Canada’s single-use plastic ban – boasts reducing waste by 1.6 million tonnes but risks adding 3.2 million tonnes back
By Refresh PackagingRecycling Sustainability
Along with banning harmful single-use plastic checkout bags, the federal government is also banning certified compostable bags in the same form.
The Federal Government of Canada announced legislation on Monday banning the sale and use of six single-use plastic items. Though the effort is admirable and the reduction of harmful single-use plastics is certainly worth supporting, the proposed legislation has some serious flaws, and runs the risk of creating a bigger pollution problem in the end in its current form.
In the federal government’s own words, “The proposed Regulations would prevent approximately 1.6 million tonnes of plastics from entering the waste stream over the analytical period, but would also add about 3.2 million tonnes of other materials to the waste stream from the use of substitutes, due to their increased unit weights relative to SUPs [single-use plastics]. This increase in tonnage of waste would represent additional costs for Municipalities and Provincial authorities, as they are usually responsible for managing the collection, transportation, and landfilling of plastic waste, and would assume most of the associated costs, which would ultimately be passed on to taxpayers.”
This is a terrifying prospect. The major reason why we risk adding more waste to the waste stream than what is diverted is due to the additional material of alternatives that are being allowed to replace the single-use plastics banned (for example, reusable and paper bags).
The government’s number one misstep is that, along with banning harmful single-use plastic checkout bags, they are also banning certified compostable bags in the same form – Science has proven these are the most eco-friendly option available when looking at the entire life cycle of a bag – in anything less than a utopian scenario and the certifications they carry help back this up.
According to a study published in 2018 by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, “Overall, light carrier bags such as LDPE, paper and biopolymer were the carrier bag alternatives that provided the lowest environmental impacts in order to provide for the function expressed in the functional unit of this LCA. Heavier multiple-use carrier bags such as composite and cotton bags obtain the highest environmental impacts across all impact categories.”
Backed by worldwide peer-reviewed studies, certified compostable bags have proven to break down in the natural environment in some cases within just a few months. Certified compostable bags’ incredibly short life-span eliminates the concern for marine contamination as they have proven to dissolve in only 3 months. Wind blown litter is less concerning with compostables than their traditional plastic counterparts as they will decompose; heck, they start doing it right in your cupboard with their short 12 month shelf life. If this environmental pollution is the major concern, what do you think will happen to a reusable bag if it gets loose in the environment? We are going to go from seeing countless plastic bags littering beaches and oceans to heavier reusable bags polluting them instead.
Additionally, unless reusable bags are washed frequently, they become extremely unsanitary. This could pose a huge safety risk not only to store employees, but to the holder of the bag. After the last 2 years of battling a worldwide pandemic, we have been reminded of just how important keeping viruses and bacteria under control really is.
Certified compostable bags are a much more cost-effective alternative for both the retailer and the consumer than paper or reusable bags, and they degrade into healthy biomass right along with your food scraps, creating a resource instead of waste. Countries like Italy have successfully reduced harmful single-use plastic bags by banning them and allowing certified compostables to be the alternative. In the UK, major brands like Co-op have chosen to switch from plastic to certified compostable bags after a brief experiment with reusable bags revealed that they actually resulted in an increase in the volume of plastic being produced and added to the environment. Just like the Federal Government of Canada has predicted in their statement above. If you don’t believe it, you can read the full details of Co-op’s success here: Bag to Rights.
Luckily, the federal government is still allowing certified compostable bin liners, which help with sanitation and organic waste collection among many other benefits. But if the bag happens to look anything like a checkout bag or is used to carry anything other than garbage, even though it is made from the exact same material (again certified compostable), it’s banned. Where is the logic in this? Especially if facilities are obviously working just fine with certified compostable waste bags?
There is concern for the contamination that occurs in composting facilities, however if non-certified compostable products are banned and removed from circulation then this problem disappears without banning certified compostables. “The problem fixes itself when you get rid of the contaminator and leave the product that works and has passed certification to prove they work,” says Christine Reyes, owner and founder of Refresh Packaging. Allowing certified compostable bags in the form of garbage bags means the Government admits they are working and break down properly. Christine also states, “For our products to be certified, they must be tested and prove themselves to break down into healthy biomass in at most 84 days, ours can achieve that in 45 days. We have also worked with independent small composters that can testify on how pleasantly surprised they were to see just how well our bags break down and how clean the biomass is at the end”.
It is also confusing that the government is choosing to allow certified compostable foodware while not allowing certified compostable bags. They are on the right track with banning plastic and oxo-degradable foodware and only allowing certified compostable versions. But these products are actually more difficult for facilities to process than compostable bags. So why would the thicker, tougher-to-break-down compostable material be allowed while the thin, easily-processed bags are not, only when in the form of a shopping bag?
Since a certified compostable bag in any form can double as a waste collector and collect organic waste, these bags also help divert organic waste such as food scraps from landfills to be composted, transforming one of our biggest waste items into a resource. If Canada uses 15 billion bags a year, think about just how much organic waste those bags could collect if they were certified compostable rather than plastic, and how much healthy fertilizer is created as a result? No more recycling problems, no more plastic pollution in a bag form, and if they mistakenly do end up in the natural environment, they will not be a pollutant for generations to come.
This ban is a step in the right direction but the fundamental flaws will only exponentially worsen the outcome it was created to avoid in the first place. If countries like Italy, France and the UK are effectively embracing certified compostables to replace harmful plastics, why can’t Canada? As stated above, the ECCC (Environment and Climate Change Canada) themselves have already recognized this ban could cause bigger waste problems in the end.
Let’s make this single-use plastic ban as successful as possible. If you agree, get involved by signing the “Allow Certified Compostable Bags” petition or contact your local Member of Parliament.
Refresh Packaging is a Calgary-based packaging and container manufacturer.