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It’s the end of days for plastic grocery bags and Styrofoam takeout containers in Canada, but the products can still be manufactured for export.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault published draft regulations Tuesday outlining how Canada will ban the manufacture, sale and import of these items, along with plastic cutlery, stir sticks, straws and six-pack rings, by the end of next year.

The regulations outline how each of the products is to be defined; plastics bags for example are those made of plastic film which will break or tear if used to carry 10 kilograms over a certain distance.

Cutlery includes forks, knives, spoons, sporks and chopsticks that will start to melt if immersed in hot but not boiling water.

There are some exceptions for single-use plastic flexible straws to accommodate people with disabilities and those needing them for medical purposes.

The public can provide written comment on the draft regulations until March 5, and the timing of the final regulations will depend on how much feedback is received. World Trade Organization rules mean Canada has to allow a six-month phase-in period once the final regulations are published, but Guilbeault said he expects them to take effect by the end of 2022.

He said the ban is only part of the story because what isn’t being banned has got to be recycled.

“I mean, rightly so, a lot of people are focusing on the ban and that’s important,” he said. “But one of the bigger challenges we have is to get our house in order when it comes to recycling.”

A 2019 Deloitte report commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada said 3.3 million tonnes of plastic waste was tossed in 2016 and less than one-tenth of it was recycled.

Environmental groups urge further action

There were then only 12 recycling companies nationwide. Canada set a target to recycle 90 per cent of plastic waste by 2030 and Guilbeault said there is work underway to standardize and co-ordinate recycling across provinces. Standards for plastics to make them easier to recycle, as well as a requirement that half of all plastic packaging must be made of recycled material, are also coming, he said.

In 2016, almost 30,000 tonnes of waste ended up in the environment, polluting rivers, beaches and forests with discarded coffee cups, water bottles, grocery bags and food wrappers.

“People are tired of seeing this litter in our streets and I think some of the powerful images we’ve seen around the world of plastic waste affecting our ecosystem has really gotten to people,” Guilbeault added. “So they want us to move and we’re moving.”

Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada’s oceans and plastics campaign, said the government is moving too slowly and isn’t going far enough. King wanted to see all single-use plastics banned, including plastic bottles, cigarette filters, coffee cups and food wrappers.

With every day the government stalls, we are missing an opportunity to halt tonnes of plastic pollution from being dumped in the environment.– Gretchen Fitzgerald, Sierra Club of Canada Foundation

“Canadians have been waiting a long time for the federal government to take strong and urgent action to tackle plastic waste and pollution and these regulations definitely don’t reflect that call to action,” she said. 

King said the government also needs to focus its energy and money on transitioning from single use and recycling to reuse and refill strategies.

Environmental Defence, a Canadian advocacy group, welcomes the ban generally, but has concerns about the export of plastics. 

“The government must ban their manufacture for export or Canadian-made single-use plastic products will continue to pollute other countries,” Karen Wirsig, Environmental Defence’s plastic programs manager, said in a statement.

“The government also needs to expand the list of banned single-use plastics, including hot and cold drink cups and lids, which are consistently found littered in the environment,” the statement reads.

A federal government assessment on plastic pollution in 2020 reported that 77 per cent of the 4,800 kilotonnes of plastic polymers produced in Canada in 2016 were exported.

“The government has determined, through thorough analysis, that prohibiting single-use plastics manufactured or imported for export would not lead to a global reduction in plastics,” a spokesperson for Guilbeault’s office told CBC News. “Rather, global demand would likely be met by businesses in countries that still allow for export.”

“Minister Guilbeault’s mandate letter is clear about working with other countries to develop a global agreement on plastics that would target this issue more comprehensively,” the spokesperson added. 

The Sierra Club Canada Foundation, another environmental advocacy group, welcomed the news, but said it too wants to see the ban expanded.

“We also need to expand this ban to include all unnecessary items of single use plastic, and we expect this list to be expanded in the New Year,” Gretchen Fitzgerald, the national programs director, said in a statement.

“From announcement to implementation, this ban will take three years to come into force,” she continued. “With every day the government stalls, we are missing an opportunity to halt tonnes of plastic pollution from being dumped in the environment.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in June 2019 that a ban on single-use plastics would be in place as early as this year, but the pandemic delayed the scientific assessment that ultimately declared plastics as “toxic.” It also slowed down work on which plastics to target.

Industry pushes back on ‘toxic’ designation

In May, companies came together under the banner Responsible Plastic Use Coalition, which has now sued the government over the designation of plastics as toxic.

The coalition argues the designation is defamatory and harmful to its industry, which produces many crucial products that are not harmful. A spokesman for the coalition said Tuesday the government should have waited until that case has concluded before moving on the ban.

Guilbeault said the lawsuit has no effect on the regulatory progress, “just like the lawsuit on carbon pricing didn’t interfere
with us implementing carbon pricing in Canada.”

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