Single-use Plastics Prohibition Regulations
Key findings from the strategic environmental assessment (SEA) conducted for the Single-use Plastics Prohibition Regulations, as published in Canada Gazette II.
Plastics litter our beaches, parks, streets, shorelines and other places Canadians value. Their harmful impacts on nature and wildlife must be addressed. Eliminating sources of plastic pollution is part of the Government of Canada’s comprehensive agenda to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. On June 10, 2019, the Prime Minister announced the Government’s intention to ban harmful single-use plastics, where warranted and supported by science. This commitment was re-iterated in the December 2019 Mandate Letter of the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, the September 2020 Speech from the Throne, and the Government’s strengthened climate plan, A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy, released in December 2020. The Single-use Plastics Prohibition Regulations (the “Regulations") were enacted under section 93 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 on June 20, 2022. The Regulations prohibit or restrict six categories of single-use plastics: checkout bags, cutlery, foodservice ware made from problematic plastics, ring carriers, stir sticks and straws. The regulations include some exemptions for flexible single use plastic straws so that they can be available for people who require them for health or accessibility reasons.
Statistics Canada data shows that in 2018 only 8% of plastic waste was recycled, while 43,000 tonnes of plastic waste was estimated to have entered the environment as pollution. In addition, 87% of plastic ends up in landfills, representing a lost economic value of billions of dollars. In 2020, the Government of Canada published a Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution (the “Science Assessment”), which found that macroplastic pollution (i.e., plastic pollution greater than 5mm) poses a threat to wildlife through entanglement, ingestion or habitat disruption. The Science Assessment found that action was needed to reduce macroplastics and microplastics that end up in the environment, in accordance with the precautionary principle. The Science Assessment also found that single-use plastics make up the bulk of macroplastics found on shorelines in Canada, and are one of the most common types of macroplastics found on shorelines internationally. The Regulations seek to eliminate or reduce major sources of plastic pollution that pose a threat to wildlife. It is estimated that the Regulations will avoid approximately 22,000 tonnes of plastic pollution over ten years, representing 5% of all plastic pollution generated in Canada.
By eliminating or restricting certain categories of single-use plastics from the Canadian market, the Regulations will induce businesses to switch to alternative products or service delivery models, such as recyclable paper or reusable bags to replace single-use plastic checkout bags. These alternatives come with their own environmental effects, some of which are higher than the single-use plastics being targeted by the Regulations, but most of which are lower. Environment and Climate Change Canada reviewed available lifecycle assessments comparing single-use plastics with alternatives, as well as other sources of evidence such as litter data, peer-reviewed studies, and the Science Assessment, in order to assess the potential environmental effects of the Regulations at each stage in the product lifecycle. It was estimated that:
- Depending on the alternatives used to replace prohibited single-use plastics, the Regulations may cause some negative upstream effects, including those related to climate change, air quality, and water quality, given the different inputs and outputs related to resource extraction, manufacturing, and transport to market of alternatives. However, these effects are difficult to quantify given the inconsistencies in methodologies and parameters used in lifecycle assessments.
- There are unlikely to be significant use stage environmental effects. Reusable alternatives must be washed and therefore consume more water than single-use plastics at this stage, but increases in water usage would likely be minimal as reusable products are expected to be washed alongside other articles. For example, a reusable woven polypropylene bag would be washed alongside clothes in a washing machine, or a reusable metal spoon would be washed alongside other dishes, cups and glasses.
- Downstream effects from the Regulations are expected to be on the whole significant and positive, given the reduction in plastic pollution and consequent reduction in threats posed to wildlife.
The potential negative environmental effects, in particular from the upstream stage, would likely be mitigated to a significant degree by existing or proposed measures and initiatives from federal, provincial and territorial governments. For example, any increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by the manufacture and transportation of heavier alternatives would be mitigated by measures to reduce emissions from the electricity and transportation sectors such as the proposed Clean Fuel Standard, which would reduce emissions from the use of fuel to transport alternatives to market.
The Regulations are expected to contribute to a broad range of the 2019-2022 Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) goals, as well as the United Nations 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):
Effective Action on Climate Change
By eliminating or restricting six categories of single-use plastics from the Canadian market which are difficult to recycle and hamper recycling or wastewater treatment systems, the Regulations may help improve the efficiency of recycling systems, as recyclers will no longer have to deal with plastics that shut down equipment and contaminate bales of post-consumer recycled content. With increased recycling efficiency, GHG emissions can be reduced by displacing virgin resins.
