Canadian Science Symposium on Plastics Report

Executive summary

On November 16, 2018, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) brought together federal government representatives and domestic and international academic experts, including participants of the November 15, 2018, Best Brains Exchange on microplasticsFootnote 1 , to inform the development of a domestic science agenda for plastics, in a one-day Canadian Science Symposium on Plastics.
The Canadian Science Symposium on Plastics offered a unique opportunity to identify science priorities regarding plastics waste and its impacts in order to inform a Canada-wide approach to eliminate plastic waste and reduce plastic pollution.

The objectives of the symposium were the identification of:

  1. Science Gaps and Needs: Participants were asked to identify and prioritize key science gaps based on the state of science within the four themes outlined below, and what science is needed to advance policy solutions.
  2. Proposed Activities for Moving Forward: Discussions supported the development of proposals on how to address the aforementioned gaps and needs along the lifecycle of plastics.

The symposium focused on four themes:

  1. Monitoring and Detection of Plastics in the Physical Environment;
  2. Impacts of Plastic Pollution on Wildlife;
  3. Product Design; and,
  4. Waste management, Recovery and Conversion.

The day's activities were structured to maximize participation and development of ideas to meet the objectives:

There was general agreement that a large economic opportunity exists in innovations that keep plastics in the value chain. Participants supported the idea that we cannot wait for our knowledge base to be complete before taking action. In addition, there were recurring mentions of the need for funding to advance research and monitoring in all four thematic areas, as participants underscored the need for investment in science due to many outstanding knowledge gaps.

Standardized methods and monitoring programs were two of the key proposed activities for moving forward in advancing our understanding of plastics impacts in the environment and for human health. In terms of design, it was seen as important to keep in mind the full life cycle, particularly the end of life, for reparability, recyclability, compostability, and energy conversion.

Participants also discussed the global nature of the plastics pollution issue and the importance of learning from and collaborating with the international community.

The symposium was deemed a success by ECCC. Ideas gathered at the Symposium, and from future communications and collaboration, will be used to move forward on a comprehensive Canadian research agenda for plastics pollution.

The table below provides participants' key outputs from the break-out sessions, by theme:

- Break-Out #1: Science Gaps and Needs - Key outputs Break-Out #2: Proposed Activities for Moving Forward  - Key outputs
Theme 1: Monitoring and Detection of Plastics in the Physical
  • Standardized methodologies
  • Improved access to data and collaborative opportunities
  • Greater collaboration and opportunities to advance research and monitoring in a coordinated fashion.
  • Networks for standardized monitoring
Theme 2: Impacts of Plastic Pollution on Wildlife
  • Understanding impacts on the entire food web
  • Monitoring and quantification of exposure
  • Research and monitoring programs at all government levels, and in which stakeholders will take part
  • Vulnerability assessments
Theme 3: Product Design
  • Robust policy and regulatory agenda to focus the research agenda and incentivize innovation
  • Product designed informed by lifecycle analysis
  • Undertake targeted research and innovation on plastic alternatives.
  • Create networks of researchers from all parts of the lifecycle, and between research and industry
Theme 4: Waste management, Recovery and Conversion
  • Research to improve recyclability, conversion and lifecycle analysis
  • Investigate, communicate and implement strategies to influence consumer and business behaviors
  • Create consortia (could be industry-led) to lead on analyses, handling and conversion
  • Smart policy design to support innovation

Introduction

On November 16, 2018, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) brought together domestic and international experts from academia and the federal government, and participants from the November 15, 2018 Best Brains Exchange on microplastics, in a one-day Canadian Science Symposium on Plastics.

Context

Addressing issues surrounding plastic waste is becoming a global priority, and the Government of Canada is actively working to help achieve Canada’s G7 commitments for a future with zero plastic waste. Domestically, the Government of Canada is collaborating with provinces and territories, through the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), to move toward a circular and low carbon economy approach that will keep plastics in our economy and out of the environment.

Science can support decision makers by providing relevant, timely and credible evidence alongside social, economic and political considerations. Scientific research activities are underway by governments, academia, and NGOs in Canada to better understand the movement of plastics in the physical environment, and its impacts on wildlife. In addition, innovative research activities are also taking place across the entire lifecycle of plastics, from product design to end-of-life management, with the aim of reducing plastics waste and the associated impacts.

The Canadian Science Symposium on Plastics offered a unique opportunity to identify science priorities regarding plastics waste and impacts in order to ensure that Canada has the knowledge to support a circular economy and Canada’s Strategy on Zero-Plastic Waste.

Purpose

The purpose of the Canadian Science Symposium on Plastics was to share information and take stock of current areas of scientific research to inform the development of a domestic science agenda for plastics that supports the implementation of a Canada-wide approach to eliminate plastic waste and reduce plastic pollution.

