In early October Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced the province would become a leader in recycling plastics, and that Alberta’s plastics strategy would be a core component for job creation moving forward. For the casual observer of politics, this looks like an exciting development. Who doesn’t like the prospect of better managing plastic waste, while also creating jobs? That seems like a win-win.

Unfortunately, just one day after Kenney’s announcement, the federal government declared it will designate plastic as a Schedule 1 toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) and will ban the use of single-use plastic items such as plastic cutlery, straws, stir sticks, grocery bags, six-pack rings and take-out containers. As an Ontarian, the prospect of “western alienation” has never resonated with me, but Trudeau’s immediate plastics announcement on the heels of Alberta’s did get me thinking.

Right off the bat, the federal government’s redesignation and ban seemed curious. Of course, we all know that plastic products are not toxic. Whether it’s the PPE we are wearing to keep us safe during the pandemic, or the containers our take-out orders come in, it’s clear that plastics are not a toxin like asbestos and lead, which are also listed under Schedule 1 of CEPA.
In fact, the move to regulate plastics via CEPA comes across as a lazy way to regulate as opposed to legislate. Rather than have a serious discussion about waste management, the federal government has opted for redesignating all plastic, meaning that any plastic product could be added to the ban list without debate or an impact assessment.

Beyond the strange reasoning for using CEPA, Trudeau’s move also looks to be a serious encroachment on provincial authority and autonomy. No matter how we chalk it up, our local communities, and our respective provinces, are the levels of government responsible for collecting and managing waste. The federal government doesn’t send someone to pick up your recycling bin every week. Now, one could make the argument that the provinces have done such a poor job at waste management that the federal government needed to step in, but is that true?

Looking to Alberta, it’s clear that the province takes plastic waste seriously. Take, for example, the issue of plastic grain feed bags. These grain bags represent half of all the plastic waste generated by Alberta farms. In Bagshaw, a recycling plant takes these old bags, 14,000 of them per year, and repurposes them into resin pellets. These resin pellets are then sold both at home and abroad and turned into entirely new plastic products. This process dramatically increases the lifecycle of grain bags, and ensures that they don’t end up as mismanaged plastic.

But grain bags aren’t the only example. Sturgeon County, in a partnership with NAIT, will have residents driving on streets paved with recycled plastic within the year. The program takes single-use plastic items, like the ones on Trudeau’s ban list, alters their chemical bonds and binds them with bitumen. The end result is asphalt made with recycled plastic that won’t leach into the soil or waterways. Giving plastic waste a second life in this way creates jobs and fosters innovation, but more importantly, it ensures that plastics remain in the economy rather than ending up in the environment.

Rather than allowing provinces to manage and innovators to innovate, the federal government has taken the lazy route of outright banning certain products. The use of CEPA makes that ban even more problematic, as it creates real uncertainty on what could be added to the list next. Alberta has shown itself to be a leader in recycling plastic, and could continue to be so, if Ottawa allows it.

Originally published here.



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