National Post View: A bad time to introduce a bad ban

Only one per cent of plastic waste in this country ends up in the environment. That the ban on single-use plastic products is being announced in the midst of a pandemic makes it all that much worse

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With COVID-19 infections reaching levels that have not been seen since the height of the first wave in the spring, one would think the Liberals would be singularly focused on managing the pandemic and supporting the economic recovery, not pressing ahead with virtue-signalling environmental policies that will do little to save the planet, but will have an adverse impact on the economy and our battle against the coronavirus. Yet that is exactly what they are doing.

On Wednesday, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced bans on a whole host of single-use plastic products — including grocery bags, straws, stir sticks, cutlery, six-pack rings and certain types of disposable plates and takeout containers — that will come into effect at the end of next year.

Bans on items such as these have been spreading throughout the developed world for over a decade. The common justification is that too much plastic waste ends up in the environment, especially the oceans. And although the huge volumes of plastic floating around Earth’s oceans is a serious issue, Canada is not the source of the problem, and there’s little evidence to suggest that feel-good bans on straws and shopping bags will do anything to mitigate it.

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Canada is not the source of the problem

A 2015 study estimated that eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans every year, a number expected to increase over time. Yet less than one per cent of the plastic in the sea comes from the United States. Add in Canada and western Europe, and it’s still only two per cent.

Over half the floating plastic comes from just five countries — China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. China alone accounts for 30 per cent of the total oceanic plastic. Yet it’s not even clear that China’s own ban on single-use plastics, which was announced in January and will be phased in over the next five years, will have much of an impact.

One of the main problems is that many developing countries have poor waste-management systems. Instead of being recycled or ending up in proper landfills, a lot of garbage in China and other countries is not collected at all, or is sent to open dumps where it can easily get blown or swept away. That’s why wealthier countries like Japan and South Korea end up putting far less plastic into the oceans than many of their neighbours.

A shopper leaves a grocery store in northeast Calgary with his purchases in plastic bags on Oct. 7, 2020. Photo by Gavin Young/Postmedia News

As for Canada, the federal government’s own report estimated that only one per cent of all plastic waste in this country ends up in the environment. And, according to the industry, the single-use plastics that are being banned account for less than one per cent of all the plastics sold in Canada. (Not to mention that the odds of a plastic bag discarded in some place like Regina, whose city council approved its own bag ban back in May, ending up in the ocean is infinitesimally small.)

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Of course, it would be better if the amount of Canadian plastic that ended up in the environment was closer to zero, but it seems like more of an argument for anti-littering campaigns and better waste-management systems than dictating what products consumers and businesses have access to. Indeed, there are many products, such as batteries, that can be harmful to the environment if disposed of improperly. The solution is not to ban all portable electronic devices, but to find proper ways to dispose of the hazardous materials.

And a lot of the items the federal government wants to ban have been incredibly useful throughout this pandemic.

A lot of the items … have been incredibly useful throughout this pandemic

Many supermarkets have forbidden customers from bringing in reusable bags, for example, because they are a potential source of infection, while disposable bags can easily be thrown away after the groceries are unpacked. Grocery delivery services have also been relying on plastic bags.

Likewise, the food-services industry is banking on takeout and delivery orders, for which plastic packages and cutlery come in handy. Some of these items can easily be replaced with ones that meet the approval of the nanny state. Indeed, we’ve already seen many restaurants switch to compostable forks and knives. Others, such as plastic straws, have no good substitutes. Either way, now is not the time to force higher costs on an industry that is barely hanging by a thread.

Anyone who thinks the plastic ban will only affect consumers who hate having their paper straws dissolve in their mouths before they can finish their milkshakes is fooling themselves. There are numerous small- and medium-sized companies in this country that only produce products that will soon be banned. These are jobs that we certainly can’t afford to lose. And the plastics industry is warning that the ban could scare investors away from the petrochemical industry in Alberta, a province that has already been hobbled by the Trudeau government’s environmental policies.

This all amounts to a bad policy that will limit consumer choices and increase costs to businesses and industry, all while failing to meet the objectives for which it was instituted. It would be a bad idea in the best of times. That it is being announced in the middle of a pandemic and could, for all we know, come into effect while we are still dealing with this virus, makes it all that much worse.

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