The War On Single Use Plastic Is Sillier Than Ever

Coronavirus (Covid-19) has dominated the news cycle for weeks now. Infection rates are rising, and entire countries like Israel and Italy have enacted severe measures to stop the spread of the virus. That same intensity hasn’t crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Canada, but the private sector has enacted measures to help stop the spread. Coffee giants like Tim Hortons and Starbucks have suspended their “bring your own cup” programs in response to Covid-19. Tim Hortons has taken things one step further and cancelled their iconic Roll Up The Rim program. Even chains like Bulk Barn have halted their container program to help prevent additional exposure.

Despite the rapid spread of Covid-19, environmental groups like Environmental Defence are still waging their war on single use plastic. Environmental Defence, in January, released their wall of shame for companies they feel have not done enough to reduce plastic pollution in Canada. Their list includes major brands like Loblaws, Tim Hortons, and Starbucks. 

The first major flaw in Environmental Defence’s war on plastic is that Canadians are not significant polluters when it comes to plastic marine litter. Up to 95 per cent of all plastic found in the world’s oceans comes from just 10 source rivers, which are all in the developing world.

Canada on average, contributes less than 0.01 MT (millions of metric tonnes) of mismanaged plastic waste. In contrast, countries like Indonesia and the Philippines contribute 10.1 per cent and 5.9 per cent of the world’s mismanaged plastic, which is upwards of 300 times Canada’s contribution. China, the world’s largest plastics polluter, accounts for 27.7 percent of the world’s mismanaged plastic. Canada, when compared to European countries like England, Spain, Italy, Portugal and France, actually contributes four times less in mismanaged plastic. The only European countries on par with Canada are the significantly smaller Sweden, Norway and Finland. Plastics bans might sound productive in terms of plastics pollution, but the evidence doesn’t suggest that Canada is actually a significant contributor for mismanaged plastic, which means that a Canadian ban will do little to actually reduce plastic pollution.

The second issue with Environmental Defence’s war on plastic is that some of their policy suggestions would actually do more harm to the environment. For Loblaws, the group has “shamed” them for not banning all single use plastic bags in their stores. Conventional thinking suggests that banning single-use plastic bags will result in people using reusable bags, and that this reduction in plastic use will have a positive impact on the environment. Research from Denmark’s Ministry of the Environment actually challenged that conventional wisdom when it sought to compare the total impact of plastic bags to their reusable counterparts. 

The Danes found that alternatives to plastic bags came with significant negative externalities. For example, common paper bag replacements needed to be reused 43 times to have the same total impact as a plastic bag. When it came to cotton alternatives, the numbers were even higher. A conventional cotton bag alternative needed to be used over 7,100 times to equal a plastic bag, while an organic cotton bag had to be reused over 20,000 times. We know from consumer usage patterns that the likelihood of paper or cotton alternatives being used in such a way is incredibly unlikely. These results were also largely confirmed with the U.K. government’s own life-cycle assessment, which concluded that these alternatives have a significantly higher total impact on the environment.

The last reason why Environmental Defence’s approach is misguided is that it flat out ignores viable alternatives for dealing with plastic waste. There are simple solutions available to us that don’t involve heavy-handed bans. For those single-use products that are not recyclable and otherwise end up in landfills, we could follow Sweden’s lead, and incinerate that waste. Doing so creates a power source for local communities, while capturing airborne toxins, limiting toxic runoff, and significantly reducing the volume of waste.

Good public policy should address a real problem and should make a meaningful impact on the said problem. Unfortunately, the suggestions made by Environmental Defence would promote higher impact alternatives, and put consumer safety at risk. 



The Consumer Choice Center is the consumer advocacy group supporting lifestyle freedom, innovation, privacy, science, and consumer choice. The main policy areas we focus on are digital, mobility, lifestyle & consumer goods, and health & science.

The CCC represents consumers in over 100 countries across the globe. We closely monitor regulatory trends in Ottawa, Washington, Brussels, Geneva and other hotspots of regulation and inform and activate consumers to fight for #ConsumerChoice. Learn more at consumerchoicecenter.org

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