Objectives

The objectives for the day were to fulfil these tasks:Identify

Science Gaps and Needs

Propose Activities for Moving Forward

The symposium focused on four themes:

  1. Monitoring and Detection of Plastics in the Physical Environment
  2. Impacts of Plastic Pollution on Wildlife
  3. Product Design
  4. Waste management, Recovery and Conversion

The prioritized gaps and needs will inform the development of a domestic science agenda for plastics that supports the implementation of a Canada-wide approach to eliminate plastic waste and reduce plastic pollution.

Benefits of the symposium

The symposium was designed to produce multiple outcomes:

  1. Building networks and partnerships: The symposium brought together Canadian scientists from a broad range of interest areas and will help foster collaborative opportunities to deliver on priority science needs and increase efficiency in addressing plastics science.
  2. Informed decision-making: Key takeaways and recommendations from the symposium will help inform decision making on potential policy options and direct concerted science activities and resource allocations.
  3. Support Canada’s domestic and international commitments: Discussions from the symposium will help inform Canada’s position on plastics science needs to support a national approach and support international initiatives, such as the February 2019 meeting with the European Union on science cooperation to address microplastics.
  4. Inform and influence intramural and extramural science activities: A comprehensive internal report of the Symposium will be prepared and made available to federal Departments. A public summary will also be posted on the web and circulated to external participants.

Symposium structure

The Science Symposium was structured to focus on the objectives of supporting participants in identifying science gaps and needs and proposing activities for moving forward. In particular, the day was made up primarily of opportunities for participants to discuss plastics issues, in small groups and in plenary.

The morning began with scene-setting presentations, followed by a panel discussion on the four themes, then a question and answer period. The rest of the day was comprised of two break-out sessions, sharing of break-out outputs in plenary, and concluding remarks.

During the two break-out sessions, participants worked in small groups. They were asked to note individually their ideas, then to discuss and find commonalities among their group. They then put their outputs to paper, and chose the most important. Participants’ top ideas were presented and discussed in plenary.

The panel and break-out session discussions and the written outputs from the small group work form the basis for this high-level report. The written results of the facilitated group work have also been used in this report. Participants are not identified in this report, nor are their comments attributed.

This report includes the following sections:

Note: Plenary discussions #1 and #2 took different formats, which is reflected in this report. In the first plenary, the top two outputs of break-out #1 by theme were presented, followed by a discussion. For the second plenary, the outputs of break-out #2 for each group by theme were presented. The outputs from break-out #1 are found in the appendix.

Setting the scene

The symposium began with a presentation by Helen Ryan, Associate Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Protection Branch, ECCC, providing an overview of the drivers of the Government of Canada’s approach on plastics, giving context to the day’s discussions.

The presentation highlighted the important role Canada has played internationally in plastics, including on science. A key message delivered is that we cannot wait for our knowledge base to be complete before taking action. The need was also emphasized for a multidisciplinary approach, encompassing material and social sciences.

It was communicated that a key area of focus for the Government of Canada is plastics. In particular, there is a drive to decrease marine litter, and that drive can be used as an opportunity to reduce all plastic waste, especially given the large about of terrestrial plastic waste that eventually makes it to the ocean. A key message delivered was that as a nation, we are working toward a circular economy. Increasing awareness and research innovation and shoreline cleanups, all embed in the circular economy we are striving for. We are moving to more sustainable products: reparable, reusable, recyclable.

The Government of Canada has committed by 2030 to a 75% reduction of plastics use by the government. The momentum of interest on plastic pollution is ever increasing: the challenge is to rise to that.

A key point from the Best Brains Exchange from the previous day was re-iterated: that cross-cutting conversations are critical. Also reinforced at the symposium was this sentiment: We can take a precautionary approach, we need to move forward and take action while continuing to pursue science to fill important knowledge gaps.

The need is to keep the value in our economy and out of our environment. Canada was said to be pursuing solutions for plastics all along the value chain, and those solutions will provide a platform for action on the ground.

Panel discussion on themes

The panel discussion provided a concise summary of the state of research in specific fields, with a focus on the state of knowledge in each of the four symposium theme areas, and set the stage for the break-out sessions.

Presentations by panelists

The panel discussion focused on several key questions around emerging opportunities and current key findings, science needs, and what areas of science should be prioritized to inform action. Participants also posed a few questions to the panel. Key messages and themes covered by the panel helped to set the tone for much of the conversation to follow. These were:

Plenary session on break-out discussion #1 (prioritization exercise)

The plenary session to discuss outputs from break-out session #1 began with presenting the top two science gaps and needs by theme, followed by a discussion and ended with a summary of participants’ comments.

For a detailed summary of outputs from this break-out discussion, see the appendix to this report.

