Ottawa’s ban on plastics means more landfill waste, lower air quality, and higher carbon emissions

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s ban is supposed to be based on ‘scientific’ evidence. In fact, the evidence points the other way: his attack on disposable plastic items, like forks and checkout bags, not only won’t reduce pollution, it will mean more pollution. But, for the Liberals, this is progress!

Peter Shawn Tay­lor, National Post, Oct. 12, 2022

You might remember that famous scene from the 1967 movie The Graduate. Dustin Hoffman’s anxious adult-in-waiting Benjamin Braddock is trapped at a dull graduation party when family friend Mr. Mcguire leans in to offer some advice. “I just want to say one word. Just one word. Are you listening?” When Benji assures him that he is, Mr. Mcguire responds, “Plastics.” Waiting a beat, he adds, “There’s a great future in plastics.”

Mr. Mcguire’s unsolicited advice has proven prescient. Plastic is inexpensive, lightweight, flexible, durable, impermeable and sterile. Over the past half-century, Canadians have enjoyed tremendous advances in medical devices, appliances, plumbing, furniture, packaging, food storage and on and on due to plastic’s many advantages. Ours has been the Age of Plastics.

Until now.

In June, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault declared an end to Canada’s love affair with plastic. Citing an ocean pollution crisis, he announced a prohibition on the manufacture of six disposable plastic items by the end of 2022: checkout bags, cutlery, food service containers, six-pack ring carriers, stirrers and straws.

While Guilbeault claims his anti-plastic campaign is based on a foundation of scientific evidence, a close reading of the government’s many reports, guides and analyses tells a different story. Not only will the plastics ban fail to make a dent in pollution, it will make almost everything else worse.

Among the ocean pollution evidence cited is data from Ocean Wise Shoreline Cleanup. This organization’s latest Canadian figures actually show the top shoreline garbage item — by a huge margin — is cigarette butts. The “harmful” six plastic items aren’t even among the top five garbage culprits (the other four being miscellaneous plastic pieces, Styrofoam, food wrappers and bottle caps). Plastic bags and straws are eighth and ninth, respectively, and comprise less than seven per cent of the top ten.

As for terrestrial garbage, Toronto conducts regular litter audits throughout the city and the latest figures shows none of the soonto-be-banned plastic items among the top five items; single-use plastic cutlery comprises a mere 0.5 per cent. This is no surprise. A federally commissioned report reveals that 99 per cent of all plastic waste in Canada is either safely landfilled, recycled or burned for energy.

Idea that plastic is ‘toxic’ is scientifically absurd

And even if Canadians consider that remaining one per cent a problem, waste management is not a federal responsibility. This inconvenient lack of jurisdiction was overcome in 2021 when the Trudeau government controversially declared “plastic manufactured items” to be toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). This means that anything made from plastic — from heart valves to your suitcase handle — now shares a list with asbestos and lead. It is a scientific absurdity.”

This is a waste management issue, not a toxic issue,” declares Steve Barkel, vice-president of Petro Plastics, an Ontario-based bag manufacturer, and lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the federal CEPA declaration. “If plastic manufactured items really were toxic, why do we brush our teeth with plastic toothbrushes?” he asks in an interview. “Why is plastic OK for bread bags? Why are we eating yogurt out of plastic tubs?” All good questions.

Barkel’s plight reveals the economic consequences of Guilbeault’s hasty toxic declaration. Grocery store bags comprise 40 per cent of his business and he expects the ban “will take a big chunk out of everything. We are going to have significant job losses.” In an effort to pivot away from the federally-mandated destruction of his core business, Barkel is now distributing paper and woven fabric bags made in China and Vietnam. “The government is exporting jobs overseas because of this legislation,” he adds.

Whichever way he pivots, it will inevitably cost consumers more. A standard plastic grocery store bag costs four cents and weighs eight grams. Paper bags cost 15 cents and weigh 55 grams, while fabric bags cost up to a dollar each and weigh the same as paper. Similar calculations hold for other banned items soon to be replaced by paper, wood or other materials. Plastic is always cheaper and lighter.

Beyond stoking inflation in the hospitality and retail sectors, heavier plastic-substitutes will also have a significant impact on local garbage disposal budgets. Landfill costs are proportionate to weight and, according to the federal government’s own analysis, “The proposed Regulations would prevent approximately 1.6 million tonnes of plastics from entering the waste stream over the analytical period, but would also add about 3.2 million tonnes of other material … from the use of substitutes.”

Ottawa’s single-use plastics ban — sold as a mighty blow against litter — will thus create twice as much new garbage as it will save. It is likely the worst garbage reduction policy in history.

Ottawa’s single-use plastics ban — sold as a mighty blow against litter — will thus create twice as much new garbage as it will save. It is likely the worst garbage reduction policy in history.

It gets worse. According to a federal cost-benefit study published in the Canada Gazette, the plastic ban promises benefits of $619 million and costs of $1.95 billion, for a net outcome of minus $1.3 billion. As calculated by the bureaucracy itself, the plastic ban is a certifiable failure.

But even this may not be its most harmful effect. According to a Strategic Environmental Assessment, the ban will also worsen a wide range of environmental indicators due to the damage caused by manufacturing replacement products. “Substitutes typically have higher climate change impacts,” the report says, including higher greenhouse gas emissions and lower air quality.

Higher prices. Fewer jobs. More garbage. Increased greenhouse gas emissions. This is what the Liberals call progress.

Peter Shawn Taylor is se­nior fea­tures ed­i­tor of C2Cjour­, where a longer ver­sion of this story first ap­peared.

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