Canadian PlasticsCanadian Plastics Environment
Canada’s single-use plastics ban has begun to take effect. Here’s what it does and doesn’t mean for our industry.
For almost anyone alive nearly a century ago, Oct. 24, 1929 was a date to be remembered for its economic consequences: the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression. Fast forward to today, and another date has just passed that might be almost as important, at least for Canada’s plastics sector: Dec. 20, 2023, which is when the national ban on single-use plastics began to take effect.
Devised to help the federal government to help reach its goal, set in 2018, of zero plastic waste by 2030, the ban covers six single-use plastic items: checkout bags, cutlery, takeout ware with plastics that are hard to recycle, ring carriers, stir sticks, and straws. The manufacture and import-for-sale ban in Canada is the first step. Consumers will slowly see the phase-out of these products over the next year to “allow businesses in Canada enough time to transition and to deplete their existing stocks,” according to the government’s website. While the ban on the sale of these products began on Dec. 20, a prohibition on the manufacture, import, and sale for export of these plastics is due to take effect on Dec. 20, 2025. A prohibition on the manufacture and import for sale in Canada of ring carriers or six-pack rings, used to carry aluminum cans and plastic bottles, will begin on June 20, 2023; their sale will be banned by June 20, 2024, while their manufacture, import and sale for export will be prohibited starting Dec. 20, 2025.
GOING THROUGH THE LOOPHOLES
At first glance, the ban appears almost total, but it’s not quite that; as with most government actions, it’s complex and – fortunately for some of the processors in our industry – riddled with exemptions. While checkout bags made entirely or in part from plastic and used to carry purchased goods from a business will be banned, plastic bags that are used to hold organic waste – including pet waste – garbage, and recycled items aren’t prohibited, and neither are plastic bags used to package fruit and vegetables, loose bulk food items such as candy, grains and nuts, meat, flowers or potted plants, clothing and baked goods. (The ban also includes fabric bags that cannot meet a stress test, meaning they can’t break or tear if carrying 10 kilograms over a distance of 53 metres, 100 times, or when washed.)
For single-use cutlery, meanwhile, the bans apply to forks, knives, spoons, sporks or chopsticks that contain polystyrene (PS) or polyethylene (PE), or changes their physical properties after being run through a dishwasher 100 times, but not to reusable plastic cutlery made from material other than PS or PE and that can withstand being washed in a dishwasher 100 times.
Food containers and cups that are made entirely or in part from plastics are banned, as well as those that contain expanded or extruded PS, the latter commonly referred to as Styrofoam; polyvinyl chloride (PVC), often used in salad containers; carbon black or black plastic food containers that usually come with a transparent lid; or oxo-degradable plastic. Canadians will also not be able to buy single-use plastic cups, plates and bowls after the prohibition on sale comes into force in December 2023. But other products are allowed: plastic trays used for storing raw meat, fish and vegetables wrapped in plastic film, and pre-cooked food packaged in flexible plastic packaging; cups or containers used by hospitals and care institutions for providing medication to patients; paper and fibre-based coffee cups with a plastic lining that don’t contain one of the prohibited plastic; foodservice wares that are made from non-prohibited kinds of recyclable plastics, non-conventional or compostable plastics; and containers used for the long-term storage of food such as peanut butter, apple sauce, olives or nuts.
The manufacture and import of single-use plastic ring carriers that are designed to surround beverage containers to carry them together – typically made from low-density PE – will be banned in June 2023, but rigid plastic beverage holders aren’t prohibited because they don’t have deformable rings or bands surrounding the beverage container.
Finally, all types of plastic stir sticks are banned, period, and so too are plastic drinking straws that contain PS or PE, that can’t withstand going through the dishwasher 100 times, and that are attached to or sold with juice boxes, bags or pouches. But the manufacture and import of single-use plastic flexible straws not packaged with a beverage container are excluded under certain conditions, such as to accommodate people with disabilities; and hospitals, medical facilities, and other care institutions are allowed to offer plastic flexible straws to their patients or residents. For retailers, selling plastic flexible straws just got complicated: they’re required to keep plastic flexible straws out of customers’ view, but can sell a package of 20 or more single-use plastic flexible straws if a customer asks for it.
