Environmental policy

The Plastics Ban, or How the Trudeau Government Plans to Create More Garbage, Raise Inflation, Boost Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Send Jobs Overseas and Make Everything Else Worse

Peter Shawn Taylor
September 25, 2022
Plenty of new public policies, at least to hear their opponents tell it, are destined to end in calamity or failure. But how many can be proven so based on their proponents’ own evidence? Surely such a thing requires a special, perverse kind of political genius. Peter Shawn Taylor takes a close look at the barrage of official reports and analyses released ahead of the Liberals’ ban on single-use plastic items. It turns out the disappearance of disposable plastic bags, straws and cutlery will not be as easy on the economy – or as good for the environment – as the Trudeau government would have you believe.
Environmental policy

The Plastics Ban, or How the Trudeau Government Plans to Create More Garbage, Raise Inflation, Boost Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Send Jobs Overseas and Make Everything Else Worse

Peter Shawn Taylor
September 25, 2022
Plenty of new public policies, at least to hear their opponents tell it, are destined to end in calamity or failure. But how many can be proven so based on their proponents’ own evidence? Surely such a thing requires a special, perverse kind of political genius. Peter Shawn Taylor takes a close look at the barrage of official reports and analyses released ahead of the Liberals’ ban on single-use plastic items. It turns out the disappearance of disposable plastic bags, straws and cutlery will not be as easy on the economy – or as good for the environment – as the Trudeau government would have you believe.
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In an iconic moment from the 1967 movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s anxious adult-in-waiting Benjamin Braddock finds himself trapped at a dull graduation party put on by his parents. Family friend Mr. McGuire edges onto the scene to offer some advice. After finding a suitably secluded spot, he leans in conspiratorially and whispers, “I just want to say one word. Just one word. Are you listening?” When Hoffman’s character assures him that he is, Mr. McGuire responds dramatically: “Plastics.” Waiting a beat, he adds, “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.”

While the scene is played as a joke – A future in plastics? What could be more boring! – Mr. McGuire’s unsolicited advice proved prescient. Since the dawn of the plastic resin industry in the 1950s, this extraordinary family of products has found a place in nearly every aspect of modern life. Benji would have been wise beyond his years had he gone into plastics in 1967. 

“There’s a great future in plastics”: Mr. McGuire’s advice to Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 movie The Graduate has proven prescient.

Plastic’s unique properties of flexibility, durability, impermeability, sterility and non-conductivity have made it ubiquitously useful. Even better, it’s inexpensive and lightweight. Between 1950 and 2015, worldwide production of plastic items of all kinds grew at an average annual compound rate of 8.4 percent – two-and-a-half times the growth rate of global GDP. During this time, the world has experienced tremendous advances in medical devices, appliances, plumbing, electrical and other building systems, furniture, packaging, food storage and on and on. All due to the myriad benefits of plastic. Plastic bags replaced paper bags at the check-out counter because they’re cheaper, lighter and more durable. Synthetic outerwear has largely replaced less practical wool and cotton. Cars are more fuel-efficient because plastic has replaced heavier metal parts. Even Canada’s paper money has been supplanted by long-lasting polymer bank notes. And today, 3-D printing holds the promise of many more plastic revolutions to come. Ours has been the Age of Plastics.

Until now.

Between 1950 and 2015 global production of plastic items grew by more than twice the rate of global GDP, spurred on by tremendous breakthroughs in the design and production of medical devices, appliances, furniture, packaging, plumbing and countless other areas.

In June, the Justin Trudeau government declared an end to Canada’s love affair with plastic. Citing a global ocean pollution crisis, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced that six disposable plastic products will be prohibited by the end of this year: retail carryout bags, cutlery, food service containers, six-pack ring carriers, stir sticks and straws. “We promised Canadians we would deliver a ban on single-use plastics,” Guilbeault said at the time. “By the end of the year, you won’t be able to manufacture or import these harmful products.” Guilbeault’s characterization of plastic as “harmful” signals a clear break in how we are meant to regard this inert, sanitary and infinitely malleable material. Beware.

