Earlier this month, the Canadian government announced plans to ban single-use plastics by 2021 at the earliest. The Federal government is introducing this ban in the wake of news that the Philippines is returning 61 shipping containers full of contaminated recyclable waste to Canada. Also, the ban comes less than a week after a study out of the University of Victoria found humans are unknowingly consuming up to 120,000 particles of microplastics each year.
Once admired as a product of human ingenuity, spawning such slogans as "better living through chemistry," in recent years plastics have increasingly become synonymous with environmental degradation and pollution. A 2015 study found that 8 million tons of plastic garbage is dumped into the ocean each year, and as the use of plastics for consumer products becomes increasingly dominant, that number is set to rise to 155 million tons by 2025 if present garbage management practices remain. Globally, 91% of plastics are not recycled, accounting for over 5.7 billion tons of non-recycled plastic waste. Although Canadians have been recycling their plastics in blue-bins since the 1980s, 87% of our plastic waste ends up in the landfill or the environment. In 2014, a government of Ontario study found up to 6.7 million particles of plastic per square kilometre in Lake Ontario near Toronto.
The news of the ban comes exactly one year after Canada signed the Ocean Plastics Charter at the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Quebec. The Ocean Plastic Charter is an international commitment that includes the European Union, Mexico, Jamaica, Samoa, and Norway, in addition to various businesses and organizations such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, and the Sitka Foundation. Of the signees, Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands are among the highest in the world for plastic waste production per capita. Notable exceptions to the Charter include the United States and New Zealand, both among the countries with the highest plastic waste production per capita. By signing the Charter, partners will be looking to move toward a more resource-efficient and sustainable approach to managing plastic waste.
The Federal government noted that not all single-use plastics would be banned immediately. Instead, only those for which a reasonable market alternative exists will be banned. While a full list of banned items has yet to be released, it is likely to mirror the European Union's model which included a range of plastic products such as cutlery, plates, straws, cotton bud sticks, balloon holders and various food containers and cups.
Although the ban may appear to be disruptive, it creates plenty of incentive for innovation. This is an idea that runs parallel with one of the key objectives in the Ocean Plastics Charter which read, "we seek to stimulate innovation for sustainable solutions, technologies and alternatives across the lifecycle to enable consumers and businesses to change their behaviour." As a result, there is a tremendous opportunity for innovators to create reasonable alternatives to plastics.
Perhaps the most significant opportunity for innovation comes in the way of packaging. A recent Environment Canada study found that the biggest contributor to plastic waste comes from packaging, which accounts for 43% of all plastic waste in Canada. Many companies have elected to tackle this problem head-on by parting ways with plastics and switching to creative alternatives. For example, the plastic six-pack ring for beers had long become synonymous with harming wildlife until a small craft brewery in Florida made waves three years ago when it introduced the first ever edible six-pack ring for its beers. The rings are made from the excess barley and wheat from remnants of the brewing process and are safe for animals to eat.
Meanwhile, other breweries are beginning to find sustainability in an old brewing staple – the growler. A growler is a 1.9L glass jug and can be purchased at many (often craft) breweries for a small fee and then refilled at any time. Aside from their trendy appeal, the growler has become a cost-efficient and sustainable alternative to bottling and canning beer.
Alternatively, some companies are choosing to move away from packaging entirely. A newly opened grocery store in Toronto has decided to eliminate packaging and waste from their store by electing to sell everything package free and in bulk. The innovative solution reduces waste at the point of purchase while increasing freshness and decreasing packaging costs.
Of course, there remain concerns that the price for market alternatives is too high or that disruptions could hurt the bottom line of small businesses. However, it is likely that as more companies implement plastic alternatives, the manufacturing costs will drop and become competitive with current plastics. Also, many businesses are beginning to recognize that the added value of incorporating sustainability into their business practices is helping to set themselves apart from the competition.
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