Plastics ban bad for people and the environment, too: Opinion

Turns a small environmental problem into a bigger one

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Elmira Aliakbari and Julio Mejia

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Earlier this month, the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments appeared before the Federal Court of Canada to challenge the federal government’s ban on six types of single-use plastics, which went into effect late last year. Citing an ocean pollution crisis, the government also plans to gradually ban the manufacturing, importation and sale of checkout bags, cutlery, food service ware, stir sticks and straws by 2025, supposedly to improve the environment and deliver economic benefits to Canadians. In reality, the plastics ban is an expensive measure that will create more garbage and impose net economic costs on Canadians.

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Canada contributes an estimated 0.02 per cent of all the plastic that goes into the world’s oceans, nearly 90 per cent of which comes from Asia and Africa, with just five countries — Philippines, India, Malaysia, China and Indonesia — accounting for the majority of it. Eliminating Canada’s plastic waste will therefore have an essentially undetectable impact on ocean plastic pollution.

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Ottawa’s claims to the contrary, Canada is not experiencing a plastic waste crisis. According to the federal government’s own report, 99 per cent of the country’s plastic waste is already disposed of safely through recycling and incinerating and in environmentally friendly landfills. If you’re concerned about the remaining one per cent, it’s worth noting that, again according to the government’s own sources, none of the six types of now-banned single-use plastics are among the top five items found on shorelines. Lost fishing gear, mostly from Asia, remains one of the primary sources of ocean plastic pollution.

In fact, as (again) the federal government’s own analysis acknowledges, banning single-use plastics will actually increase waste generation, not reduce it. While the ban will remove 1.5 million tonnes of plastics from 2023 to 2032, it will almost double that tonnage in substitutes such as paper, wood and aluminum over the same period. That’s right: because of the ban the amount of garbage will go up in Canada.

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To make matters worse, according to the government’s Strategic Environmental Assessment, plastic substitutes “typically have higher climate change impacts,” including higher greenhouse gases (GHG) and lower air quality. According to multiple studies, single-use plastic substitutes such as paper require more energy to transport, are more likely to cause smog formation and ozone depletion, require more water and energy to be produced and result in higher GHG emissions. Simply put, the plastic ban harms, not helps, the environment.

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And that’s not all. According to Ottawa’s own estimates, the ban will save $616 million in clean-up expenses over the next 10 years but will cost around $2 billion over the same period in enforcement, management of the additional waste discussed above and forgone profit opportunities for manufacturers. In other words, the ban’s costs are three times its benefits.

The plastic ban is a costly measure that turns a small environmental problem into a bigger one. If the Trudeau government wants to do something about the small percentage of plastic that escapes into the environment, it should improve co-ordination with municipal waste-handling systems rather than impose and enforce a costly nationwide ban that literally hurts more than it helps.

Elmira Aliakbari and Julio Mejia are analysts at the Fraser Institute.

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