Jordan: I’d be lying to you if I acted like a hate plastic bags. They’re useful at our house, whether it’s for kitchen garbage or dirty diapers, or even as makeshift shrink wrap on leftovers. I also happen to be horrible at remembering to bring reusable bags with me when I go to the store, so I come home with more plastic. I don’t feel good about that. I would like to change it, but I’m also a normal human being, and when these things are in front of me, I use them. I sound like a lazy jerk saying this. I’m just being honest. This is not a lifestyle change I am prepared to make on my own. So, yeah, maybe someone needs to make it for me.
News Clip: I’m very pleased to announce that as early as 2021, Canada will ban harmful single use plastics from coast to coast to coast.
Jordan: It will not shock you to learn that the reaction to the liberal governments proposed ban on plastic was mixed. That describes political reaction to anything right now. But what we wanted to know was if this proposal, which would again inconvenience me and maybe you too, was worth some minor suffering. Do the people who devote their lives to keeping straws out of turtles noses, and bags out of whale stomachs, think this proposal actually makes sense? Do they think it will be implemented? And if it actually happened, would it make a difference? Or is this one of those measures we announce very publicly that comes nowhere near to solving the problem. So we found one of those people and we asked her.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings and this is The Big Story. Sarah King is the head of Greenpeace Canada’s Oceans and Plastics campaign. Hi Sarah.
Jordan: Can you start by telling me what the federal government is proposing to do?
Sarah: Sure. So the federal government has made the announcement that they want to ban single use plastics by as early as 2021, and so what they want to do is get plastic waste listed as a toxic substance under Canada’s Environmental Protection Act, and that basically creates the conditions for them to be able to move forward with bans and other reduction measures. So that’s really the big part of the announcement that they’ve made. But then they’re also reinforcing previous commitments that they’ve made around ensuring extended producer responsibility, so requiring that producers and manufacturers of plastic have to pay for collection, and recycling, and disposal of their products, and they want to create programs across the country because right now that’s very consistent across Canada, and then they also want to make further investments in innovation in finding other ways of delivering products, investing in new technologies and then also paying for cleanups and other initiatives that are all associated with this large plastic waste and pollution crisis that we have.
Jordan: It’s really interesting because you listed a lot of things, yet it was the single use plastics that got all the headlines this week.
Sarah: Well I think that a ban on single use plastics is really what people have been waiting for, because when we think about our massive waste and pollution problem that we have not just in Canada but around the world, the only way to really tackle that is to actually stop producing the stuff in the first place. So, you know, the government has traditionally talked a lot about oh, we need to improve recycling, we need to, you know, make better types of plastic and all these sort of end of pipe false solutions that aren’t really getting at the heart of the problem, which is that we actually are just producing too much of this stuff. So I think the reason why a ban gets so much attention is because that is really the type of bold action that we need in order to tackle this problem, and a lot of people in Canada and around the world have been calling on governments to put bans in place. So I think, you know, this is a really key moment, potentially for our country to join other progressive nations that are taking these kind of bold steps. So I think that’s why the ban itself really gets attention over the other pieces.
Jordan: So I guess the big question is, what are single use plastics? What would count under this proposal?
Sarah: So the government hasn’t provided clarity yet on which single use plastics would be included in the ban. But for us, single use plastics are a group of problematic and unnecessary plastic. So, it includes different types of plastics and different materials. So for us we really want to see that whole group addressed. Ideally, we really should be moving towards banning all non essential plastics, just given the negative impacts of plastic, both in terms of, you know, environmental health, impacts on wildlife, human health. So we really want to be moving to address that full grouping, starting with the most problematic and unnecessary, and those are the ones that we see regularly end up in our environment that are basically going straight to landfill. Even though they may say the recyclable, we know that they’re largely going to a landfill and those that already have existing alternatives. So everything from Styrofoam and PVC to those, you know, coffee cups, lids, straws, bags, bottles, wrappers, the whole… that sort of whole grouping. When you think of when you go to the grocery store and your cart is just full of plastic, it’s all of those things that we want massive reduction measures put in place working towards bans.