Exemptions notwithstanding, the ban is probably opposed by most – if not everyone – in the Canadian plastics industry, and resistance to it began almost as soon as it was announced. The Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (CIAC) filed a Notice of Objection to the bans in February 2022, and so too did a number of Canadian plastic bag makers. And in August, 2022, the Responsible Plastic Use Coalition (RPUC), consisting of more than two dozen North American plastics companies, sued to block the ban. (In June 2021, RPUC filed a lawsuit that sought to overturn the government’s decision to designate plastics as “toxic” under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.) “The [ban] was made despite a paucity of facts and evidentiary support about the nature and extent of the environmental contamination and harm arising from the SUPs [single-use plastics],” RPUC said in August 2022. “Accordingly, the ban cannot be justified as an exercise of the criminal law power conferred upon Parliament.”
There’s self-interest involved here, of course – not that this is a bad thing, as an untold number of jobs may hinge on continuing to make single-use plastics. But there’s also the objection, backed up firmly by science, that the bans not only won’t achieve anything concrete, but are actually counterproductive since replacement materials will be worse by any measure. Take paper bags, for example, which are believed by many to be more environmentally friendly than plastic bags because they’re made from a renewable resource, can biodegrade, and are recyclable. Research shows just the opposite, however: Plastic bags outperform paper bags environmentally – on manufacturing, on reuse, and on solid waste volume and generation. Paper products take substantial amounts of energy to make, making paper and cardboard the third largest industry use of energy on the planet. In comparison to cardboard, plastic is lighter and more durable and less energy intensive to manufacture.
The CIAC, and many others, alluded to this when pushing back against the bans. “No evidence [has been provided by a government assessment] that the use of substitutes will reduce littering and pollution in the environment,” CIAC said in its Notice of Objection. “Bans will not address the behaviours causing the environmental leakage. In fact, the assessment acknowledges that alternatives to plastic will lead to higher pollution, thus the government is proposing substitutes that will not actually achieve environmental goals.” And a 2022 report by The Fraser Institute, entitled Canada’s Wasteful Plan to Regulate Plastic Waste, reached the same conclusion. “Canada has launched a regulatory campaign against plastic waste, Zero-Plastic Waste 2030, that will have a negative impact on Canada’s overall economic health, the health of Canadian private-sector businesses, Canada’s imports and exports, and Canadian consumer choice (both domestic and international),” it said. “It could, via substitution effects, lead to increased environmental damages rather than their reduction.”
But as an executive at one plastics processor told Canadian Plastics, what the science says no longer matters. “Unfortunately, there’s little to say about what has been done because it can’t be undone,” he said.
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
And on the assumption that the ban won’t be undone, some companies got ahead of the legislation early on by phasing out plastic usage, and others are responding to them now. Tim Hortons had already been using paper straws since October 2020, but on the same day that phase one of the plastics ban came into effect, the company announced that it would be rolling out cutlery made of wood and fibre starting in early 2023; Tim Hortons also plans to introduce a new breakfast and lunch food wrapper the company says uses 75 per cent less material. In Vancouver, the company is also testing out new beverage lids made out of fibre. Nor is Tim Horton’s the only coffee company rushing to replace single-use plastics. Starbucks Canada announced in August 2021 it had switched to paper straws and cutlery made of recyclable polypropylene. Starbucks also resumed its bring-your-own-cup program in August 2021 after temporarily putting it on hiatus due to COVID-19 concerns – customers who bring their own cup can also get a 10-cent discount on their drink; in Vancouver, the company has also began charging 25 cents for single-use cups in compliance with city bylaws.
