Everything You Need To Know About Canada’s Proposed Single-Use Plastics Ban

Here’s what it will include—and when it will come into effect.

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Many multicoloured plastic bags grouped together against a neutral background.

(Photo: iStock)

On June 10, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a proposed federal ban of “harmful” single-use plastics which could come into effect as early as 2021. With this announcement, Canada joins a growing list of countries that are taking steps to reduce the use of plastics.

Here is everything you need to know about the proposed ban on single-use plastics.

What are single-use plastics and why are they being banned?

Single-use plastics are, as their name implies, plastic products that are designed to be used once and then disposed of. (And yes, if you want to get really technical about it, you can wash and re-use some single-use plastics—like water bottles, and cutlery—but the fact is most people don’t.)

Less than 10 percent of plastic used in Canada gets recycled. These unrecycled plastics live in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and, because they don’t decompose, they break down into tiny particles (known as microplastics) which we (or other animals) ingest through our food and water. Banning single-use plastics will cut down on plastic pollution and microplastics.

By banning single-use plastics, Canada will move towards what economists call a “circular economy.” That is, making products designed to be reused—instead of thrown away. Moving towards a circular economy will get Canada closer to an aspirational goal of zero waste.

What exactly is being banned?

Nothing is going to be banned immediately—the process to ban or limit a product federally usually takes two to four years—but the federal government’s goal is to have decisions on which products to ban by 2021. Though there isn’t yet a comprehensive list of targeted items—the Trudeau government says it wants to consult with businesses, scientists and the other levels of government first—the PM’s announcement called out a few items as examples of “harmful” plastics. This list includes grocery bags, straws and stir sticks, and disposable cutlery and plates.

Trudeau has said that Canada’s plan will “closely mirror” the European Union’s. In March, the European Parliament agreed to ban almost a dozen single-use plastics by 2021. The EU’s ban includes single-use cutlery, plates, straws, ear swabs, plastic balloon sticks and drink stirrers. The Canadian plan will likely include those items as well.

What other places (besides the EU) are banning plastics?

In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags. Last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his intention to eliminate single-use plastics nation-wide by 2022; a host of Indian states and cities have already instituted their own bans. Since 2017, Kenya has had the strictest plastic bag ban in the world: anyone selling, producing or using plastic bags will risk imprisonment of up to four years or fines of $40,000. Single-use plastic bags have also been banned in New Zealand as of July 1, 2019.

There have also been smaller-scale bans proposed. Plastic bans have been implemented and experimented with in cities like Seattle, Boston, Washington, D.C. and San Diego, as well as U.S. states like Vermont, California, Maryland and Maine.

In Canada, Montreal banned plastic bags in 2018, but the ban has reportedly been ignored. PEI’s Plastic Bag Reduction Act, which prohibits businesses from providing plastic bags to customers, came into effect on July 1, 2019. Vancouver also proposed its own ban, which was set to take effect on June 1, but postponed it last April until 2020. Tofino and Ucluelet, B.C. launched their own ban in June. 

What have the responses to Trudeau’s proposal been like?

The single-use plastics ban has been welcomed by environmental groups, but the federal Conservatives have excluded the proposed ban from their 60-page climate plan. As well, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business called for an assessment to determine whether banning single-use plastics will hurt small businesses.

The proposed ban on single-use plastics also has a number of First Nations groups with long-term drinking water advisories who rely on plastic water bottles concerned about how the ban will affect them.

As well, people with disabilities say that a ban on single-use plastics, in particular, a ban on plastic straws, would leave those with limited mobility without a better alternative. Rather than a complete ban on items like plastic straws that some people with disabilities need, some have called on restaurant owners and other places that serve drinks to be able to continue stocking plastic straws so that people who ask for them will still be able to access them.

Studies have found that consumers are also concerned about the extra cost associated with packaging made from biodegradable materials. Though most believe that plastic packaging should be replaced by green alternatives, the higher price tag associated discourages consumers from jumping on board completely—only 37.7 percent of those studied are willing to pay more for bio-degradable packaging, though 71 percent support a single-use plastics ban.

How can I cut down on my single-plastics use before the ban starts?

There are still lots of questions surrounding the proposed ban, and lots of uncertainty: because it wouldn’t come onto effect for two years (at least!), there’s the possibility that it could be reversed if the Liberals lose the federal election this October.

The best solution to cutting down on single-use plastics before the ban starts is BYO—bring your own. Tote your own bag, reusable cutlery, takeout container, coffee cup (yes, those disposable cups are lined with plastic, and are hard to recycle), and jar for bulk food stores.