Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Policy Brief submitted by Toni Steele
In the throne speech delivered by Governor General Julie Payette this September, the Liberal government outlined its intention to ban harmful single-use plastic by 2021 and create more efficient recycling practices (1). Two weeks after the Speech, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson announced the concrete steps they had developed to move Canada towards this goal of greater sustainability (2). These efforts to reduce single-use plastics are the result of growing calls for policymakers to address the three million tonnes of plastic waste that Canadians throw away each year, only nine per cent of which is recycled (3). However, it is crucial to note that while a ban on harmful single-use plastics is a key part of the Liberals’ plan to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030, it is by no means the only strategy that will be employed.
II. Canada’s Partnerships in Achieving Zero Plastic Waste
Canada’s goal to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030 is supported through two key partnerships: the Ocean Plastics Charter and the Canada Wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME). In June 2018, Canada, along with France, Germany, Italy, the U.K. and the EU, adopted the Ocean Plastics Charter with the aim of eradicating plastic pollution through resource-efficient approaches to the management of plastic, including increasing the use of recycled content (4).
Federal, provincial, and territorial governments in Canada have also come together to develop the countrywide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste, an initiative which seeks to transform Canada’s current linear plastics economy into one that is circular (5). Phase one of its Action Plan, released in July 2019, aims to achieve the following: facilitate programs for producer responsibility; develop a roadmap to address the use of single-use plastics; establish national performance requirements; promote incentives for a circular economy; and finally, assess waste management infrastructure needs and develop appropriate tools to address them (6). Phase two, released in July 2020, aims to increase awareness of the need for responsible waste practices; reducing plastic waste generated by aquatic activities; advancing plastics science; and outlining practices for capture and clean-up as part of a global movement towards plastic reduction (7).
Both the CCME’s Strategy and the Ocean Plastics Charter have played a crucial role in shaping the federal government’s plans for achieving zero-plastic waste by 2030. They are also indicative of a growing awareness among policymakers that plastic waste is a multi-faceted global issue requiring dynamic, collaborative solution from governments.
III. Proposed Approach to Eliminating Plastic Waste
The Government of Canada is developing an integrated approach to eliminating single-use plastics, but its ban on harmful single-use plastics is just one part of this approach. This October, Environment and Climate Change Canada released A Proposed Integrated Management Approach to Plastic Products to Prevent Waste and Pollution, a discussion paper which outlines the government’s suggested approach to the management of plastics. Its objectives include eliminating certain sources of plastic pollution; strengthening domestic end- markets for recycled plastics; improving the value recovery of plastic products and packaging; and supporting innovation and the scaling of new technologies (8). These objectives demonstrate that while managing single-use plastics is an important step for the federal government, there are other instruments, such as establishing performance standards and ensuring end-of-life responsibility, that will need to be developed as well. The government has yet to unveil the exact mix of these instruments; however, environmental, economic, distributional, and health considerations will be critical in determining the instruments employed (9).
IV. Current Measures to Eliminate Plastic Waste
Environment and Climate Change Canada, through its Management Framework for Single-Use Plastics, has created a three-step process to evaluate the impacts of single-use plastics and determine what action, if any, is needed to regulate them. This includes categorizing single-use plastics, setting management objectives for these plastics, and choosing the most appropriate instrument to achieve these objectives (10). It is through this process that the Government has determined which single-use plastics should be considered for a ban beginning in 2021. In order for single-use plastic items to be considered for a ban, they must be categorized as both environmentally problematic and value recovery problematic, with scientific research to back such categorizations. However, if single-use plastic items are viewed as performing an essential function, they may be exempt from a ban (11).
Currently, plastic checkout bags, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery, straws and food service ware made from problematic plastics are being considered for a ban. In terms of establishing performance standards, the government has adopted a target of at least 50% recycled content in plastic products by 2030 (12). Additionally, it has been working towards establishing new standards for recycled content in plastic items through the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The federal government is also collaborating with provinces and territories to develop national guidelines that will allow for extended and clear producer responsibility, as outlined in phase one of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment Action Plan (13).
The Government of Canada has heightened its effort to advance an integrated approach to eliminating plastic waste, one that will benefit not only the environment but the economy. As more states face increased pressure to address plastic waste, Canada’s outlined strategies for banning harmful single-use plastic are promising a shift towards eco-efficiency and environmental stewardship for the country.
(1) Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Speech from the throne to open the 43rd session of the Parliament of Canada (Ottawa, 2020), https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/managing-reducing-waste/international-commitments/ocean-plastics-charter.html.
(2) Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, One-Step Closer to Zero Plastic Waste by 2020: News Release (Ottawa, 2020), https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/news/2020/10/canada-one-step-closer-to-zero-plastic-waste-by-2030.html.
(4) Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Ocean Plastics Charter (Ottawa, 2020), https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/managing-reducing-waste/international-commitments/ocean-plastics-charter.html.
(5) Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, Canada-Wide Action Plan on Zero Plastic Waste: Phase 2 (Ottawa, 2020) https://www.ccme.ca/files/Resources/waste/plastics/CCME%20Phase%202%20Action%20Plan_En%20-%20external-Secured.pdf.
(8) Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada. A proposed integrated management approach to plastic products to prevent waste and pollution: Discussion Paper (Ottawa, 2020),