The federal Liberals’ policy has been widely cheered across the environmental movement. “Plastics are everywhere. It’s problematic and unnecessary,” says Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada’s oceans and plastics campaign, citing various shoreline littering studies. “As a country with three coasts, Canada is very much involved in the plastics pollution crisis of our oceans.” (Guilbeault was an employee of Greenpeace from 1997 to 2007.) Canada produces more than 3 million tonnes of plastic waste per year, a mere 9 percent of that recycled, King points out in an interview. Among other things, this contributes to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge agglomeration of floating plastic waste created by ocean currents called the North Pacific subtropical gyre between Hawaii and California.

End of an era: In June, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced a prohibition on the manufacture of six single-use plastic items, including checkout bags, cutlery, foodservice containers, six-pack ring carriers, stir sticks and straws due to their “harmful” impact on ocean pollution. (Source of photo: The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot)

While it may seem a dramatic move to outlaw familiar and useful plastic grocery store bags, straws and cutlery, King notes approvingly that the looming ban is only the first stage in a much grander federal strategy to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. “We want to see an expanded ban list,” she declares. “We want to see a phasing down of all plastic production. We want to see caps and production targets. We need to be moving out of the plastics era altogether.”

As eager proponents such as Guilbeault and King tell it, Canada’s anti-plastic campaign is built on a solid foundation of scientific and documentary evidence. In addition to frightening factoids such as King’s 3 million tonnes of annual plastic waste, the government’s June 20, 2022 press release offered a lengthy list of backgrounders, consultations, studies and guides, including a “Science assessment of plastic pollution,” “A proposed integrated management approach to plastic products to prevent waste and pollution” and a “Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement.” All this may seem authoritative on the basis of volume alone. However, a close reading of these documents reveals many surprising and unexpected facts in direct contradiction to the official narrative that Canada will be a better place without so much plastic in our lives.

Delving into the details reveals that eliminating plastic bags, straws, cutlery and so on will do nothing to redress global ocean pollution. It will have an equally negligible effect on terrestrial pollution within Canada. Where it will have a major impact is on your wallet. The replacement of inexpensive plastic items with pricier alternatives will needlessly push up prices for everything from restaurant meals to hotel rooms to basic groceries at time when inflation is rampant. It will also punish many Canadian manufacturers, sending the work they once did overseas. Finally, and most devastatingly – given the Trudeau government’s seeming obsession with fighting climate change – the government itself admits the impending prohibitions will actually increase greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. They will also cause other identifiably negative outcomes, including a greater overall volume of garbage, lower air quality and increased deforestation.

“Canada is very much involved in the plastics pollution crisis of our oceans,” says Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada’s oceans and plastics campaign. (Source: Greenpeace Canada)

By nearly every metric, and according to the federal government’s own published evidence, the single-use plastics ban is set to make almost everything worse. It’s not too late to heed Mr. McGuire’s advice and return to our plastic future.

Waste Not

The federal “Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement” cites numerous sources supporting the allegation that throw-away plastics have an outsized impact on pollution in Canada and around the world. Among the evidence is Ocean Wise Shoreline Cleanup, a volunteer campaign that collects and categorizes litter found on international shorelines. Curiously, however, Ocean Wise’s latest Canadian evidence does little to implicate the six banned items. The number-one shoreline garbage item – by a huge margin – is cigarette butts. The “harmful” six aren’t even among the top five garbage culprits (the other four being plastic pieces, Styrofoam, food wrappers and bottle caps). Plastic bags and straws come eighth and ninth, respectively, and account for a mere 6.5 percent of the total waste produced by the top dozen listed items. Removing them from circulation will have almost no noticeable impact on Canada’s shores or oceans.

