Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government will work towards banning many single-use plastics starting in 2021. The list of banned items is currently in progress, however many expect it will include plastic bags, takeaway containers, cutlery, and straws. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has cited images of injured or killed marine wildlife due to plastic in our oceans. 

Unfortunately, a ban on single-use plastics does almost nothing for the issue of plastics impacting ocean marine life, and does very little in terms of environmental impact. 

Canadians are not significant polluters when it comes to marine litter. Up to 95% of all plastic found in the world’s oceans comes from just 10 source rivers, which are all in the developing world. Canada on average, contributes less than 0.01 MT (millions of metric tonnes) of mismanaged plastic waste. In contrast, countries like Indonesia and the Philippines contribute 10.1% and 5.9% of the world’s mismanaged plastic. China, the world’s largest plastics polluter, accounts for 27.7% of the worlds mismanaged plastic. 

Proponents argue that we should support the ban on the basis of trying to curb climate change. However, banning plastics doesn’t necessarily mean better environment outcomes, some alternative products have significantly higher total environmental impact. 

Denmark’s Ministry of the Environment sought to compare the total impact of plastic bags to their reusable counterparts. The Danes found that alternatives to plastic bags came with significant negative externalities. For example, common paper bag replacements needed to be reused 43 times to have the same total impact as a plastic bag. A conventional cotton bag alternative needed to be used over 7,100 times to equal a plastic bag, while an organic cotton bag had to be reused over 20,000 times. We know from consumer usage patterns that the likelihood of paper or cotton alternatives being used in such a way is incredibly unlikely. These results were also largely confirmed with the U.K. government’s own life-cycle assessment.

A Dalhousie University study showed us that 89% of Canadians are in support of legislation to limit plastics. However, that same study also showed that 83% of Canadians were not willing to pay more than 2.5% higher prices for goods as a result of plastic regulations. This creates a significant problem for Trudeau’s ban, because higher prices are exactly what we’d see.

There are alternative solutions. First, we could focus more strictly on limiting how plastics end up in our rivers, lakes and streams. Better recycling programs and stricter littering prohibitions could go a long way to curbing the plastic Canada does contribute. For those single-use products that otherwise end up in landfills, we could follow Sweden’s lead, and incinerate that waste. Doing so creates a power source for local communities, while capturing airborne toxins, limiting toxic runoff, and significantly reducing the volume of waste.

This special report to the Financial Post was written by David Clement, the North American Affairs Manager with the Consumer Choice Center. Source: Financial Post