The announcement of Canada’s plastics ban came in summer 2019, months before the mass disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. Set against the scenery of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Justin Trudeau complained that, “as a dad, it’s tough trying to explain this to my kids. How do you explain dead whales washing up on beaches around the world, their stomachs jam-packed with plastic bags? Or albatross chicks photographed off the coast of Hawaii, their bodies filled to the brim with plastic they’ve mistaken for food?” Concern for kids and animals makes for a polished policy speech. So does saying that regulating industry will “be good for our planet” and “result in huge economic gains.”
The speech went viral because Trudeau fumbled a question about how his family was working to reduce their own consumption of plastics, but it should have been scrutinized for other reasons. His gestures weren’t just meaningless, they were dangerous. The Liberals were moving to preserve the single-use status quo that has been a boon for the $35 billion a year Canadian plastics industry. Trudeau was announcing a plan to alleviate anxiety and worsen the crisis, not a path to the post-plastics future we need.
The implementation of the federal ban on just six common consumer plastic products (straws, stir sticks, plastic cutlery, plastic bags and select single-use food containers) was moved to the end of 2022 because of a combination of pandemic-related disruption and aggressive pushback from groups like the Chemistry Industry Association, which represents about 75 plastics companies. University of British Columbia political scientists Leah Shipton and Peter Dauvergne point out that “lobbying by the chemical and plastics industries… impeding the uptake of anti-plastic norms” is not new. According to the Oceana study Drowning in Plastic, this most recent delay has not only cost us valuable time in combating the problem—COVID-19 actually “increased the use of single-use plastics such as take-out food containers by 250 to 300 percent.”
The Canadian economy produces more plastic waste per capita than any other in the world. The often-quoted statistic that we have only ever recycled eight to nine percent of our plastic obscures the fact that recycling is an industry ploy, a highly effective delay tactic devised in the 1970s to neutralize public concern about plastic waste.
There is no easy solution, no technological fix, for the sheer scale of plastics pollution in Canada. The numbers are staggering. Nearly three million tonnes of plastic are dumped in landfills each year—the equivalent, Oceana Canada points out, to the “weight of 24 CN Towers.” A whopping 47 percent of plastics are single-use. Around 10,000 tons of plastic waste enter the Great Lakes every single year, contaminating the drinking water of millions of people.
What is the Trudeau government’s “zero plastic waste” policy capable of realistically accomplishing, when the ban only targets three percent of the plastic waste produced in Canada?
Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada’s Oceans and Plastics campaign, says that the biggest inadequacy of the Liberal plan is that it fails to acknowledge that “the entire category is a problem” due to the scale of production and the fact that our “lacking and disjointed infrastructure” can’t even handle the single-use products that are the easiest to recycle.
Breaking the cycle
The plastics pollution crisis is giving rise to a wave of new policy-making strategies. The UN Environment Assembly is developing a “legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution” globally. The UNEA plastics treaty insists on a move toward the “safe and non-toxic circularity of plastics.” It’s an effort to repurpose plastics as part of what is sometimes called a “circular economy.”
The circular economy is an alternative to the current “take-make-waste” model of plastics production that corporations prefer. If the take-make-waste model is about disposability, a circular economy hopes for sustainability. Right now the whole lifecycle of plastics—from feedstock extraction, chemical processing and production, to dematerialization—is bent towards accumulation without any consideration for where plastic trash will wind up. A circular economy imagines a way out of the race to a bottomless pit of plastic.
The City of Toronto is the first in Canada to explore a circular economy framework. Mimicking the Liberal playbook, the city has made a minor gesture by producing a glossy policy document but has shown no evidence of seriously committing to change. The document mentions plastic a total of three times. It repeatedly cites the circular economy goals of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization that has partnered with multinational investment companies and serial climate offenders like BlackRock, Nestle, and Coca-Cola.
King says the basic problem with the idea of a circular economy for plastics is that it was invented to include the plastics industry in the project of solving the crisis it created. Because of that compromise and the false hope of self-regulation, there is still a stubborn refusal among the more than 3,000 plastics manufacturers in Canada to give up control of production.
A radically circular economy would require us to break up the power of petrochemical giants like Nova Chemicals and target plastics at their source. Particularly lethal materials like oxo-degradable plastics and PVC would be at the top of a long list of synthetic products that we need to permanently stop manufacturing.
According to King, if plastics were going to be a part of a circular economy, we would need to be in a very different place than we are now: a place in the distant past where we had the luxury of choosing the least harmful, easiest to recycle polymers for use in the economy. However, King points out this would still be more difficult than “a just transition to a reuse-centred system.”
In other words, our energy-intensive, toxic model is “just not worth it.” This means that “there’s just no way that plastic can be a mainstay in the economy.” What King is calling the Health and the Reuse Revolution would “signal the end of the plastic era.”
Plastic is now listed as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Will this overdue move be undone by the lobbying and litigation of the petrochemical industry? Where can we find the solidarity and political will necessary to expand the ban and exert public control over the full lifecycle of plastics?
Africa is leading the campaign to end plastics pollution. Thirty-four countries have federal legislation eliminating single-use plastic bags. Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Rwanda have strong progressive anti-plastic regulations, with Rwanda enacting the most stringent ban: the country passed a law in 2019 prohibiting the manufacture, import, sale, and use of any single-use plastic items. Then, after a two-year period in which the government insisted manufacturers phase out these disposable plastic pollutants, the industry pushed for an extension, which was denied, forcing the necessary transition.