Greening Government and SDG 12- Responsible Consumption and Production
By eliminating many of the most common single-use plastics such as cutlery and straws, the Regulations will help eliminate the unnecessary use of single-use plastics in government operations, meetings and events. The Regulations will also contribute to the SDG 12- Responsible Consumption and Production.
Clean Growth and SDG 12
By ensuring the plastics waste stream will contain fewer items that reduce the efficiency of recycling systems or that cannot be recycled efficiently, the Regulations will help contribute to the objectives of the Canada-wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste, which aims to move Canada towards a circular economy that keeps plastics in the economy and out of the environment. The Regulations will also contribute to the SDG 12- Responsible Consumption and Production.
Healthy Coasts and Oceans and SDG 14- Life Below Water
By prohibiting or restricting the six categories of single-use plastic items that are all prevalent in the marine environment and are major sources of pollution, the Regulations will help keep coasts and oceans clean. The Regulations will also contribute to the SDG 14- Life Below Water.
Pristine Lakes and Rivers and SDG 6- Clean Water and Sanitation
By eliminating or restricting several major sources of freshwater plastic pollution that are prevalent in the freshwater environment or at risk of entering the freshwater environment, the Regulations will support the goal of pristine lakes and rivers. The Regulations will also contribute to the SDG 6- Clean Water and Sanitation.
Healthy Wildlife Populations and SDG 15- Life on Land
By eliminating major sources of plastic pollution that pose threats of harm and death to wildlife populations, in particular marine animals and seabirds, the Regulations will help keep wildlife populations healthy. The Regulations will also contribute to the SDG 15- Life on Land.
Clean Drinking Water and SDG 6
By eliminating 5% of all plastic pollution generated in Canada per year, and reducing the overall amount of plastic entering the environment, and which could fragment into secondary microplastics and enter the drinking water supply, the Regulations will help keep drinking water clean. The Regulations will also contribute to the SDG 6- Clean Water and Sanitation.
Connecting Canadians with Nature and SDG 11- Sustainable Cities and Communities
By eliminating some of the major sources of plastic litter, and facilitating access to nature by making litter less prevalent in the natural environment, the Regulations will help connect Canadians with nature. The Regulations may also encourage more sustainable practices while accessing nature, such as bringing reusable cutlery and foodservice ware. Finally, reduced risks of harm to wildlife increases the psychological (i.e., mental health) benefits of being in nature, as these benefits are enhanced in the presence of “charismatic” organisms such as seabirds and turtles. The Regulations will also contribute to the SDG 11- Sustainable Cities and Communities.
Safe and Healthy Communities and SDG 11
By removing many significant sources of plastic litter, the Regulations will help reduce risks of injury to those who clean up litter (e.g., being cut on sharp plastics and exposure to unsanitary items), and facilitate the psychological benefits of being in natural spaces such as parks. The Regulations will also contribute to the SDG 11- Sustainable Cities and Communities.
In terms of Canada’s climate change commitments, the Regulations are part of a comprehensive plan to move towards zero plastic waste and transition to a circular economy for plastics. Overall, achieving zero plastic waste could reduce Canada’s annual GHG emissions by 1.8 megatonnes. The Regulations will contribute to this goal by reducing plastic waste and pollution by 3% and 5%, respectively, as well as by removing many hard-to-recycle plastics from the waste stream. This is expected to improve the efficiency and performance of recycling systems, allowing more and better quality recycled plastic to be used to make new products and packaging. Recycling plastic generates less GHG emissions than producing new plastic – for example, one estimate from a 2019 report commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada suggests that between 1,151-1,890 kgs of GHG emissions are avoided per tonne of plastic recycled over the creation of new plastic, depending on the resin.
The environmental effects of the Regulations are expected to be positive for human health and sustainable economic growth. Plastic litter has been shown to reduce the mental health benefits of being in nature, is a resource burden on local governments, and causes economic harm to industries such as fisheries and tourism. By reducing the amount of plastic pollution generated by approximately 22,000 tonnes over ten years, Canadians will have increased benefits from being in nature, and resources used to collect litter in the environment can be diverted to other causes.
The Government of Canada will continue to monitor key sources of data on plastic pollution, such as shoreline litter cleanups, municipal and provincial litter surveys, and peer-reviewed studies, to ensure implementation of the Regulations supports expected outcomes, including the FSDS goals and targets.
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