VANCOUVER—While Justin Trudeau’s plan to ban single-use plastics by 2021 seems bold, Canada is following Rwanda, Kenya and the European Union in making drastic moves to cut waste.
On Monday, the prime minister announced a major push to reduce plastic pollution, which could involve bans on things like plastic cutlery, bags, straws, plates and stir sticks as well as a greater burden on companies to recycle their products.
According to the United Nation, 127 countries and counting have enacted bans or restrictions on plastic bags and other single-use items, with some implementing strict punishments for breaking the law.
Bans on plastic bags
A UN report last year referred to Rwanda as a “pioneer in banning single-use plastic bags” and “one of the cleanest nations on Earth.”
In 2008, the Rwandan government banned the use, sale and production of plastic bags after commissioning a study that found the bags were clogging drainage systems and ultimately threatening water sources, agriculture and fish. The government imposed strict punishments, with fines and even jail time for those found in violation.
Other nations have followed in Rwanda’s footsteps.
In Kenya, where plastic carrier bags were banned in 2017, violators face one of the worst punishments worldwide: a fine of up to $38,000 US or four years of jail time. The move has spurred a market for cloth and reusable bags in the country.
In Bangladesh, those found in violation of a ban on all shopping bags made of polyethylene face a fine of up to $71 and a jail sentence of up to six months. However, recent studies have shown that a lack of implementation has not drastically reduced the usage of plastic bags.
Vito Buonsante, plastics program manager at Environmental Defence Canada, said that developing nations may enforce strict penalties because they experience the worst impacts of plastic waste but may not have the infrastructure of developed countries to manage it.
“Many African countries have enacted plastic bans, and that’s in recognition of the fact that it’s very difficult to manage plastic,” Buonsante said. “It may be extreme for people who don’t understand the problem and the pressure it causes on the infrastructure.”
Ban on most common plastics
In March, the European Parliament voted to enact a ban that, once passed at the legislative level, could come into effect as soon as 2021.
The ban targets items that end up in waterways, such as straws, plastic cutlery, cotton buds and polystyrene cups. However, the ban does not include plastic bags.
It is unclear what the punishment would be for offenders.
“It’s good Canada is following the lead of the EU,” said Buonsante, because the EU is comparable to Canada in its cultural approach to the problem and because they have similarly developed waste-management systems.
In addition to a 2016 ban on the import and manufacture of plastic bags, Antigua and Barbuda set out a public education campaign to ensure widespread acceptance of the ban.
A television campaign and instructional guides on how to sew reusable bags resulted in a 15.1 per cent decrease in plastic waste going to landfills. The success led to last year’s ban on plastic utensils and food trays.
Buonsante said this type of awareness campaign could work in Canada.
“There may be a point where the inconvenience of rejecting single-use plastics may be rejected,” he said, adding that a ban could be more effective “if the regulations on plastic kick in little by little, and there’s a re-education needed to encourage people to bring your own bags.”
No matter how many bans and bylaws are put in place, achieving a real reduction of plastic requires co-operation, says Bea Johnson, author of the book “Zero Waste Home” and popularly considered the founder of the current zero-waste lifestyle movement.
“People, manufacturers and the government need to work together in creating zero-waste worlds,” said Johnson.
While citizens have to take responsibility for what they consume, she said, “government can aid society in moving towards zero waste in placing bans and facilitate with putting in place composting curbside pickup.”
Cherise Seucharan is a Vancouver-based reporter covering health, civil liberties and safety/youth. Follow her on Twitter: @CSeucharan