. Of that amount of plastic, only nine per cent was recycled.
Greenpeace responded to the long-awaited ban with disappointment.
Sarah King, the organization’s Canadian lead on its oceans and plastics campaign, accused the federal government of “failing to put a meaningful dent in this crisis.”
“Wilkinson talks about microplastics being in the water and plaguing our oceans, but he doesn’t say, with a current recycling rate of nine per cent, how we’re going to get to the other 91 per cent to prevent leakage,” she said in a statement. “The only way to prevent toxic substances from getting into the environment is to ban all of them.”
Western countries, including Canada, were forced to take the issue of plastic pollution and recycling more seriously after China banned the import of plastic recyclables in 2018. China was previously responsible for recycling half the world’s plastic and paper.
It has been well reported that large amounts of plastic that Canadians toss into their blue bins end up in Malaysia and the Philippines.
An export ban of plastic waste “to be landfilled in a foreign country” was one of 21 recommendations in the House of Commons environment committee’s report last year addressing plastic pollution.
The federal government said discussions are still ongoing about improving Canada’s recycling infrastructure and future plans to reuse and recover more plastic.
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