Rather than endorsing costly and ineffective plastic bans, we should look to innovators who are offering a third way on plastics
While Canadians were busy unwrapping presents on Christmas Day, their federal government was busy releasing draft regulations for its single use plastic ban. Friday afternoons, the start of holiday weekends, Christmas: Ottawa often releases regulatory information at inopportune times, usually to avoid scrutiny, and that’s likely the story for the plastics ban. Despite their unimpeachably green origins and objectives, the draft regulations on single-use plastics would be a huge net negative for the environment, mostly because of the arbitrary nature of what is, and isn’t, considered “single use.”
The draft regulations have four exemptions for when a single-use plastic product is not prohibited. The first is the “hot water test.” Any plastic cutlery or straw that can withstand being submerged at a temperature between 82 and 86 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes is exempt from the ban. So, according to the “spin-cycle test,” is any plastic bag that can withstand being washed in a laundry spin cycle designed for cottons.
The third and most arbitrary of the exemptions is the “heavy bag test,” which exempts any plastic bag if it can carry 10kg of weight over a distance of 53 metres, 100 times. This exemption leaves us with more questions than answers: How quickly does one have to walk, or run, the 53 metres? Are the 100 53-metre trips consecutive? And how was that number picked anyway? Does one of the drafters live 53 metres from his or her favourite bakery or corner store?
The last and most hilarious exemption is what I call the “black market exemption.” A retailer may offer plastic straws for sale but they are to be stored so customers cannot see them and must be asked for explicitly. But customers must buy them in packs of 20 or more. That’s right, whether you need only one straw or just a few you will have to buy at least 20. So much for curbing waste.
Yes, these are actual regulations drafted by the actual government of Canada. And in addition to reading like a Monty Python skit they very likely would be a net negative for the environment.
Because sturdier plastic products can earn exemption from the ban, all that manufacturers need do to comply with the law is produce products using heavier woven plastics. The overall effect may well be to increase the net amount of plastic being produced. Consumers will be faced with a choice between these heavier single-use plastic products that meet the exemption or non-plastic substitutes that are even worse for the environment.
These substitutes include paper bags whose production is energy- and resource-intensive — so much so that according to Denmark’s environment ministry , paper bags would each need to be re-used 43 times to bring their per-use impact on the environment down to the per-use impact of the single-use plastic bags currently available at Canadian grocery stores. For most people, re-using a paper bag 43 times is virtually impossible.
Even worse: when the alternative option is a cotton bag, that number skyrockets to 7,100 uses. A consumer substituting a cotton bag for plastic would need 136 years of weekly grocery store trips to be as environmentally friendly as single-use plastic is.
In addition, Ottawa’s own analysis shows that alternatives to single-use plastics currently in use are significantly more expensive. Paper bags, on top of being worse for the environment, are 2.6 times more expensive than single-use plastic bags. Single-use cutlery made of wood is 2.25 times more expensive than single-use plastic cutlery, while paper straw alternatives are three times more expensive.
The real problem with our national plastics strategy is that we aren’t pushing for expanding “chemical depolymerization,” otherwise known as advanced recycling. According to the government’s most recent analysis, which dates from 2016, only one per cent of plastic waste is chemically recycled. This is the process where plastic is broken down and repurposed into new products. Innovative projects underway across Canada are taking simple plastics, altering their chemical bonds, and repurposing them into resin pellets , tiles for your home , and even road asphalt . This approach to solving the problem of plastic waste would be in line with Ottawa’s approach of mandating producer responsibility for plastic waste, and is something that plastic producers have already expressed interest in expanding. This is especially true for companieswho have already made pledges regarding recycled plastic.
The Trudeau government could embrace the science that makes these technologies both scalable and sustainable. Rather than endorsing costly and ineffective plastic bans, riddled with exemptions that may only increase plastic waste, we should look to innovators who are offering a third way on plastics. That would be an approach that expands consumer choice while limiting mismanaged waste and protecting the environment.
Originally published here