On a global scale, less than 10 percent of plastics are recycled. Plastics are ubiquitous, meaning regulating its use is especially complex. While Canada has only banned a half dozen of single-use plastics, the European Union and China are engaged in a holistic multi-year incremental approach to manage plastic production, distribution, consumption, recycling, disposal and substitution. Accordingly, the actions of these latter jurisdictions will influence global innovation and standards. By comparison, Canada’s plastic initiatives are symbolic greenwashing.
In Canada, only nine percent of plastics are presently recycled, while 12 percent are incinerated. The other 79 percent go to landfills. Of the plastic consumed in this country, 50 percent is used for single-use products. What’s more, it is notoriously difficult to recycle plastic, and synthetic polymers can take anywhere from 20 to 1,000 years to break down.
Developing solutions to this problem is a complex endeavour because plastics are ubiquitous. It is not a simple question of banning single-use plastic bags and a handful of other items. Plastics can be found in seemingly infinite numbers in our homes, offices, vehicles and innumerable other places. It is also a prime material in medical equipment. Moreover, there isn’t any ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula to address this challenge—one that is inextricably tied up in the ongoing climate emergency.
Recognizing this, the European Union and China are already engaged in a lengthy step-by-step process to establish a circular economy and a holistic model for plastic products that comprises timelines for a management system for plastic production, distribution, consumption, recycling, disposal and substitution.
By comparison, the announcement made on October 7 by the Government of Canada, promising a small list of single-use plastic restrictions, falls far short of a veritable plastics strategy.
With this policy, Canada has made a small step in the right direction, but it is not a game-changer. Many of the changes announced will come about anyway, because global product development and innovation will be geared to comply with the rules enacted elsewhere.
The federal announcement refers to banning certain single-use products by 2021, including grocery checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, plastic cutlery, and food takeout containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics (like black plastic packaging and polystyrene). It excludes non-grocery bags, food packaging, plastic cups and lids, and personal protective equipment, such as masks, along with other equipment used in medical facilities.
Nothing has been said about plastic water bottles.
This Canadian plan leaves a gaping hole, excluding all the steps, in between 2021 and 2030, for arriving at a circular economy model (designed to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources). For now, there are just some creatively ambiguous statements about working with grocers, industry leaders and provinces and territories to ensure more plastic is recycled with the help of guidelines and related tools to assist companies.
Aaron Henry of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce noted the absence in the federal announcement about critical infrastructure and policies necessary to accommodate recycling and other environmental benefits. He expressed concern about the government’s “fragmented approaches to disposing consumer products.”
Reducing plastic waste: A look at Canadian municipal and provincial initiatives
Canadian municipalities including Vancouver and Montreal have already adopted restrictions on plastic waste. The City of Toronto had approved a plastic bag ban in 2009 to become effective January 2013, but the Rob Ford administration reversed the decision in November 2012. Victoria had a ban until it was quashed by the BC Court of Appeal in 2019.
Elsewhere, in January 2020 the Government of Québec announced that the collection of recyclable products will be the responsibility of the private sector, from the manufacturer to the retailer.
Beginning in 2022, all liquid containers and bottles, glass, metal, and cartons, from 100 millilitres to two litres in volume, will be the object of an incrementally introduced deposit systems ($0.25 for liquor bottles and $0.10 for all other bottles). For products for which recycling deposits apply, the private sector must assure that 75 percent of these products are recycled by 2025 and 90 percent by 2030. The deposits will finance the system, but the collection approach is not well-defined, other than specifying retailers will have to play a major role and that a network of 400 deposit centres will be deployed. The private sector must submit a plan in the upcoming year to outline how this will all work. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) products—the most common thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family used in fibres for clothing and containers for liquids and foods—are not included.
EU and China determined to change the global plastic paradigm
China terminated importing plastic for recycling as of January 1, 2018. This has translated in the piling up of plastic materials at recycling facilities around the world, Canada included, because of inadequate investments in domestic recycling infrastructure for plastic materials. The Chinese plastic import ban immediately became an international problem. Shockingly, prior to the ban, two-thirds of the United Kingdom’s plastic waste had been going to China since 2012.
This has spurred the following changes in Europe and China.
The European Parliament has been working on incrementally approving bans since 2018. This first round comprised bans on OXO-degradable plastic such as bags as well as plastic cutlery, straws, stir sticks, polystyrene including food containers and cups made of expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam), cotton swabs and other single-use items, to take effect in 2021.
In 2019, the European Council and Parliament directive for single use PET was approved, requiring that plastic bottles comprise at least 25 and 30 percent of recycled plastic, rPET, by 2025 and 2030 respectively. This comes with 77 and 90 percent targets set for the collection of bottles by 2025 and 2030, respectively.
To complete the circular economy model, the European Union will require that 100 percent of plastic packaging be recyclable after 2030.
On compliance, Europe is now considering a complementary €800 per tonne penalty for non-recycled plastic waste.