As for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, research published this month in the peer-reviewed journal Nature reveals that “a majority of the floating material stems from fishing activities.” This is mostly fishing nets, buoys, tackle and rope. Further, “Most floating plastics in the North Pacific subtropical gyre can be traced back to five industrialized fishing nations.” Those countries are Japan, China, South Korea, the United States and Taiwan. Canada is not on the list. A recent report by the Fraser Institute calculates that Canada contributes between 0.02 percent and 0.03 percent to total global aquatic plastic pollution. “Canada’s actual discharge of plastics into the oceans is trivial,” says author Kenneth P. Green in an interview. “It’s a complete non-issue.”

The messy facts: According to Ocean Wise Shoreline Cleanup’s latest Canadian data (left) the six banned single-use plastic items are not among the top five sources of shoreline garbage; as for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (right) Canada is not even mentioned in recent research on its causes. (Sources: (table) Ocean Wise Shoreline Cleanup; (photo) Fedde Poppenk)

The story on land is much the same as on water. While plastic bags, straws and food-service containers are often top-of-mind in litter discussions, the facts tell a different story. Toronto, for example, regularly audits litter on random plots of city land. The most recent data from 2020 show that the overall amount of garbage on city streets has declined significantly over the past two decades. Further, none of the soon-to-be-banned plastic items are among the five most common types of large litter found at street level. Straws are seventh, behind napkins, cigarette packaging, coffee cup lids, miscellaneous plastic pieces, newspapers and store receipts. The same holds for small litter, with single-use plastic cutlery comprising a minuscule 0.5 percent of the survey results.

It all comes back except one tablespoon: According to a report by Deloitte, only one percent of all discarded plastic waste in Canada ends up as litter; the rest is either properly landfilled, recycled or burned for energy. (Source of chart: Greenpeace)

A comprehensive analysis of Canada’s plastics industry by consulting firm Deloitte concluded that plastic in all forms poses no large-scale threat to the country’s landscape. While Greenpeace’s King is correct that Canada discards 3.2 million tonnes of plastic per year, almost all of it finds its way to an appropriate destination. Nearly 2.8 million tonnes, or 86 percent of annual plastic production, is safely landfilled. A further 9 percent is recycled, as King also noted. Four percent is burned for energy. That leaves less than 1 percent, or 29,000 tonnes, that appears to be improperly discarded as litter. This is consistent with the Toronto litter survey’s findings.

It is, of course, a worthy goal to seek to reduce those 29,000 tonnes of plastic waste to an even smaller amount. The same goes for boosting recycling rates. But the scale of the plastic litter problem in Canada is hardly of the crisis variety. Very little of Canada’s plastic waste escapes proper disposal. And what tiny amount does leave our borders represents an immaterial component of global ocean pollution.

Toxic Plasticity

If banning single-use plastics will have no meaningful impact on litter or ocean garbage, what explains the Trudeau government’s great enthusiasm for such a policy? Waste management is a local and provincial issue, and there’s ample evidence that municipalities and provinces are already taking action on plastics. All provinces, in fact, have implemented some form of extended producer responsibility or enhanced recycling mandates. It’s not as if other levels of government have been ignoring the topic.

One clue to understanding the Liberals’ anti-plastic crusade may be found in how Greenpeace’s King characterizes plastics as harmful because “they are derived from fossil fuels.” She also refers to “Big Plastic and Big Oil” as joint enemies arrayed against her organization’s brave fight to rid the world of plastic bags and other accoutrements of modern life.

“An anti-fossil fuel agenda”: Fraser Institute senior fellow Kenneth P. Green characterizes the federal crusade against plastics as a “holy issue” because of the role the oil and gas industry plays in producing plastic resin.

“At its core, this is essentially an anti-fossil fuel agenda,” observes Green. “Because plastics are derived from the oil and gas industry – fossil fuels made solid, so to speak – they are considered the fruit of a poisoned tree by environmental groups. It is a holy issue.” Such religious imagery goes a long way in explaining the fervour of the federal government’s campaign: it is based on a belief that seems impervious to evidence or logic.

