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Canadian Government and Ontario Government Take Action on Plastic Waste

Published on
June 13, 2019

The subject of plastic pollution in the public discourse is as ubiquitous as the challenge itself. Canadians and other global citizens have recognized that the lifecycle impact of plastic materials on our natural environment is a growing concern and are increasingly leaning on governments to demonstrate leadership in tackling this issue.

During Canada’s 2018 G7 Presidency the federal government led an international initiative to address marine plastic litter culminating in the development of the Ocean Plastics Charter, which commits to moving towards a more resource-efficient and sustainable approach to the management of plastics. The Ocean Plastics Charter was initially signed by Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the European Union. It has since been signed by Jamaica, Kenya, the Marshall Islands, Norway, Mexico, the Netherlands, and others, as well as by notable corporate leaders including Coca-Cola, IKEA, and Unilever.

The Government of Ontario has also recognized the significance of plastic pollution and the necessity of addressing it as part of its overall environmental strategy. “Preserving and Protecting our Environment for Future Generations: A Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan” was published in November 2018 and proposes specific actions to reduce plastic waste, including collaborating with other levels of government on a plastics strategy. The provincial government also released “Reducing Litter and Waste in Our Communities: Discussion Paper” for public comment this past March, which provides additional proposals that the government is considering to reduce the amount of plastic waste going into landfills or waterways.

Over the last several days we have seen announcements made by both governments pertaining to plastic waste. Below is an overview of these actions and what they mean moving forward.  

Federal Action

On June 10, the one-year anniversary of the Ocean Plastics Charter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the Government of Canada will take steps to reduce Canada’s plastic waste and promote the use of affordable and safe alternatives, including the banning of harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021, should a Liberal government be re-elected. Key elements of the proposal are as follows.

1. Ban of Harmful Single-use Plastics

Banning harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021, under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), and taking other steps to reduce plastic waste where supported by scientific evidence and when warranted.

According to Sean Casey, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, the federal government plans to implement benchmarks over time with a schedule for provinces to meet. Each province is to create their own plan on how to meet the targets. In explaining how this may work during an interview on CBC’s Power & Politics, Mr. Casey noted the following possible target: “To have a 25% reduction over 2014 levels by 2025, 30% by 2030, and 50% by 2040.”

The ban would reduce pollution from single-use plastic products and packaging – such as shopping bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks – that science indicates are harmful to the environment and human health, where warranted. The specific products and measures included in the ban will be determined following a State of the Science assessment on plastic pollution in the environment, which is already underway and will include a peer review, public consultations, and socio-economic considerations. Additional regulatory actions could include requiring products to contain a set amount of recycled content or to be capable of being recycled or repaired.

CBC News recently reported that four municipalities across Canada have single-use plastic by-laws already in place, including Victoria and Halifax, which have voted to ban plastic bags, and Tofino and Ucluelet, both in BC, which recently banned the sale and use of plastic bags and straws.

2. Introduce Standards & Targets for Extended Producer Responsibility Programs

Ensuring that companies that manufacture plastic products or sell items with plastic packaging are responsible for managing the collection and recycling of their plastic waste.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs are recognized by the federal government as an effective mechanism to support the creation of a circular economy. Under an EPR program, companies making products are responsible for the end-of-life management of their products and packaging. According to the Government of Canada, EPR shifts responsibility upstream in the product life cycle to the producer (i.e. brand owners, first importers or manufacturers) and away from municipalities and general taxpayers.

To date, the concept of EPR has been used to ensure the proper end-of-life management of a broad and growing range of post-consumer products such as batteries, electronic equipment, ozone-depleting substances, paints, pesticide containers, pharmaceuticals, used oil, and used tires. Since its inception in Europe in the early 1990s, EPR and product stewardship initiatives have gained popularity rapidly, with programs in place throughout Europe, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Australia, the United States and Canada.

The Government of Canada will work with provinces and territories, through the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, to support the development of consistent EPR programs across the country. The Government of Canada will also work in collaboration with provinces, territories and industry to set targets for plastics collection, recycling, and recycled content requirements.

3. New Sustainable Fisheries Solutions and Retrieval Support Contribution Program

Working with industry to prevent and retrieve abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear, known as ghost fishing gear – a major contributor to marine plastic debris.

The Government of Canada will work with stakeholders through a new Sustainable Fisheries Solutions and Retrieval Support Contribution Program. The Government will support fish harvesters to acquire new gear technologies to reduce gear loss and take concrete actions to support ghost gear retrieval and responsible disposal. The Government will work with Canadians to reduce the impacts of ghost fishing gear in aquatic ecosystems and keep endangered marine animals safe.

4. Introduce the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge to Invest in New Canadian Technologies

Helping small businesses across the country find new ways to reduce plastic waste and turn waste into valuable resources supporting a circular economy.

Seven challenges have been launched so far under the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge, providing more than $10 million to 18 Canadian small- and medium-sized enterprises. These businesses are working to reduce plastic waste from food packaging, construction waste, marine vessels, and fishing gear. They are also improving plastic recycling through artificial intelligence and refining technologies for bioplastics.

5. Reducing Plastic Waste from Federal Operations

Strengthening policies, requirements, and guidelines that promote sustainable federal government procurement practices.

The Government of Canada has committed to: (1) divert at least 75 per cent of plastic waste from federal operations by 2030; (2) eliminate the unnecessary use of single-use plastic use in government operations, meetings and events, and (3) when procuring products that contain plastics, promote the procurement of sustainable plastic products and the reduction of associated plastic packaging waste. These changes will promote the purchase of goods and services that use reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastics or contain renewable or recycled plastic content.

