Canada banning plastic bags, straws, cutlery and other single-use items by the end of 2021

Under the newly-unveiled list of single-use plastics being banned in Canada, plastic grocery bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and food containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics will be out of use nationwide by the end of 2021.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced the federal government’s next steps towards its plan to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030.

“When a ban comes into effect, your local stores will be providing you with alternatives to these plastic products,” Wilkinson said, adding that he knows it’s hard to come back from a trip to the grocery store without single-use plastic products, especially food packaging, but that “has to change.” 

As first pledged last year, and re-committed in the Liberal’s September throne speech, the government is moving ahead with banning certain “harmful” single-use plastics that are consistently found in the environment and for which there are readily available alternatives, while finding ways to make sure more plastic is recycled. 

Citing the need to consult, the government will be soliciting feedback on a “discussion paper” until Dec. 9. The finalized new regulations wouldn’t come into effect until the end of 2021. 

In the spring, Wilkinson signalled that the ban on single-use plastics may be delayed because of the pandemic. By the summer, a Canadian report found that public support for a crackdown on certain products was dwindling as the majority of those surveyed said they liked the health and safety protections associated with disposable plastics over reusable alternatives. 

Recognizing the ongoing need for single-use plastic personal protective equipment items like face shields, the federal government says the ban will not impact access to PPE, or other plastics used in medical facilities.

However, the government has been discussing the pollution impacts of the increased use of many disposable products during the pandemic and says it’s working with the provinces and territories on plans to properly dispose as much of it as possible.

“We're also investigating solutions to recycle PPE where it is safe to do so, and options to make some of the PPE biodegradable,” Wilkinson said. 

However, due to the pandemic and ongoing health restrictions, many restaurants have had to pivot to take-out meals and are providing customers with plastic cutlery, and it remains to be seen what kind of financial impact this looming ban will have on these businesses.  

The environment minister said the government selected these items because there are already readily-available and affordable alternatives, and that while many items will have to continue to be single-use, they need to be items that can be recycled.

“In the context of takeout, the focus is really on polystyrene which is a very difficult substance to recycle and it is one that we find quite widely in the environment. Many, many of the restaurants that do takeout have already transitioned away from polystyrene to other forms, whether it's cardboard or different forms of paper, which are recyclable,” Wilkinson said. 

“At the end of the day, Canadians expect us as governments to take action on an issue that they know is an important one… and to be honest with you, Canadians are far ahead of their governments on the plastic issue they've been demanding this kind of action for a long time,” he said.  

Already, some business groups are voicing concerns about the difference the ban will make and the “significant costs” some small businesses could be facing.

“Canadian businesses recognize the significant benefits of alternatives to single-use plastics and the importance of bolstering Canada’s circular economy. However, Canada’s approach must go beyond surface issues like bans, to address the critical infrastructure required to deliver on the positive benefits for the environment,” Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s Aaron Henry said in a statement. 

“At present, it remains unclear how this policy will address the current fragmented approaches to disposing consumer products,” Henry said, adding that, at this time when many businesses are counting every dollar, any extra costs could make the difference between staying open and closing for good.

While environmental groups welcomed the news, they are pushing the Liberals to go further with the ban.

“After three years of promising to tackle plastic waste and pollution, and to create a strategy that moves Canada towards zero plastic waste, the federal government has instead continued to largely rely on the recycling myth and the bare minimum ban list,” said Sarah King, head of the oceans and plastics campaign at Greenpeace Canada. 

“The only way to prevent toxic substances from getting into the environment is to ban all of them. The government says it wants to tackle the climate crisis, protect our oceans, and move toward a circular economy, but as long as single-use plastics continue to be produced at current rates, there is no incentive for companies to transition to cleaner and healthier reuse models,” King said. 

NEW RECYCLED CONTENT REQUIREMENTS 

When the ban on single-use plastics was first announced, the federal government said it would be focusing on holding big companies responsible for their plastic production, requiring them to play a part in collecting and recycling their materials. 

Wednesday’s announcement includes a proposal to establish recycled content requirements in products and packaging, which the federal government says will spark investment in recycling infrastructure and innovation in technology to extend the life of plastic materials to keep them in the economy, and out of the environment for longer.

The federal government has a target of at least 50 per cent recycled content in plastic products by 2030.

Under the new regulations the government will require: 

  • A minimum percentage of recycled content;
  • rules for measuring and evaluating the amount of recycled content; and
  • guidelines and related tools to help companies meet their requirements.

Wilkinson also pledged $2 million for a zero plastic waste initiative, to go to 14 Canadian-led projects. 

Later this week, the federal government will be publishing a proposed order to add “plastic manufactured items” to the list of regulated products under Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA). Greenhouse gasses is among the items already on that list. 

According to the federal government, Canadians throw away three million tonnes of plastic waste a year, and only nine per cent of that gets recycled, and about one-third of the plastics used in Canada are for single-use or short-lived products and packaging, including up to 15 billion plastic bags used every year and close to 57 million straws used daily.  

The federal New Democrats and Greens said they are supportive of the Liberal’s plan to ban plastics and recycle more, citing it’s something they’ve pushed for some time.

“It doesn't make sense for us to be using plastics, as a throwaway, that will remain in our oceans and on our planet… but we want to see the details,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.               

The federal Conservatives characterized the announcement as “desperate” attempts to keep a campaign promise and raised concerns with the costs to replace some commonly used single-use plastics in settings like long-term care homes.

Similarly, the Alberta government was not impressed with the announcement, despite that government’s stated desire to become a recycling hub. 

“We know that plastics are the foundation of the modern world,” said Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage. “The federal government needs to be working with the provinces, needs to be supporting things like our natural gas vision, and needs to be supporting things like our full lifecycle economy for plastics.”

SIGN UP NOW

Stay up-to-date and in-the-know by subscribing to one of our newsletters