The lack of any federal responsibility over waste management was an obstacle the Trudeau government had to overcome in order to insert itself into the plastics debate. This was accomplished in April 2021 when the Liberals controversially added “plastic manufactured items” to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act’s (CEPA) list of toxic substances. By ministerial fiat, Ottawa shifted plastic waste from a garbage problem to a direct threat to human and wildlife health. Thus, a federal mandate was born. Of course, this now means that anything made from plastic – from heart valves to the handle on your suitcase – shares space on a list with asbestos, lead, mercury and numerous tongue-twisting chemical compounds including Dibenzo-para-dioxin and Tributyltetradecylphosphonium chloride.

For this toxic transformation, the government relied on the 2020 Environment Canada report “Science assessment of plastic pollution.” Given the significance of the claim that all manufactured plastics pose a direct threat to humankind, one might expect an exhaustive and authoritative report. Not quite. As this document itself admits, it “is not intended to quantify the risks of plastic pollution on the environment or human health.” Rather, it is merely a survey of other claims made against plastic by various organizations and researchers. A literature review, if you will. And it comes to no firm conclusion, instead identifying five “key knowledge gaps” that require further study. Nonetheless, Guilbeault seized on it as all the proof he needed to take dramatic action against plastics.

Spot the toxin: In order to insert itself into the plastic waste debate, the Trudeau government classified all “plastic manufactured items” as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. (Source of top right photo: PVA TePla)

There is a huge evidentiary gap between the federal government’s impetuous declaration of plastics as a deadly material and the scrupulous and time-consuming process entailed in assessing other allegedly toxic substances by other arms of the federal government. The Pest Management Regulatory Agency’s assessment of pesticides, for example, includes detailed commissioned laboratory studies for proposed new pesticides in the agricultural industry, as well as a painstaking review and complaint process for already-approved chemicals. Nothing like this was performed on plastics, despite the far broader implications.

A group of plastics industry firms called the Responsible Plastic Use Coalition (RPUC) has challenged the government’s toxic gambit with a lawsuit filed this summer, seeking to overturn or delay the ban. According to RPUC’s statement of claim, the federal government has “not established that the single-use plastics are ‘toxic.’ In fact, there is no credible evidence that any of the single-use plastics are ‘toxic.’ Accordingly, the Ban cannot be justified.” In an earlier legal filing, RPUC noted that “The lack of science-based decision making…is a critical issue” that must be addressed by the courts.   

Where’s the science? The Responsible Plastic Use Coalition, a plastics industry group, is challenging the federal plastics ban in court on the basis that it fails to prove all plastic manufactured items are toxic.

“This is a waste management issue, not a toxic issue,” asserts Steve Barkel, lead plaintiff in the RPUC lawsuit and vice president of Petro Plastics Inc., an Ontario-based plastic bag manufacturer. “If plastic manufactured items really were toxic, why do we brush our teeth with plastic toothbrushes?” Barkel asks pointedly in an interview. “Why is plastic okay for bread bags? Why are we eating yogurt out of plastic tubs?” The RPUC lawsuit argues that plastic is the only entry on CEPA’s list of deadly substances that earns its status due to the shape and particular use for which it is intended, rather than to any constituent danger posed by the material itself.

Unfortunately, the RPUC’s legal arguments are only convincing if common sense and logic are your guiding principles. According to CEPA, Canada’s legislative definition of toxic includes anything that “is entering or may enter the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity.” The fact 29,000 tonnes of plastic waste leaks into the country on an annual basis, and that the environment minister thinks this is a problem, may prove sufficient in court to rebuff the RPUC’s lawsuit. The case is expected to be heard next spring, months after the ban is already imposed.