Top science gaps and needs

To begin the plenary discussion session, the items below were presented, in response to, Identify and prioritize current and important science gaps and needs in the four themes:

Theme #1: monitoring and detection of plastics in the physical environment

Theme #2: impacts of plastic pollution on wildlife

Theme #3: product design

Theme #4: waste management, recovery and conversion

Discussion and summary

Participants discussion branched into several areas, including better scientific coordination in Canada across all environmental components. Comments also highlighted the benefits of focusing on international collaboration for developing standard methods and shared databases, as well as a “Made in Canada” solution because of our unique national challenges of geography and diverse communities. Within the Canadian context, participants felt we need to remember to include indigenous and other small communities where there may not even be recycling programs, yet others pointed out that if we can make changes in places where the economics are more feasible – our big cities – we will have made a big dent in the problem.

A summary of the discussion was presented:

Plenary session on break-out discussion #2 (proposed activities)

During the plenary on break-out discussion #2, groups presented their ideas. A “what we heard” summary is bellow organized by theme. Ideas are grouped together, in some cases in categories set by the groups during plenary, and in others formulated to organize this report..

Below are the proposed activities, as reported during the session, grouped by theme, and then into categories.

Proposed activities for moving forward

To begin the plenary discussion session, groups presented their outputs in response to: Convert gaps and needs into proposed activities for moving forward that will inform development of a domestic science agenda to support Canada’s plastics approach:

Theme #1: monitoring and detection of plastics in the physical environment

Convert gaps and needs into proposed activities for moving forward that will inform development of a domestic science agenda to support Canada’s plastics approach, in the area of monitoring and detection of plastics in the physical environment:

Opportunities for research and monitoring
Standardized Methods
Science Policy initiatives
Coordinate research and share data
Set up standardized monitoring programs

Theme #2: impacts of plastic pollution on wildlife

Convert gaps and needs into proposed activities for moving forward that will inform development of a domestic science agenda to support Canada’s plastics approach, in the area of impacts of plastic pollution on wildlife:

Short-term activities
Medium term activities
Long-term activities
Leadership
Other

Theme #3: product design

Convert gaps and needs into proposed activities for moving forward that will inform development of a domestic science agenda to support Canada’s plastics approach, in the area of product design:

Smart plastics
Networks
Policy tools to support innovation
Behaviour

Theme #4: waste management, recovery and conversion

collaboration/consortia
Waste handling
Science-policy interface
Design and lifecycle analysis

Closing remarks and next steps

Nancy Hamzawi, Assistant Deputy Minister, Science and Technology Branch, ECCC thanked participants for the energy – creative and innovative – that they put into the day, and stated that participants’ ideas and future communications and collaboration will be used to move forward on a comprehensive Canadian research agenda for plastics pollution.

Key findings

Canadian Science Symposium on Plastics was well attended by academics from multiple regions across Canada and internationally, and by federal government representatives. A diverse range of perspectives was represented, covering the full life cycle of plastics; from design to presence of plastics in the environment, and from ecological impacts to recycling and diversion. Participants came together to work deliberately across disciplines and sectors to move science forward in response to commitments made under Canada’s G7 Presidency. A key direction provided to participants was to think big and think outside the box.

An ECCC representative gave a Scene-Setting Presentation that outlined the broad policy context to provide framing for the day’s discussions. The presentation highlighted the important role Canada has played internationally, including on science. A key message delivered, that was echoed later in the panel discussion is that we cannot wait for our knowledge base to be complete before taking action. The need was also emphasized for a multidisciplinary approach, encompassing material and social sciences.

Key messages from the day:

Appendix: outputs from break-out discussion #1

Below are the outputs from break-out discussion #1, in response to:

Identify and prioritize key science gaps based on the state of science within the four themes outlined below, and what science is needed to advance policy solutions.

Outputs were taken from written notes of participants and facilitators. Responses are organized by theme, and have been grouped into categories and duplications omitted.

Theme #1: monitoring and detection of plastics in the physical environment

Identify and prioritize key science gaps based on the state of science and what science is needed to advance policy solutions, in the area of monitoring and detection of plastics in the physical environment:

Standardized methodologies

Improved access to data and collaborative opportunities

Tracking pathways in the environment/ecosystems

Monitoring programs

Other identified gaps and needs

Theme #2: impacts of plastic pollution on wildlife

Identify and prioritize key science gaps based on the state of science and what science is needed to advance policy solutions, in the area of impacts of plastic pollution on wildlife:

Understanding impacts on the entire food web

Monitoring and quantification of exposure

Theme #3: product design

Identify and prioritize key science gaps based on the state of science and what science is needed to advance policy solutions, in the area of product design:

Clear vision and leadership on policy direction

Application of life cycle end design principles

Innovations in materials

Standardized methodologies

Theme #4: waste management, recovery and conversion

Identify and prioritize key science gaps based on the state of science and what science is needed to advance policy solutions, in the area of waste management, recover and conversion: Policy and communication

Application of life cycle end design principles

Waste prevention and minimization

Avoid plastic waste in the environment

Producer and user responsibility

Lower Environmental Impact

Measuring and monitoring

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