This brings us to China, one of the world’s largest plastic polluters. In January 2020, it unveiled a national plan issued by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment to drastically reduce plastic production and use over the next five years. By 2025, China will have a holistic model for plastic products that comprises step-by-step timelines for all phases of a plastic management system, including producing, distributing, consuming, recycling and disposing of plastic and the advancement of alternative products. This will result in a reduction of single-use plastics by 30 percent in fewer than five years.
Among a vast host of other measures, China has launched mandatory plastic recycling pilot projects in Shanghai and other cities, comprising comprehensive resource utilization facilities to ensure more products are reused. The holistic system will include the production of plastic from medical waste, a ban on polyethylene agricultural film, and requirements that hotels and guesthouses not use plastic wares by 2025. This is in addition to a ban applying to postal services and express outlets regarding non-degradable plastic packaging, plastic tape, and single-use plastic woven bags.
The flipside will come by way of a strategy to encourage alternatives to plastics.
More immediately, under the plan, China will ban single-use plastics bags, straws, foam plastic tableware and plastic swabs by the end of 2020 in all of its major cities. The ban in China will be enacted nationwide two years later. The 2022 ban will include disposable plastic used in e-commerce and require that delivery services in major cities do not use non-degradable packaging.
Chemicals with plastic microbeads are also to be banned China by the end of this year, and a ban on sales of these types of products will come into effect in 2022.
Nevertheless, the plastics sector is doing everything it can to maintain its fantasy of exponential growth. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States.
Fossil fuel sector to increase plastic production to compensate for oil and gas decline
About one in 10 barrels of oil, or 10 million barrels per day, are consumed for petrochemicals, mainly plastic. Hence, plastics are a climate change challenge as well. Since natural gas liquids can reduce plastic manufacturing costs, this fossil fuel is likewise in the portrait of plastic climate impacts. Shale gas is now increasingly favoured for plastics production.
This is the context for a greater interest in plastics by the oil and gas sector. That is, faced with the existing and pending rapid decline of these sectors, particularly associated with renewables and electric vehicles, the oil and gas industry wants to exponentially increase its output of plastics.
Accordingly, the sector is now betting on US$400 billon in planned investments for new petrochemical production capacity around the world. ExxonMobil has indicated the growth of the petrochemical sector would compensate for the inevitable falling demand for oil attributable to electric vehicles.
The increase in the production of virgin plastic will further accentuate a decline in its price, thus making the economics of plastic recycling less compelling. To compete, the price of recycled plastic has already dropped and may fall more.
But even before the European and Chinese plastics revolution gets in gear, it appears the plastics salvation strategy of the oil and gas industry is already off-track. The Carbon Tracker report, The Future’s Not in Plastic, refers to a Wood Mackenzie projection of a four percent drop in plastic demand in 2020.
Pyrrhic victory in Canada and the United States
In Canada and the US, it is clear that the powerful lobbies of the oil and gas majors and the petrochemical sector have won, but only for now.
In the US, subject to the intense pressure of the American Chemistry Council to remove regulations on banning plastics, only California, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii and Oregon have adopted different versions of state-wide bans on single-use plastics (and about 400 American cities have plastic restrictions).
The Liberal Party of Canada likely ceded to the Canadian divisions of the same US lobbies.
The actions taken by Europe and China will plummet global demand for petrochemical production. The technological and economic paradigms in these countries will no doubt spread to the rest of the globe while encouraging Canada to do a lot better than its recent plastics proposal.
In the event Democratic nominee Joe Biden is elected in the upcoming presidential election, the pressure will be on the US to, at the very least, align legislation policies and innovation with that of Europe and China.
To its credit, some stakeholders in the petrochemical sector may be at the cusp of having doubts about the prospects for market expansion.
In June 2020, BP announced it was selling its petrochemical division.
Then, in September 2020, Saudi Aramco cancelled plans for a $20 billion petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia and indicated it is reassessing its plans to purchase a gas export facility in Texas.
It appears recent global and Canadian sustainable development histories are already repeating themselves.
Due to stringent vehicle legislation in the European Union and China, global automakers are investing billions in a massive rapid transition to electric vehicles. In 2019 alone, European automakers invested US$70 billion in electric vehicles and batteries. Accordingly, Bloomberg New Energy Finance has estimated there will be around 500 electric vehicle models on global markets in 2022.
By contrast, Canada has voluntary sales targets (an oxymoron) for zero-emission vehicles, not a good incentive for encouraging electric vehicle production in Canada. Thus, as with plastics, the EU and China are the global leaders, while Canada remains a clean tech hinterland. To add insult to injury, Joe Biden’s platform includes a plan to increase EV adoption through the production of more made-in-America vehicles.
Will Dubitsky formerly worked on environmental policy, legislation, programs and projects with the Government of Canada. Since retiring in 2012, he has been researching and writing on the transition to a clean economy.