The High Price of Banning Plastic

The economic consequences of declaring some single-use plastic items toxic are far from trivial, as Barkel’s own circumstances reveal. Petro Plastics was founded in 1987 by Steve’s father Ed. As the firm’s name suggests, it embraces the fact its raw material comes from the petroleum industry. “It’s who we are,” Barkel says, adding that his plant is located on Vinyl Court in an industrial park in Woodbridge, north of Toronto. “We make every kind of plastic bag except garbage bags,” Barkel says matter-of-factly. “Everything from food-grade bread bags and deli bags to small bags for dried fruit or nuts to drycleaning bags to big industrial bags you can use to cover heavy machinery.”

A family business faces a reckoning: Ed Barkel (on left) founded Ontario-based plastic bag manufacturer Petro Plastics Inc. in 1987; today his son Steve (on right) worries the looming federal ban “will take a big chunk of out everything,” including significant job losses, pay cuts and the forced obsolescence of expensive machinery.

Petro Plastics currently has 35 workers.  But with grocery store bags comprising 40 percent of his business, Barkel expects the ban “will take a big chunk out of everything. We are going to have significant job losses. Management will be taking pay cuts. Business next year won’t be anything like what it’s been in the past.” If RPUC’s lawsuit is unsuccessful, Barkel notes he will have to throw out several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of machinery, some of it only four years old, because it can’t be retooled to make anything other than plastic checkout bags. “No one is going to buy those machines,” he laments.

To stave off the federally-mandated destruction of his core business, Barkel has been trying to pivot towards other bag opportunities. This includes becoming a distributor for alternative products such as paper and woven fabric bags. He even looked into making paper bags himself, but couldn’t find any domestic suppliers for kraft paper. As a result, whatever non-plastic replacements he offers his clientele will come from China or Vietnam. “The government is exporting jobs overseas because of this legislation,” Barkel says. “Some of my competitors have already closed their doors.”

“What’s better for the environment?” In addition to higher production costs, Barkel points out replacement paper or fabric bags are far more expensive to ship than plastic bags.

Whatever he pivots to will inevitably cost consumers more. Barkel explains that standard plastic grocery store bags cost about 4¢ each and weigh 8 grams. Paper bags wholesale for about 15¢ and weigh 55 grams, while reusable fabric bags can cost up to a dollar each and weigh about the same as paper. Beyond the obvious and unnecessary cost hike, all that extra weight and bulk presents another huge problem. “I can get 2.4 million plastic bags into one transport truck,” Barkel says. “To move the same number of paper bags takes roughly seventeen truckloads. You tell me, what’s better for the environment?”

Barkel and other bag manufacturers tried to convince Ottawa to approve a thicker, reusable plastic shopping bag made from 40 percent recycled material under its ban policy. Barkel calls this “Bag 125” because it can survive 125 uses; once it breaks, it can be recycled back into another plastic bag. Trend-setting California allows this kind of bag within its single-use plastic bag ban. Such is the Liberal government’s animosity towards plastic, however, that even this sensible proposal was vetoed. For similar reasons, Ottawa has also rejected compostable plastic bags. The federal position is apparently that all plastic is bad. Full stop. As a result, Barkel says, “Canada is forcing consumers to use fabric bags that come from China and are 100 percent non-recyclable. When they break, you’ll have to put them in a landfill.” 

Ottawa’s Little Inflation Booster

The existential crisis facing Barkel is not unique to the plastics industry. By raising costs and burdening owners with Byzantine new rules and regulations, the ban is also threatening the livelihoods of many other small businesses across numerous sectors.

Earlier this year, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) surveyed its members on the expected costs of the single-use plastics ban. The average response: $6,600 per business in the first year alone, or $1.9 billion across Canada’s small business community. It’s hardly the recipe for a robust economic recovery. “A lot of owners took on huge debt loads as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns, and revenues are still low. It would be wise not to add any additional costs at this time,” says Jasmin Guénette, the CFIB’s vice president of national affairs. The CFIB, says Guénette, is asking Ottawa to delay the ban for a couple of years “until businesses can get back to normal levels.”

