British Columbia

Sorting fact from fiction about Vancouver's plastics ban

A news release from the Canadian Plastics Industry Association took a critical look at the City of Vancouver's recent ban on plastic bags and single-use plastics.

Plastics association takes aim at city, but Vancouver says it's been upfront about recycling program

Both polystyrene foam and plastic-lined paper can't be recycled if soiled by food, says the City of Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vancouver's plans to ban certain plastic items highlight many misconceptions around waste management, the national plastics industry group has said.

In a critical look at the city's bylaws phasing in bans of plastic bags, single-use plastics and styrofoam containers next year, the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA) made several claims in a news release Wednesday concerning recycling, carbon footprints and whether there was much support for banning plastics.

Last week, Vancouver city council voted to phase in a ban on plastic straws and plastic shopping bags. Under the bylaw, plastic straws will be banned starting in April, and plastic bags will be banned in January 2021. 

Earlier this year, the city banned businesses from serving food and beverages in foam cups and containers, starting in the new year.

CBC News contacted the CPIA to elaborate on its claims — and asked the City of Vancouver to respond.

Below are the main issues the CPIA raised about the city's single-use reduction strategy, and what we learned:

Claim: The city is replacing recyclable polystyrene food packaging with unrecyclable paper alternatives

  • Result: Not exactly

Following an April 2019 council vote, Vancouver businesses were ordered to stop serving food and beverages in foam cups and containers. The ban takes effect in the new year.

Instead, the city is suggesting both reusable and recyclable containers.

One of these alternatives is paper containers coated with a thin layer of plastic to keep them from leaking.

John Hruska, VP of sustainability with the Canadian Plastics Industry, said this shift means the city "is going from a completely recyclable product to non-recyclable."

"We're saying 'Vancouver, reverse these bans.'"

But that's not quite true.

Paper containers lined with plastic are recyclable in Vancouver — most of the time, says Monica Kosmak with the city's Zero Waste program.

To be recycled, paper products lined with plastics need to be clean and dry, Kosmak said.

And if they aren't lined with plastic, they can be dropped in a green bin for composting, even when soiled by food.

The city of Vancouver says if paper products aren't lined with plastic they can be composted, even if soiled. (Pete Scobie/ CBC)

Claim: Polystyrene foam is recyclable.

  • Result: Not always

Much like plastic-lined paper containers and cups, styrofoam can only be recycled when it's clean and dry.

But in Vancouver, styrofoam is not collected curbside. It must be delivered to a recycling depot.

Kosmak says a study by the city showed only six per cent of residents were willing to do that, meaning a lot of it was ending up in landfills. 

It's a key reason, she says, the city chose to ban it and move to plastic-lined paper products instead, which are easier for residents to recycle.

"The convenience of being able to recycle them at home means that a lot more of them are recycled," said Kosmak.

The rules around what type of plastic and paper products are recyclable differ when it comes to commercial/business recycling, which is privatized and not administered by RecycleBC.

Claim: Paper products have a higher carbon footprint

  • Result: True

Hruska says that even though the city's goal is to protect the environment, switching to paper is worse.

Paper bags are often considered the more sustainable alternative to plastic, but a British study found they have a carbon footprint three times bigger than a standard plastic shopping bag.

"It is certainly true," says Kosmak, admitting that it can also lead to deforestation.

To counter the effects, she says the city included fees on paper bags in its bylaw to make sure there isn't a massive substitution of paper for plastic. This encourages the public to use reusable products.

She added paper bags don't have the same litter impacts as plastic bags, which can take a long time to decompose.

Joe Hruska says plastic bags have a lower carbon footprint than paper bags. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Claim: Only 26 per cent of Vancouver residents support a polystyrene container ban

  • Result: True, but requires context

Hruska points to a 2018 survey that conducted online interviews with a representative sample of 500 Vancouverites.

It found that many residents were unclear about whether polystyrene foam could be recycled.

At first, 69 per cent of respondents said they supported the ban. But once they learned it could be recycled, that support dropped to 26 per cent.

However, it's unclear whether those surveyed were informed that polystyrene foam could not be collected if soiled or left in curbside bins.

"They're [the city] not giving the facts to the citizens so citizens can make good recycling decisions," said Hruska.

But Kosmak disagrees.

 "The City of Vancouver has been very factual about what is accepted," she said, adding it's based on Recycle BC's residential recycling collection program. 

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