• Ocean Bridge participant Hannah Kosick holds colourful microplastics picked up on T’aalan Stl’ang. (Photo: Conner McDowell)

    Hannah Kosick holds colourful microplastics picked up on T’aalan Stl’ang beach in Haida Gwaii during the 2018 Ocean Bridge expedition. (Photo: Conner McDowell)

Canada will ban single-use plastics, including plastic bags, cutlery, straws, stir sticks and more by as early as 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday.

The ban — the specifics of which have yet to be determined — is part of a broader federal government strategy to combat plastic pollution in Canada that will also include working with the fishing industry to prevent and retrieve “ghost gear” (discarded or lost fishing gear that is a major contributor to ocean plastic pollution) and ensuring that companies that manufacture plastic products or sell items with plastic packaging are responsible for managing the collection and recycling of their plastic waste.

“Canadians know first-hand the impacts of plastic pollution, and are tired of seeing their beaches, parks, streets, and shorelines littered with plastic waste,” said Trudeau during an announcement event at the Gault Nature Reserve in Mont St-Hilaire, near Montreal. “We have a responsibility to work with our partners to reduce plastic pollution, protect the environment, and create jobs and grow our economy.”

Speaking at a separate event in Toronto, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna emphasized the need to take a life-cycle approach to solving the problem of plastics, starting with sustainable design and setting targets for recycled content for new products and ending with improved waste collection and management practices. 

“We’re doing [this] in partnership with young people who care greatly, with businesses that are innovating and providing solutions, with cities and provinces trying to tackle the great volume of plastic pollution that we have,” McKenna said, adding, “We didn’t get out of the Stone Age because we ran out of stone. We got better.”

Canada’s plastic problem

Thousands of everyday items, from water bottles and toothbrushes to laptop keyboards, clothing and even fruit and vegetable stickers, are made of or contain plastic. The problem is that its durability — plastic never biodegrades — causes persistent pollution in nature, oceans and waterways, much of it discarded single-use plastics. Today, disposable packaging makes up some 40 percent of all plastic products manufactured. In Canada, only nine per cent of plastic waste is recycled. The three million tonnes of plastic waste that are thrown away each year represent up to $8 billion in lost value. 

The specific products to be included in Canada’s ban on single-use plastics will be determined by a government-led scientific assessment, already underway. Additional measures could include regulations requiring products to contain a set amount of recycled content, or be capable of being recycled or repaired.

Greenpeace Canada applauded the announcement as an important first step toward breaking our dependence on single-use plastics, adding the ultimate goal should be a complete phase-out of all non-essential plastics, starting with those that are most often found in the environment, are regularly landfilled and have existing alternatives. Their list of suggestions includes bottles, straws, utensils, cups and lids, multilayered wrappers and take-out containers.

“We know the science and real-world evidence is clear that single-use plastics and waste is toxic, infiltrating food chains and even the air we breathe. Acting now to ban the most problematic and unnecessary plastics … can set us on a better course. But the government must act as quickly as possible so this announcement isn’t a single-use election promise,” said Greenpeace Canada Oceans & Plastics Campaign lead Sarah King in a statement.

The government’s plan also includes working with the provinces and territories to support the development of Extended Producer Responsibility programs, which make companies responsible for the end-of-life management of their own products and packaging. In British Columbia, which has one of the most robust EPR programs in North America, consumers can drop off used goods at industry-run collection centres for everything from antifreeze and oil containers to small household appliances to lightbulbs and smoke alarms. Funding is either generated through disposal fees paid in advance at the point of sale, or as part of the price of the product.

EPRs have the potential to create tens of thousands of jobs and save some $500 million annually in waste management costs, McKenna said.