Not the time to add additional costs: Canadian Federation of Independent Business vice-president Jasmin Guénette (top left) and Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Assocation president Tony Elenis (top right) both argue for a delay in the single-use plastics ban since it will impose steep new costs on small businesses already suffering from the after-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as inflation and supply chain issues. (Source of top left photo: Donna Santos Studio)

Tony Elenis, president of the 12,000-member Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association, echoes Guénette’s concerns. “With Covid-19, the focus in the hospitality sector has been on survival, and just keeping the doors open,” he says in an interview. “Now the government is asking us to switch to alternatives that cost twice as much?” Like the CFIB, Elenis’s organization is also asking the Trudeau government to delay its plastics ban to allow businesses to catch their breath.

There’s little evidence Ottawa is listening. In its recently released “Guidance for Selecting Alternatives to Single-use Plastics,” the federal government purports to offer advice to businesses struggling with the ban’s implications. It’s about as useful as a paper straw. For restaurant owners unhappy with the high cost or poor utility of non-plastic disposable forks and knives, the guide suggests they simply change their menus: “Businesses could…consider providing more meal options that do not require the use of cutlery (e.g. wraps and sandwiches).” Ottawa’s solution, the Fraser Institute’s Green cracks, is for “everyone to eat with their fingers.”

Ottawa’s handling of straws generates a further sense of the absurd. Not only are these colourful sipping tubes enjoyed by people of all ages for everything from milk shakes to cocktails, the flexible variety is also a necessity for people with disabilities that cause them to have difficulty swallowing – a fact repeatedly recognized in government documentation. As a result, Ottawa considers plastic straws to be both a deadly toxic substance and a medically-necessary device. It seems a vexing contradiction.

Psst! Wanna buy a straw? In one of many absurdities arising from the single-use plastics ban, federal regulations will soon require stores to keep flexible plastic straws hidden behind a cabinet, similar to how cigarettes are sold.

Instead of simply accepting the continuing need for plastic straws and removing them from the banned list, however, Ottawa has taken a far more doctrinaire approach. According to federal regulations, stores will be permitted to sell packs of 20 single-use plastic straws, but only if they treat the product in the same sinister manner as cigarettes. No signage is allowed to alert customers that straws are available for purchase, and if a customer happens to ask for straws at a service counter, the package cannot be “displayed in a manner that permits the customers to view the package without the help of a store employee.” Psst. Wanna buy a straw?

Costs (Big) and Benefits (Small) Analysis

The federal government’s own regulatory analysis provides an official calculation of the economic implications of the single-use plastics ban. This cost-benefit study begins by toting up the various ways the ban will cause quantifiable new burdens for consumers, businesses and governments. These costs include extra expenditures by business owners on more-expensive alternative products, as Guénette and Elenis explain. There will also be effects on local governments’ waste management budgets. Plus, there are various and non-trivial administrative, compliance and enforcement costs for governments and businesses. While it discusses the issue of “stranded assets” such as Barkel faces with his soon-to-be-obsolete bag machinery, the government analysis does not calculate a cost for businesses forced to abandon product lines or close altogether.

Where CFIB members estimated their first-year expenditures at $1.9 billion, Ottawa projects these costs of a mere $250 million across the entire economy. This is a big and, so far, unresolved difference. There is less debate, however, regarding the ban’s impact on landfills and other waste management facilities.

As Barkel notes, plastic bags are far lighter than competing products. Landfill expenses tend to be proportionate to weight, and all the proposed substitutes are substantially heavier than the plastic items they replace. While many of these replacements may decompose faster than plastic, they still need more space in the dump. The trade-off between reducing plastic garbage and increasing other forms of garbage seems so stunning that it’s best to let the government report speak for itself:

“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 material to the waste stream from the use of substitutes, due to their increased unit weights relative to single-use plastics. This increase in tonnage of waste would represent additional costs for municipalities and provincial authorities.” (Emphasis added.)