Jordan: How far off are we from having non plastic replacements for all those things that you just mentioned?
Speaker 2: A lot of those things already have alternatives. You know, when we think of plastic bags and water bottles, and cups, takeout containers, there are a lot of really innovative things happening in different parts of the world, and even here in Canada. Think of restaurants that, you know, give you a take out container. In some cities, they do mug container share programs, so you can get takeout from one restaurant in a reusable container, and you can get it picked up or you can return it at another restaurant, and it just sort of keeps going around and around and around. It’s the reusable options that we’re interested in, and not so much other alternative packaging that is also disposable because currently our system, you know, even if a coffee shop or a retailer offers allegedly biodegradable packaging because our system isn’t really set up to deal with that if that goes in the garbage, it’s basically having the same impact, or for a lot of the different types that they end up in the environment they’re also still a polluting source unless they’re in the right conditions. So really, we want to be focused on reusables, and encouraging a different model that’s more based on refill, reuse, refurbishment, those types of concepts.
Jordan: Explain to me how, because this just surprised me a little bit, how those biodegradable packages are still pollution cause I think I unconsciously think, and I’m sure some people do as well that you know, if it’s a totally biodegradable straw and it gets dropped in a forest, you know it’s not ideal, but it will eventually break down, right?
Sarah: So there’s two things about the bio alternatives. One is that what’s the source? Like what’s being used to make those? You know, a lot of these paper alternatives we see are actually coming from like old growth forests, and they’re made from trees. They’re not necessarily made from 100% post consumer, which would be the more sustainable option. A lot of the bio plastics that you see actually still have some petroleum in them, so they may be a combination of corn and petroleum, or fibers, pulp and paper fibers, and so again, it’s like, where is that coming from? So depending on what it’s made of, if it ends up in the ocean, or if it ends up in, you know, a part of the environment that doesn’t sort of have the necessary, you know, microbes or agents that help it break down, it acts as pollution in the same way in the short term. So you know, it really depends on the type of material, how long it would take to break down. But a lot of them are actually only designed to break down in industrial composting facilities, and I think that’s something that isn’t, you know, it definitely isn’t widely talked about. It’s their only designed to, you can put it in your, you know, in Vancouver we have a green bin, and if you put it in there than that’s where it needs to go. But if you put it in, say your own backyard composter, it wouldn’t necessarily break down in a timely manner, and so that’s creating another problem. And then you also the issue of because there are a lot of bio bags, especially that have popped up those contaminate plastic recycling streams. So there’s a whole lot of problems associated with bio alternatives. You know, not to say that some may not have a place in a more sustainable system, but again, that’s why we really want to focus on reusable packaging and reusable products, so that we don’t have to worry about the disposal of them, or at least not for a very long time.
Jordan: So the government makes this announcement this week and leaving ah, your reaction and the Greenpeace position out of that because we’re going to get to that. But leaving that aside, what did you see as the reaction to it? And what did that make you think?
Sarah: I saw a lot of excitement, honestly. I mean, we’ve in the last year, the number of people that have been engaged in this issue, you know, where their own personal journey has moved from a place of like, oh, wow no I didn’t realize there was so… that plastic pollution was such a problem to oh, wow this is a crisis, to oh, so what you’re saying is what I’m put in my recycling bin is not actually necessarily being recycled. And then to sort of like the demanding action or more of, like, the outrage in the frustration around how plastic kind of has invaded our lives, and now how it’s, you know, lining the stomachs of whales and we’re seeing the impacts all over social media, all over the news, and in our own communities. And so the journey for people, I think getting to a place where governments are starting to say, okay, yeah, we hear you, and we need to move towards a ban I think has caused people to be excited. And so most of the responses and the reaction that I have seen have been positive ones. Of course, you know, you have the people that are asking different questions or trying to poke holes in it, and the reality is we don’t know really… we’re excited about the announcement, but we don’t know what’s going to actually happen. So there’s some trepidation there. But overall, I think people are embracing this announcement.
