Western Standard

“When we talk about the issue of plastics, we are really talking about poorly managed litter.”

In June 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Canada would be banning certain single-use plastics. From his perspective, we needed to act to get these plastics out of the environment. On its face, wanting to get plastics out of the environment is a fairly noble goal.

A year later, the government announced its intention to use the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) to give these bans legal muster. The Minister of the Environment and Climate Change explained that the government would be declaring Plastic Manufactured Items (PMI) to be toxic and added to Schedule 1 of CEPA. Only then would the government have the legal authority to ban single-use plastics. 

Let’s be clear about one thing. Exactly no one thinks plastic should end up in the environment. Every piece of litter that isn’t collected has its energy and value forever lost when it cannot be recovered and reclaimed and made into something else. 

Indeed, it is because of innovation that we now have ways to better reuse plastics than ever before.

Through recovery and chemical depolymerization, we can turn every piece of discarded plastic back into the same molecules it started from. These transformations aren’t hypothetical. They already exist across Canada. In Alberta, a processing plant takes 14,000+ plastic grain feed bags and recycles them into resin pellets. Those pellets can in turn be transformed into everything from bumpers to barbie dolls. Banning certain plastic items sidesteps those initiatives and denies the scientific innovations that make them possible.

While we can debate the merits or efficacy of bans, what we really should be doing is debating if using CEPA is appropriate. 

CEPA is a criminal law statute. It derives its legal authority from the section 91 of the Constitution, which assigns the right to punish criminal behavior and actions to the federal government. Plastic is not a criminal object. Quite the opposite in fact, it is essential for keeping our food safe and our front-line healthcare workers protected. It isn’t the plastic that is the problem – it’s the person who dumps their trash into the ravine, or the guy who throws his empty water bottle on the side of the highway who is the problem.  The criminal law is about regulating behavior. CEPA could criminalize littering, but it should not criminalize the litter itself. 

Take, for example, how we deal with water management. The behaviour of dumping waste into waterways is regulated (as it should be), but the waste itself is not criminalized. It’s backwards to criminalize the item, when it is the disposal of that item which is actually the problem.

Criminalizing the item, as opposed to the behavior, ignores that plastic is really only a problem when it is disposed of improperly by consumers, or when municipal waste management programs break down. Beyond that, plastic is often essential. It is essential to several parts of the economy to reducing food waste, and is essential to reducing emissions from the transportation sector. When we talk about the issue of plastics, we are really talking about poorly managed litter.

The federal government’s logic seems to be that if we ban certain items, people will stop littering. That certainly isn’t logical at all. The person who dumps their garbage into the ravine is going to do so regardless of whether or not they get plastic cutlery with their take-out order. While the environmental fate of different disposable receptacles varies, the behavior won’t be changed until there is an incentive for that individual to take proactive steps to recover that material.

Rather than using CEPA, which is the wrong act, used the wrong way, the federal government should instead look at the Save Our Seas Act in the US as a framework for what would be appropriate in Canada. The act – which has bipartisan approval – focuses on the core question of plastic waste, which is plastic collection and repurposing. The life-cycle approach to dealing with plastic waste is a far superior way of managing waste. This approach actually focuses on reducing plastic waste in our environment, as opposed to simply banning items and falsely declaring plastic toxic. 

David Clement is a columnist for the Western Standard and the North American Affairs Manager with the Consumer Choice Center

Originally published here.



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