To recap, Ottawa’s single-use plastics ban – sold to the public as a necessary blow struck against litter and waste – will create twice as much new garbage as it will save. On this basis alone, it may be the worst garbage reduction policy in history. 

All told, the federal cost-benefit analysis projects total costs imposed on consumers and businesses of $1.95 billion over the next ten years. This is obviously a low-end figure, given the CFIB survey suggesting such a sum is likely to be reached in the first year alone, and that the cost of stranded assets and bankrupted businesses are ignored. Additionally, with replacements costing at least twice as much as the original plastic items, the ban will have an immediate impact on prices throughout the hospitality and food sectors at a time when inflation is widely recognized to be this country’s most pressing public policy issue. And it will double the amount of garbage from disposable items.

The worst garbage reduction policy in history? The federal Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement reveals a multitude of unintended negative consequences arising from the policy, including more costs than benefits, regressive effects on low income and homeless people and an overall greater volume of garbage.

Now for the benefits. The ban’s main selling point is to reduce litter. As is standard with cost-benefit analysis, the benefit of a cleaner environment must be imputed. This is done by calculating what it would have cost to pick up the amount of plastic garbage saved by the ban, at the rate of $15 per hour per garbage picker. This theoretical process yields an estimated monetary benefit of $619 million over ten years. (Cost-benefit analyses often include estimates for expected lives saved by various policy innovations, such as installing better traffic lighting or lowering speed limits. No such calculation is included in the federal analysis, even though the entire policy is motivated by the claim that the six plastic items are toxic. This is presumably not an oversight.)

As has become standard with all federal Liberal policy analyses, the plastics ban is also run through a “gender-based analysis plus” (GBA+) lens to determine its effects on various identity groups. Here we have more bad news:

“Costs could be felt more acutely by Canadians living with low income and limited disposable income, as the cost of implementing the ban for retailers would likely be passed onto consumers through increased prices for food, beverage, and merchandise. Marginalized communities in Canada are particularly likely to be living with low income due to race, gender, age, and disability status and the intersectionality between these characteristics.”

Bring back Sobeys bags! The loss of useful and highly reusable plastic bags has social media fired up; TikTok user “Itstracyhun” from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia complains about having to pay for household garbage bags when she used to get free bags from her local grocery store.

The GBA+ further reports that “people living with homelessness” often rely on free plastic checkout bags to carry their belongings or to use as rain protection. Then again, the homeless are not the only folks who put disposable plastic items to repeated use. Ample evidence suggests that supposedly single-use plastic bags are widely reused for household litter, sorting or storage. As a result, the prospect of having to purchase boxes of plastic bags for such uses because their free versions have been banned has many consumers fired up on social media.

Taking Ottawa’s figures at face value, the federal cost-benefit analysis yields a net result of -$1.3 billion ($1.95 billion in costs less $619 million in benefits). Such a negative outcome means that, on a strict dollars and cents basis as calculated by the federal bureaucracy itself, the plastics ban is a certifiable failure and should not proceed. “When I first found the government’s impact analysis, I was really surprised,” admits Green. “I thought ‘Wow’ they are straight-up admitting this is a loser of a policy. Its costs clearly exceed its benefits.” Then again, even though the plastics ban “fails on its own merits,” says Green, “they went ahead and did it anyways.”

Making Everything Worse – Including Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The most problematic aspect of Ottawa’s single-use plastic policy may be a separate “Strategic Environmental Assessment” that considers the broader non-monetary consequences of abandoning plastic for other products. Here the evidence shows the ban will worsen a wide range of environmental indicators, including Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. For a government that has demonstrated such a singular focus on climate change, it seems a bizarre outcome.

The “Strategic Environmental Assessment” uses a lifecycle approach, looking at the consequences on both the upstream (production of replacements for the banned plastic items) and downstream (consumer and post-consumer effects from using the replacements) results. Numerous negative upstream effects arise due to the fact that producing paper bags or wooden knives is substantially more damaging to the environment than making their plastic counterparts. “Substitutes,” the climate change assessment states, “typically have higher climate change impacts, due to the scale at which single-use plastics are produced, as well as natural resource inputs, electricity sources, and unit weight affecting greenhouse gas emissions during transportation.”

