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Every year, Canadians discard millions of tonnes of plastic garbage that our recycling system can’t handle, that China and other waste-importing nations don’t want, and that pollute our lakes, rivers and oceans. Now, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants to tackle that problem at its source. He’s promised to implement a ban on “harmful single-use plastics” such as bags, cutlery and plates by as early 2021. Here’s what we know about it so far.


What counts as ‘harmful single-use plastics’?

The Trudeau government hasn’t yet produced a list of the products it intends to ban; first it has to consult with businesses and other levels of government, then decide which bans are “supported by scientific evidence and warranted.” But the wording of Mr. Trudeau’s June 10 announcement singles out a few items as examples of harmful single-use plastics.

Grocery bags

Why they’re bad: The low-density polyethylene (LDPE) you find in grocery bags is durable enough to last for a thousand years before breaking down, but flimsy and light enough to end up in the stomachs of marine life, birds and, in microplastic form, human diets too. Not all recycling programs can accept LDPE, and if they do, chances are they might dispose of it by incineration, which produces greenhouse gases and toxic byproducts.

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What can I use instead? Some types of plastic bags are advertised as biodegradable, but be sure to read the fine print: Some will only degrade in industrial composting plants, not if you dispose of them some other way, and others don’t degrade nearly as well as the manufacturers say they will. Durable tote bags can help reduce waste, but since they take much more energy and material to produce than LDPE, you’ll need to reuse them a lot – as in thousands of times over several years – to see a net savings in C02 waste. The best rule of thumb is to reuse whatever you have, as much as possible, without buying more carrying items unless you really have to.

Straws and stir sticks

Why they’re bad: North Americans use hundreds of millions of drinking straws every day. Straws and stir sticks are a comparatively tiny part of plastic waste produced, but because they’re seen as extraneous items, banning them is a comparatively easy way for waste-reduction policies to show immediate results. Keeping plastic straws and stir sticks out of the oceans saves the sea life who can mistake them for food.

What can I use instead? Drinking without straws can help reduce waste, but that’s not an option for everyone. Some people with disabilities can’t manage the physical tasks of drinking without a straw to help, and alternatives to plastic can make that harder: Paper straws break or become too soft, metal straws get too hot or cold, and neither has the flexibility of plastic.

Cutlery and plates

Why they’re bad: Plastic forks, knives and spoons are made from more durable ingredients, like polypropylene and polystyrene, that can’t be recycled. Same with Styrofoam plates, which usually end up in landfills.

What can I use instead? Try whenever possible to have ceramic plates or metal cutlery, not just at home, but in the workplace. Find a way to carry reusable utensils with you.


What about packaging?

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The federal plan also calls for new nationwide standards for corporations so that they bear more of the cost of recycling the plastic waste their products generate. B.C. already has a system like this called “extended producer responsibility.” Ontario is working toward an EPR-like regime, with a six-year plan to have producers take over the full cost and operation of blue-box recycling provincewide. Ontario’s plan would also standardize municipalities’ patchwork of rules about what kinds of plastic will be accepted.


What does industry think?

Laws restricting single-use plastics have been challenged by in the courts, particularly by the Canadian Plastic Bag Association, a national lobby group. In July, B.C.'s Court of Appeal sided with the association in a lawsuit against Victoria’s municipal ban on plastic bags. That case was essentially a jurisdictional one: The court found that Victoria’s law needed the approval of the province’s Environment Minister. Industry groups are also preparing to challenge the federal plastics ban.

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What do Canadians think?

In a Nanos Research poll for The Globe and Mail, 81 per cent of Canadians supported or somewhat supported a total ban on single-use plastics. The highest support was in British Columbia, and the lowest in the Prairie provinces. Most of the 1,000 respondents also said they’d be willing to pay a premium for sustainable alternatives to plastic, though opinions varied about how much the additional cost should be.


What’s wrong with recycling plastic?

Blue-bin recycling is a Canadian invention of the 1980s, but only a fraction of the plastic you’ve put in those bins over the years has ever come back to consumers as recycled goods. Only 9 per cent of plastics are recycled in Canada, and about 10 per cent in the United States. Most plastic up in landfills, some is incinerated and some ends up in unmanaged dumps.

Plastics discarded in Canada (2016)

One bin represents about

32,500 tonnes of discarded plastics

In 2016, 3.3 million tonnes of plastics were discarded in Canada

305,000 tonnes of it was recycled

RECYCLING

PLANT

137,000 tonnes

were incinerated with energy recovery

WASTE-TO-

ENERGY PLANT

29,000 tonnes went to unmanaged dumps or were leaked

2.8 million tonnes of the discarded plastics went to landfills

LANDFILL

That is roughly 24 times the weight of the CN Tower

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: DELOITTE, CNTOWER.CA

Plastics discarded in Canada (2016)