Overdeveloped countries like Canada lag behind in many ways, and this is both because of the power of commerce to determine policy and because it is entirely legal for some pollution to occur under Canadian and US environmental law. According to Canadian geographer, Max Liboiron, author of Pollution is Colonialism, under the permission-to-pollute system in Canada, governments have little power to hold industry accountable for environmental hazards. Sarah King told me that with “everything from the Fisheries Act to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, there’s always a loophole, a way that industry can move forward to do something similar to the status quo” and escape responsibility for harm.
There’s no getting around it, she says, “we need a law overhaul in Canada.”
Offering a glimmer of hope, Heather Davis says that there has been a strong push for environmental protection among the communities most impacted by the class of highly toxic petrochemicals called PFAS. Largely in communities of colour, people are finding the collective power to fight back.
Amira Aker has supported such communities as an expert in environmental health and epidemiology. She told me that the most direct and dynamic resistance to PFAS is coming from Indigenous communities, mainly because PFAS “bioaccumulate and biomagnify, which means their concentrations increase the higher we go up the food chain.” Aker explains that “many Indigenous groups that hunt and fish are exposed to even higher concentrations of PFAS than those who rely on other sources of food.”
The organization Alaska Community Action on Toxics (or ACAT) is working to combat the exposure of the Sivuqaq community to high concentrations of these toxic chemicals in the north by building power across borders. The Wreck Bay Aboriginal group has targeted the Australian government with a class action lawsuit that alleges irresponsible practices are destroying their livelihoods and their way of life. There is also, Aker says, strong action being taken by Indigenous communities in Michigan in response to the dangerous levels of PFAS in the water there.
“How could you even begin to avoid PFAS when it is everywhere?” Aker asks. “It can be quite overwhelming to the lay public, and that sense of hopelessness makes it easy to give up on something so large.”
A game changer?
Plastics are strongly linked to cancer. They severely impact fertility, metabolism, the endocrine system, and the availability of clean air. Zoë Carpenter explains in the The Story of Plastic, that while “the industry likes to talk about all the advanced products and lifesaving devices plastics contribute to… the bulk of demand for plastic right now is packaging, pieces of plastic that will get used once and thrown away and never used again.”
When the thing we use to control contamination is exposed as a major source of contamination, what recourse do we have?
Making industry monitor and report potential harms hasn’t proven to be sufficient. The United Nations Environment Programme’s draft report, “Global governance of plastics and associated chemicals,” points out that the regulation of Bisphenol A or BPA led to the “substitution… of Bisphenol S (BPS),” which is likely just as harmful as BPA. Knowledge of BPA’s toxic effects led Canada to ban its use in baby bottles and plastic packaging for infant formula in 2010. The issue, though, is that BPA—one of “the highest-volume chemicals produced worldwide”—is still used in many products. In fact, the amount of BPA in the bodies of Canadians has measurably increased since the ban. Liboiron notes that the “remarkably high presence [of BPA in bodies] means that people are continuously exposed to the chemical,” since it “is metabolized and flushed out of the body in about six hours.”
The UNEP report cites the Montréal Protocol as a model of the kind of international coordination that could preserve Earth’s ecosystems. The protocol mandates that developed countries phase out hydrofluorocarbons and other harmful greenhouse gasses in an effort to prevent and reverse the depletion of the ozone layer. The protocol also offers a framework for phasing out plastics by using the same sort of “licensing systems” that “have proven useful for tracking trade of ozone-depleting substances.”
This could be a game changer for the regulation of the plastics industry because, at the moment, “monitoring and reporting are fragmented at the global, regional, and national levels” and do not force industry to comply with “global goals and targets.”
Plastics and the climate
Fossil fuels and plastics are intertwined. King believes that “the more that we connect plastic to oil, and plastic to the harms of oil production and oil spills and chemical spills, the more people will realize that this is more than a waste and a plastic pollution problem. It’s… a social and environmental crisis that goes all the way back to our overall economic system.”
Deadly clouds created by incinerating vinyl chloride, a key ingredient in PVC, have just poisoned residents of three US states in the aftermath of the derailment of Norfolk Southern’s 150-car “bomb train” in East Palestine, Ohio—a disaster that triggers flashbacks to the 2013 tragedy in Lac-Mégantic and the 1979 train accident in Mississauga. As the effects of neoliberal deregulation cut a destructive path through neighbourhoods closer and closer to home, those in the affluent Global North are starting to sense the hazards of a volatile oil economy.
From upstream origin to final destination, plastics account for around 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year, which could reach “1.34 gigatonnes per year by 2030, the equivalent of 295 500-megawatt coal plants.”
Plastics are now a global industry worth $522.6 billion. That revenue is predicted to double by 2040 unless an immediate course correction takes place to stop the flooding of the natural environment with this form of waste that forces people globally to cope with environmental disasters like toxic fly ash from incineration, a method used in too many places to generate electricity, despite it being “a significantly dirtier source of energy than coal and oil.”
The expansion of fracking as a source of cheap natural gas is making matters worse by supplying industry with a massive amount of ethane, a fracking byproduct and feedstock for plastics.
It should be painfully clear that the federal government is failing to take the need for a transition to renewable energy and reusable products seriously. And considering the ways that fossil fuel companies are doubling down on the plastics market as a way to make money from waste, it is hard to imagine a revolutionary response to plastics pollution emerging in Canada without coordinated pressure from organizations like Friends of the Earth, Toronto Environmental Alliance, Oceana Canada, Greenpeace Canada, The David Suzuki Foundation, and Environmental Defence, combined with the spread of anti-plastic norms. For King, this is about building a “counter-lobby” to oppose the power of Big Oil and Big Plastic, a movement that creates strong alliances between segments of the environmental movement.
Scott Stoneman teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Kjipuktuk (Halifax).