This could have been a legacy initiative, a moment for the prime minister to stake a leadership position in one of the most urgent issues of our time.
But this isn’t 2018.
We have to spool back to spring of last year to recall Justin Trudeau’s anemic response to then Prime Minister Theresa May’s Commonwealth crusade to ban single-use plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic cotton buds. “I know there will be a lot of interest in Prime Minister May’s proposal and and I look forward to the discussion at that time,” Trudeau said then.
The word “flaccid” comes to mind.
So the at-long-last announcements that Canada will — we can hope — ban as yet-to-be defined harmful single-use plastics “as soon as 2021” reminds us that Canada has been unconscionably slow to act. Three weeks ago Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced that following a year of study and consultation England will impose the straws-and-stirrers ban in the spring of next year. (Plastic straw exemptions will be made in cases of medical need and/or disabilities.) The ban is just one small piece of a broad waste strategy.
And it’s not as if the U.K. was taking a lead position on this. France announced a ban on plastic plates, cutlery and cups in 2016 as part of its Energy Transition for Green Growth Act, passed the previous year. Single-use plastics face a phaseout by 2020. The push is on for compostable replacements.
I cite these two examples among many because they convey a like-minded ambition: that governments leave the countries they lead in better environmental shape for the stewards yet to come. With Canada’s election looming, Trudeau can’t yet make that claim, at least in so far as the global crisis of plastic pollution is concerned.
On the contrary, when he spoke on Monday about how tough it is to explain to his children what awful things we have done to our planet, the pressing need to take fast action was dampened by his description of the government’s approach to now determine which products might fall under the ban after careful study of the “scientific evidence.”
I have previously cited the ground-breaking study published in Science Advances nearly two years ago, the first global assessment of all mass-produced plastics from their beginnings roughly 70 years ago. It was in that paper that we learned that as of 2015, of all the virgin plastics produced to that date, an estimated 9 per cent had been recycled. Incinerated plastics totalled 12 per cent. Plastics accumulated in landfills and the natural environment: 79 per cent. The largest market for plastics is packaging, “an application whose growth was accelerated by a global shift from reusable to single-use containers.”
In the absence of end-of-life plastic strategies, the study’s authors concluded, “humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.”
While Ottawa was mulling the science, the U.K.’s Royal Statistical Society cited the same authors in naming its winning international statistic of 2018: that 90.5 per cent of plastics are never recycled.
While Trudeau’s team dallies, consumers take action. Just the other day, during a trip to Pollocks Home Hardware on Roncesvalles, I was met by the sight of two women setting up an Eco+amour station within the store, offering a range of zero-waste refill products from dish detergent to shampoo to toilet cleaner tabs and bath salts. This made me inordinately happy. The neighbourhood’s green footprint has been enhanced by the Roncy Reduces community initiative, a BYOB promotion supported by merchants who place Roncy Reduces stickers in their windows as a sign of acceptance for bring-your-own containers, cups and bags.
While Trudeau’s team dallies, activist investors dig in. Note the shareholder resolution before yesterday’s annual general meeting of Restaurant Brands International. The resolution, presented by the group As You Sow, sought support for the development of a comprehensive and transparent policy on plastic pollution and sustainable packaging, as well as specific goals, metrics and dates documented in regular reports to shareholders. “Burger King and Tim Hortons have helped to foster a wasteful ‘to go’ disposable packaging culture, plastic pollution of land and water has become an urgent environmental issue,” said a representative for the Oakland, Calif.-based group.
At the recommendation of the board, the resolution was defeated. “RBI has already recognized and commenced a program to improve the recyclability, size and use of packaging and the overall impact of our packaging on the environment,” the company stated in its proxy materials, pointing to a goal of fibre-based packaging. To which As You Sow responded: “This relates to the sourcing, not the recyclability and post-consumer recycling of materials.”
As I have written previously, such environmental resolutions are gaining in strength, frequency and support.
I will leave the second part of Trudeau’s announcement — on extended producer responsibility — for a future column examining life cycle trends, not just with plastics, but textiles, construction materials, furniture, etc.
Today’s preoccuption with the mess we’re in recalls a government report of long ago. “Within the next decade, Canada will require a major, co-ordinated, and multi-faceted program to establish and enforce systemic procedures for reducing the quantities of urban and other wastes, identifying and separating residuals, and applying existing and emerging technologies to their treatment,” wrote the Science Council of Canada way back in 1971, recommending that “a detailed study of waste recycling and disposal be given the highest possible priority.”
Six years later the council advocated for the adoption of a “conserver society” mindset. “When products are designed with recycling as part of the process, the problem of unscrambling the materials at the end of the product’s life will be simpler, less costly, and more conserving of scarce or potentially scarce materials,” the council reported then. “Of course, recycling can never be perfect, and the need for recycling should be reduced by making the product more durable, reparable, and re-usable in the first place.”
Jennifer Wells is a Toronto-based business columnist and feature writer for the Star. Reach her on email: [email protected]