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Policy Makers Should be Cautious with Plastic Regulations


David McLean

A year back my nine-year-old son came home from school and told me about his new passion – saving sea turtles. Specifically, he explained, sea turtles were being discovered with plastic straws stuck in their noses and that plastic waste is destroying their ocean habitat.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t seen the infamous viral video of the distressed turtle and countless others like it. It’s hard to watch – and that’s what makes it a powerful tool for those fighting for tougher rules on plastic use. For at least a decade we’ve been warned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a drifting, whirling mass of plastic debris estimated to weigh 73,000 tonnes.

Concern about plastics and how humans manage them has reached the point of no return for policy makers. A recent survey in the United States suggests that Americans are more concerned about ocean plastics than they are about climate change. It’s rare for any environmental issue to be this high profile and, when it happens, it sets the stage for some wonky policy choices.

The Trudeau government, naturally, has long signaled its intent to address Canada’s role in plastic pollution. It began with the release of a discussion paper as part of a plan to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. It proposes banning six items: plastic checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings and food ware made from hard-to-recycle plastics.

Canadians may dislike banning some of these things, but this won’t keep too many CEOs up at night. Where this goes in the future is the problem. The government has also signaled its intention to add “plastic manufactured items” to schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. That would mean plastic would join asbestos and mercury on Canada’s toxic substances list. This is huge.

Plastic cutlery and six-pack rings are an issue but consider the importance of plastics in manufacturing – particularly in the supply chain. Edmonton exporters use plastics to wrap, bind and secure products for shipment around the world. I had one Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters member tell me they may have to hire a full-time person simply to manage plastics. For a small business, this represents a massive hit that competitors around the world don’t necessarily face.

While Canada is not the culprit when it comes to ocean plastics – we rank 187 out of 192 countries when it comes to leaking plastics into our oceans – we must do a better job of managing plastics waste. According to the Chemistry Industry of Canada, 86 per cent of plastic waste winds up in landfills, rather than being recycled. They estimate the cost of not recycling that waste is nearly $8 billion per year. Manufacturers want to use less plastic and their want to support their customers’ commitment to improving environmental performance.

Everyone is on board with reducing reliance on plastics, but the feds and the provinces should work together to develop policies that help Canadians reduce and reuse plastics over a reasonable timeframe and avoid making hasty, social media-driven policy decisions that may have far-reaching economic implications.

Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) is the voice of Canadian manufacturing. CME represents more than 2,500 companies who account for an estimated 82 per cent of manufacturing output and 90 per cent of Canada’s exports.