Jordan: How much do single use plastics in particular in Canada, or around the world contribute to the problem? Do we have any kind of scale of what percentage of the pollution they make up for anything? Give us a sense of how big this is.
Speaker 2: Yeah, so in Canada we produce around 3.25 million tons of plastic waste every year, and I think it’s around 43% of that is generally speaking are packaging related. So it’s a massive contributor to the problem and a lot of what you know, the packaging and the single use plastics that’s what most people interact within their daily lives, and that’s what our recycling system, you know, has been intended to address. But as we’ve learned in recent months, our recycling system is broken, and so that’s the other added layer on this. Single use plastics are hard to recycle, and so it makes them even more problematic.
Jordan: As someone who spends her life working on this stuff, how much of a difference could this make? Did it go far enough? Was it what you wanted to see? What problems would you pick at it if you were coming at it from the other side?
Sarah: So in terms of it going far enough, we don’t know how far it’s going to go, and so in order for it to be meaningful, a band needs to be put in place on the sale, distribution, and production of single use plastics. It can’t just be on the distribution, but then retailers are still allowed to sell, you know all the plastic cutlery and plates and cups and all of that, it doesn’t make much sense. If we’re going to get rid of them, we need to get rid of them, and also, it needs to encompass that whole grouping of single use plastics. It can’t be like, okay, we’re going to ban straws, and cutlery, and Styrofoam, and there we go, we’ve solved the problem, we’ve checked the box. That’s not going to cut it. We know that, you know, millions of bags, and cups, and all of it is consumed on a daily basis in Canada, and most of that is going to a landfill, or is being burned, or is ending up in the environment. So we really need to address sort of that whole grouping of throwaway disposable packaging and plastics in order for it to be impactful.
Jordan: Do we know anything about the potential economic impact of that? Because it… there is a whole industry that exists to make these products.
Sarah: Yeah, you know there will be an economic impact, but they’re also economic opportunities in, you know, creating reusable alternatives, in creating a more sustainable model, in innovation in you know, creating new ways of delivering products, and the reality is that, you know, it’s one of those things that we just have to…. like companies have to make that transition. The writing’s on the wall. A lot of them have known it for a long time, and now really is the time to, you know, for them to be looking for those alternatives and working, you know, together to find solutions to the problem. You know, it’s not going to be solved by sort of a paper straw here and like you know, one reusable packaging option offered over here. Industry really needs to come together to think about different ways to, you know, to create product delivery and service delivery for consumers and we’re seeing some examples of this, big players coming together. Loop is an example. It’s a partnership between TerraCycle, UPS, and then various companies that have created an online platform where customers can order products and then they’re delivered to their house in reusable packaging, and then they get picked back up again and reused. And so basically some large companies, you know, like the Pepsi, Coca Cola’s, Haagen Dasz of the world, have selected certain products that they’re piloting through the loop program, and so it’s happening in different cities. The most recent announcement was that Loblaws is going to do join and do a test run in Toronto actually offering certain President’s Choice products, and so again customers can order those products, they’ll come in reusable packaging, and then they’ll go back. So not to say that you know that this is, like, addresses all of Coke or Pepsi’s and blah blah’s problems. Obviously, there’s still a huge amount of product that they’re producing that needs to be addressed. But it just shows that this is an example of companies working together to pilot alternative delivery systems, and to move more into the direction that we want to see, which is based on refill, reuse and those concepts.
Jordan: What kind of alternatives will be available? Or how do governments implementing this, grapple with stuff that I’ve seen reported in several places and it is always discussed when this comes up. The fact that reusable straws, especially but also different kinds of cups and bags, are also really important for people who are differently abled. For whom a metal straw might be too sharp if they have tremors, or might be too hot, or simply not available in a place where they might find themselves out to eat without what they might keep at home.