One bin represents about

32,500 tonnes of discarded plastics

In 2016, 3.3 million tonnes of plastics were discarded in Canada

305,000 tonnes of it was recycled

RECYCLING

PLANT

137,000 tonnes

were incinerated with energy recovery

WASTE-TO-

ENERGY PLANT

29,000 tonnes went to unmanaged dumps or were leaked

2.8 million tonnes of the discarded plastics went to landfills

LANDFILL

That is roughly 24 times the weight of the CN Tower

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: DELOITTE, CNTOWER.CA

Plastics discarded in Canada (2016)

One bin represents about 32,500 tonnes of discarded plastics

2

1

3

4

305,000 tonnes of it was recycled

137,000 tonnes

were incinerated with energy recovery

29,000 tonnes went to unmanaged dumps or were leaked

In 2016, 3.3 million tonnes of plastics were discarded in Canada

RECYCLING

PLANT

WASTE-TO-

ENERGY PLANT

LANDFILL

5

That is roughly 24 times the weight of the CN Tower

2.8 million tonnes of the discarded plastics went to landfills

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: DELOITTE, CNTOWER.CA

Part of that wastefulness is consumers’ fault for contaminating the supply with unrecyclable types of plastics, but the market is also to blame: There’s just much more plastic than recycling companies are willing to buy, and countries that import plastic for recycling are getting choosier about what kinds of waste they’ll accept. In 2018, China – the world’s biggest importer of recyclable plastics – banned the import of 24 kinds of plastic and paper goods for environmental and health reasons. Its neighbours are reluctant to pick up the slack in the recycling market: The Philippines and Malaysia, for instance, have been sending back dozens of containers of garbage from countries including Canada, which was either contaminated or smuggled illegally.

How the top 5 importers of Canadian

plastics changed after China’s ban

Tonnes of imported plastic waste,

by province of origin

Origin of imported plastics

Ont.

Que.

B.C.

Alta.

N.S.

Man.

Sask.

N.B.

2017

2018

Each cube represents 100 tonnes of plastics

UNITED STATES

114,400

tonnes

113,500

CHINA

In 2018, China prohibited the import of 24 categories of recyclable materials, including eight types of plastic.

25,800

1,000

HONG KONG

22,900

6,600

MALAYSIA

10,300

11,200

INDIA

6,400

7,700

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

STATISTICS CANADA; GREENPEACE

How the top 5 importers of Canadian plastics

changed after China’s ban

Tonnes of imported plastic waste, by province of origin

Origin of imported plastics

Ont.

Que.

B.C.

Alta.

N.S.

Man.

Sask.

N.B.

2017

2018

Each cube represents 100 tonnes of plastics

UNITED STATES

114,400

tonnes

113,500

CHINA

In 2018, China prohibited the import of 24 categories of recyclable materials, including eight types of plastic.

25,800

1,000

HONG KONG

22,900

6,600

MALAYSIA

10,300

11,200

INDIA

6,400

7,700

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

STATISTICS CANADA; GREENPEACE

How the top 5 importers of Canadian plastics changed after China’s ban

Tonnes of imported plastic waste, by province of origin

Origin of imported plastics

Ont.

Que.

B.C.

Alta.

N.S.

Man.

Sask.

N.B.

2017

2018

Each cube represents 100 tonnes of plastics

UNITED STATES

114,400

tonnes

113,500

CHINA

In 2018, China prohibited the import of 24 categories of recyclable materials, including eight types of plastic.

25,800

1,000

HONG KONG

6,600

22,900

MALAYSIA

10,300

11,200

INDIA

6,400

7,700

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA; GREENPEACE


So what do I do with my garbage?

The most important step is to produce less waste, either by reusing the plastic containers and items that you have, or by finding ways not to buy them in the first place. Some grocery stores are finding ways to help with that: Loblaws is partnering up with a “circular shopping” system called Loop to deliver goods in reusable containers, and grocers like Toronto’s Unboxed Market and Vancouver’s Nada have built their whole business models on zero-waste shopping.

It’s also important to properly sort the waste you do have so that it gets through the recycling process smoothly. Watch the video explainer below to learn what types of goods aren’t recyclable and how you should be cleaning the products that are recyclable.

Watch: Recycling is more than just tossing plastics or paper into the right bin. Here’s what to be aware of when sifting through your recycling.


More reading

News and investigations

Reduce, reuse, recycle, rejected: Why Canada’s recycling industry is in crisis mode

Single-use plastics ban poses challenge for Canada’s fossil fuel sector

Single-use plastics ban not expected to hurt new petrochemical projects

Opinion

Editorial: Put down that plastic fork, Trudeau tells Canada

Bjorn Lomborg: Sorry, banning plastic bags won’t save our planet

Dan Gardner: If we’re going to save our oceans from plastics, we have to address where it all comes from

Usman Valiante: Canada’s mounting plastic problem needs a co-ordinated government fix

From the comments: ‘We can’t make excuses anymore.’ Readers express support for single-use plastic ban



Compiled by Globe staff

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Based on reporting by Jeff Lewis, Molly Hayes, Evan Annett, The Associated Press and The Canadian Press

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