Separate upstream calculations regarding air and water quality, eutrophication (algae production), acidification, deforestation and water use also found “some negative environmental effects.” On the downstream side of the ledger, other than a reduction in various forms of plastic pollution, the only positive indicator comes from an improvement in biodiversity and wildlife health (ie, fewer turtles with straws up their noses).  

When asked directly for a response to the broadly adverse outcome of the government’s own lifecycle report, Greenpeace’s King is surprisingly noncommittal. “There are a lot of lifecycle analyses out there and there are often a lot of problems with where the lifecycle starts and whether you are measuring apples or oranges” she shrugs. Rather than quibble over whether paper bags will produce more garbage or air pollution than plastic ones, she’d rather argue for an end to all disposable products. “We shouldn’t even be having this discussion about paper versus plastics,” she says, “We need to find package-free solutions.”

Yet it seems curious that King would be so dismissive of the wide range of expected negative outcomes from an official government source, especially given that such results closely mirror many other equally credible lifecycle studies. The United Nations, for example, is widely regarded to have touched off worldwide plastic antipathy in 2017 when it declared plastic ocean pollution to be a planetary crisis. But in 2020 the UN reviewed existing research on the lifecycle implications of banning plastic bags and concluded, “In the majority of reviewed studies, polyethylene plastic bags [such as Barkel’s proposed Bag 125] were found to have the lowest climate impact.”

Aesthetics versus calamity: While a 2020 United Nations report admits the single-use plastic bag has a negative impact on land and marine litter, it “scores well in other environmental impact categories, such as climate change, acidification, eutrophication, water use and land use” due to the damaging effects of paper bag production around the world. (Source of middle photo: Mohsin Kazmi)

As the UN report further reports, “the single-use plastic bag is a poor option in terms of litter on land, marine litter and micro-plastics, but it scores well in other environmental impact categories, such as climate change, acidification, eutrophication, water use and land use.” (Emphasis added.) The real trade-off at the heart of the plastics debate is thus between the aesthetics of plastic waste and the quantifiable harm done by substitutes for those plastic items. And if you happen to weigh actual results over unsightliness, it makes more sense to keep plastic bags and ban the alternatives.  

In their eagerness to be seen striking a mighty blow against the modern proliferation of plastic, it seems that the Liberals have confused costs with benefits. “They are going after quite a small environmental problem, that of single-use plastic items seeping into oceans,” says Green. “But the cost of doing so will be high in monetary costs, and high in environmental damage as well. It is a profoundly anti-environmental idea.”

A glimpse into our plastic-free future? With plastic packaging next on the Trudeau government’s hit list, Fraser Institute’s Green quips that we may soon be carrying our possessions around in wooden buckets. (Source of photo: Shutterstock)

And this, remember, is only the first step. The Trudeau government’s Zero Plastic Waste policy is already committed to imposing even more dramatic restrictions, bans and regulations on plastic use by 2030. Once the six single-use items have been eliminated, the next plastic shoe to drop is likely to be packaging material. Bottles, jugs, bubble wrap, Styrofoam, foam inserts and all the other innovations that make it possible to store liquids, protect your cookies and ship bulky but fragile items such as computers, phones and TVs around the world safely and efficiently may soon be following plastic bags, straws and knives to oblivion.

“In the end,” says Green, “we’ll probably be carrying around all our belongings in wooden buckets. Or clay pots. Maybe they’ll let us use clay pots.” Whatever replaces plastic packaging, we already know it’ll be heavier, more expensive and worse for the environment than what we’re using right now. And this is what the Liberals call progress.

Peter Shawn Taylor is senior features editor of C2C Journal. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario and is presently hoarding plastic bags.  

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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