6. Launching Canada’s Plastics Science Agenda

Accelerating research along the lifecycle of plastics and on the impacts of plastics pollution on humans, wildlife, and the environment.

The Government of Canada will support evidence-based decision-making and innovative approaches to sustainable plastics production, recycling, and recovery. Canada’s Plastics Science Agenda will also identify priority areas for multi-sector research partnerships to help achieve Canada’s zero plastic waste goals.

Next Steps

A government official told the Globe & Mail that the intent is to align with new European Union regulations that are set to come into force in 2021. However, there is much work that must happen between now and the finalization of Canadian regulations.

The Government has been clear that it will not rush the process, which will be science-based and consultative. The Government has also committed to close collaboration with provinces and territories, which is difficult to rush.

A first critical step will be to determine which plastic products can be deemed to be toxic substances on a lifecycle basis. That determination will give the federal government authority to regulate those products under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

A second key work-stream will be engagement with the provinces to set plastic waste reduction targets. This will almost certainly be on the agenda at the next CCME meeting, which will be held on June 27th in Halifax.

The Government appears to acknowledge that progress on this file requires close consultation and partnership with the private sector companies that will be impacted. Minister McKenna has publicly acknowledged that companies will require time to adapt and to figure out alternatives. She has also stressed, however, that a fundamental principle of this effort is to shift the burden of lifecycle plastics management from cities and their recycling programs to the companies that produce the plastic in the first place.  

It is clear that little progress will be made in terms of regulatory design ahead of the federal election on October 21st. If the Liberals win a second mandate it is safe to assume that they will continue to pursue the objectives of this program. If the Liberals lose the election the future for regulatory action is less certain.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said that he is concerned about how the plan might impact businesses, jobs and consumers. He hasn’t, however, gone as far as saying he would refrain from any action, calling instead for more study of the issue. The Conservative position on plastic waste may be clarified during the election campaign or in the Conservative Party Platform expected to be released later this summer.

Provincial Action

On June 7, the Government of Ontario announced the appointment of Mr. David Lindsay as Special Advisor on Recycling and Plastic Waste to the Honourable Rod Phillips, Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks. Mr. Lindsay currently serves as the President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities and has served as a former Deputy Minister in multiple portfolios.

In a mandate letter to Mr. Lindsay, the Minister made note of the province’s stalled diversion rate and the occurrence of plastic litter and waste being shipped overseas as examples of why public policy solutions are needed. The letter requests that Mr. Lindsay assist in putting forth recommendations.

Mr. Lindsay’s role as special advisor has two components: 1) to act as an impartial mediator between producers, municipalities and other affected stakeholders in determining a path forward for transitioning the provincial Blue Box program to a producer responsibility model, and 2) to act as an advisor to the Minister on ways to improve Ontario’s recycling system, ensuring it is more consistent, reliable and cost-effective.

As part of the effort to improve Blue Box recycling and better manage plastic pollution, the Minister has asked that Mr. Lindsay’s work is guided by the following public policy objectives:

  • Standardization across the province of what can be recycled in offices, parks, public spaces and homes;
  • Improve diversion rates and increase what materials can be recycled;
  • Reduce litter and waste in communities and parks;
  • Improve Ontario's Blue Box program by requiring producers to pay for the recycling of the products they produce, through achieving producer responsibility;
  • Maintain or improve frequency of Blue Box collections; and
  • When increasing diversion in the residential sector, consider how these policies can also enable diversion in the institutional, commercial, and industrial sector.

Transitioning Ontario to an EPR/producer responsibility system, whereby producers are operationally and financially responsible for the end-of-life management and resource recovery of their products, is a key tenet of the province’s strategy for managing litter and waste. Producer responsibility as it pertains to the Blue Box program will shift costs for recycling away from municipal taxpayers while also incentivizing industry to take resource recovery obligations into consideration while designing products. The objective is to encourage a reduction in waste or unrecoverable material being put on market leading to less litter and plastic pollution.

The transition towards producer responsibility began with the previous Liberal government who introduced and passed the Waste-Free Ontario Act, 2016 creating the legislative framework for this system. The current Progressive Conservative government reaffirmed their commitment to this strategy by including it in their Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan and by moving forward with key components, including the publication of new draft regulations addressing electronic waste and batteries, and now with the appointment of a mediator on Blue Box.

Analysis & Next Steps

To date, the province has provided direction for the wind-up and transition to producer responsibility for all existing waste diversion programs except for Blue Box, due to its inherent complexities. Funding of the Blue Box system is currently split equally between industry and municipalities. This arrangement makes the transition process complicated and is the primary reason why mediation and additional guidance on strategies for moving forward is required. Having an impartial mediator provide recommendations to the government as it deliberates on the next steps for Blue Box transition should provide assurance to the various parties involved that the approach is fair, reasonable, and transparent.

Minister Phillips has asked Mr. Lindsay to provide him with a report on the outcome of the mediation and recommendations for addressing any other outstanding issues no later than July 30, 2019. After reviewing the report, it is anticipated the province will provide direction to affected stakeholders on the strategy and timeline for transitioning Blue Box to a producer responsibility system.

Going Forward

Sussex will continue to monitor all announcements and ongoing developments with both the federal and provincial government closely and will alert clients proactively. Should you have any questions or would like to discuss further please don’t hesitate to contact your Sussex representative.

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