Among restaurant chains, A&W Canada has already made the switch to paper straws – the company announced the phase-out of plastic straws back in 2018 and is also one of the few fast food chains to offer metal baskets, glass mugs and ceramic plates to dine-in customers.
The same year, Subway Canada followed suit with paper straws, completing its transition in August 2019. In October 2021, McDonald’s Canada announced it would be switching to paper straws and wooden cutlery and stir sticks; McDonald’s has also allowed customers to bring their own reusable mugs for coffee and tea orders since July 2022.
Among the grocery and retail chains, meanwhile, Sobeys announced its move away from single-use plastic bags back in January 2020, becoming the first national Canadian grocery store to do so. Metro announced in June it would stop giving out plastic bags at its stores by September. Loblaw Companies also announced in June plans to eliminate single-use plastic shopping bags by the first quarter of 2023, and in October, the company announced the phase-out had been completed in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories. And in April 2022, Walmart stopped offering plastic bags, instead offering reusable cloth bags. But the company has been criticized for giving out cloth bags for online grocery orders, leaving some customers saddled with piles of unneeded cloth bags.
DEALING WITH IT
All of which leaves our industry with no alternative but to deal with the bans, at least for the foreseeable future. Which means being flexible enough to adapt to the new playing field. “These new regulations will greatly change the requests of our customers, and the markets will shift to films that can be used in recyclable multi-layers and containing post-consumer recycled materials,” said Pierre Sarazin, vice president of R&D and sustainability with Laval, Que.-based blown film maker PolyExpert Inc.
For Brantford, Ont.-based straw and food packaging manufacturer Stone Straw Ltd. – part of the Wentworth Technologies group and sister company Amhil North America – the ban on straws has some immediate effects as well as unknown implications for the longer term. “We got ahead of the straw ban by moving from polypropylene [PP], which our straws were traditionally made from, into compostable biopolymers early on,” said Abe Looy, vice president of operations with Stone Straw and Amhil North America. “We launched our first-generation Back to Earth compostable straws in 2019; and our second-generation Back to Earth straws, made from a cellulose acetate formula derived from wood pulp and vinegar, in 2021.” But Stone Straw’s second-generation line can’t withstand being run through a dishwasher 100 times because they’re meant to break down easily, Looy said, and the first-generation straws are still in the process of being tested – which means, ironically, that the company’s original PP straws, which do satisfy the dishwasher regulation, might just be the only straws it can dependably market in Canada. “Obviously, we’re disappointed that our cellulose acetate formula doesn’t meet the government’s regulation for straws, but we plan to use the formula for other Amhil products that aren’t banned, such as cups, lids, and clamshells. Regarding straws, in the short term we’re continuing to make our original PP straws for Canada; we’re waiting on testing on our first-generation Back to Earth straws; and our second-generation straws are still being produced here and shipped to the U.S., but that will end when the ban on exportation begins in 2025.”
And in the longer term, Looy said, Stone Straw is developing a backup plan in case the federal government ever closes the 100-dishwasher-cycle loophole. “If that happens, we intend to move our plastic and compostable straw production to the U.S. – either to an existing Wentworth facility or to a new site, depending on space requirements – and make paper straws for the Canadian market from our current plant in Brantford,” he said. “That’s a last resort – we’d prefer to stay in Canada, and we’ll remain in contact with the government going forward to see if there’s ever a plan to close that loophole.”
And while the odds might not be high, there’s always the chance the bans could be either revoked or revised under a new federal government, or struck down by a court. “There’s a recent example of this in France, where a ban on plastic packaging around certain fruits and vegetables went further than the law allowed and was struck down,” said Pierre Sarazin, who has written extensively online about Canada’s plastics ban. “Bans can be difficult to keep in place if scientific studies show there’s no positive impact to them on the environment.”
But one thing seems clear: Regardless whether the single-use plastics ban remains in place for good or is eventually revoked, Dec. 20, 2022 is a date our industry won’t soon forget.
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