Jordan: That’s a really important part of the discussion that you know, industry and government needs to have, and you know what we say to that is that alternatives, you know, for persons with disabilities needs to be provided, obviously. So both reusable alternatives that work for them and also, yeah, in those cases where someone forgets it, there needs to be an option, and that needs to be, you know, the…. basically the exception too what we’re trying to do overall, which is massively reduce the number of those types of items that are in circulation. So when we talk about bands, there are certain exemptions there are exemptions, you know, for the medical community, there are exemptions in many cases, you know, certain businesses are still allowed to have a few options upon request for persons with disabilities, and that, as they say, that’s a super important part of the discussion that needs to happen so that any reusable alternatives that are created do meet the needs of those communities.
Jordan: Has this been tried elsewhere in the world? Have we have we seen a single use ban go into effect anywhere and what’s happened?
Sarah: We haven’t sort of seen the comprehensive bans yet. So we’ve seen a ban on bags, or a ban on straws, or a ban on Styrofoam. We’ve seen sort of more piecemeal, and various countries actually have bans on plastic bags, and have quite strong measures. In fact, if you’re sort of caught with a bag I was in Rwanda a couple of years ago, and when you fly in to Rwanda, you’re not even really allowed to have bags in your own suitcase. They’re very, very strict about it. Yeah, but you know, when you’re walking around the cities and towns, one thing you don’t see is plastic bag pollution, and so we’ve seen with other other jurisdictions as well. There was a study out of the UK, I believe, where they had put in place reduction measures for bags, and sort of not offered them in various cases and they had seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of plastic bags found in the adjacent environment, and so it really does…. it does have a positive impact and it makes sense you know, when we think of like the ozone layer that was a massive issue for many years, and when we finally banned the ozone destroying chemicals, we saw an improvement in the ozone, the health of the ozone. And so I mean, it’s kind of the same thing. It’s if you ban it from circulation, then obviously it’s no longer going to be polluting, but that’s why it has to be a full ban. It can’t sort of be piecemeal. Piecemeal can reduce, but we’re going for no plastic pollution that is our goal. We no longer want plastic pollution, you know, as we’re having this conversation, the equivalent of many, many garbage trucks worth of plastic are flowing into the ocean, and so that’s why we need to stop that at the source, and the only way to do that is to stop producing the stuff that’s ending up in there.
Jordan: In your experience as an activist and an advocate, how good are we as a country at following through on the really ambitious stuff like this relating to climate change and pollution? It sounds really nice. Do you expect this ban to actually be in place in 2021?
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, you nailed it there. We definitely….. you know, especially this government has made so many bold promises and really lacked on the follow through and I think, you know, we tend to have high hopes. We definitely you know, Canada, the Canadian government really wants to project this image of environmentalism, of social justice, of all these things and old claims are made and then doesn’t quite measure up. And so, you know, they’re definitely concerns that because of the timeline here, the federal government has left this announcement very late and the reality is that in October there’s going to be an election, the process to list plastics under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, it takes time, it takes the scientific assessment. So kind of the best case scenario really is for it to be listed on…. for us to actually get the listing before the election, but that would be a very tight timeline, and then that doesn’t mean necessarily that there’s going to be a ban, so then it’s probably going to be up to the next government, whoever that is, to then determine what gets banned, and when, and the whole nine yards. And so you know, we can assume that if it’s a conservative government, things may not happen as fast as we would like, or at all, depending it’s hard to say. We’ve seen the NDP support a call for a ban, and you know, and now the liberals are saying that they intend to have a ban as early as 2021. But really, you know, the devil is going to be in the detail like again if they’re saying ok, we’ll ban straws and a couple of other items by 2021 then okay, it’s a start, but there’s still so few details that it’s really hard to know what actually is gonna happen post October.
Jordan: Thanks Sarah.
Sarah: Thanks a lot.
Jordan: Sarah King is the head of Greenpeace Canada’s Oceans and Plastics Campaign. She’s probably way better at remembering reusable bags. That was The Big Story, for more from us we are at the bigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. You can find all our other shows at frequencypodcastnetwork.com, and wherever you download us, whether it’s Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, some other platform I have never heard of, we’d love it if you shared a rating or a review. Thanks for listening I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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