Plastic is not our enemy. We need smart policies, not blanket bans
While it may seem counterintuitive, the decision to recycle everything, everywhere, is detrimental
A common refrain in our culture now is: plastic is evil. After all, plastics are harming marine life and might even be accumulating in our bodies. Canada's governments have committed to some sort of action, but it remains to be seen whether they will use evidence and the lessons learned from today's programs to get the best results, or simply throw more money at approaches that have proven unsuccessful.
Ontario is starting to face that question right now. As part of the new environment plan launched by Environment Minister Rod Phillips, the province has committed to keeping plastics, composites and other packaging materials out of landfills and moving recycling programs to a "producer responsibility" model, where industry runs and pays for the system.
The province has set lofty goals of diverting more, consuming less and creating a circular economy. This transition offers an excellent opportunity to focus the entire waste diversion system on what's best for our environment and for individual Canadians — and not just on who pays for it.
Adding up the costs
Today's system has big problems. Ontario recycling rates have actually trended down for the past three years, but the system's costs keep rising. Since 2002, the cost of operating Ontario's Blue Box system has increased by 214 per cent, ballooning by almost $200 million.
A key factor in those cost increases has been the packaging switch to lightweight and composite plastics (plastic laminates, paper laminates, polystyrene crystal, plastic film such as grocery bags, etc.). Those items make up just over 2 per cent of all Blue Box material recycled in Ontario, but contribute over 16 per cent of overall system costs — $423 million since 2002, with virtually no results. Why? These items are tough to recycle and have little value even if they are.
A popular sentiment is to prohibit the use of these materials, particularly single-use plastics. If they can't really be recycled and are ending up in our landfills, the obvious choice is to ban them, right?
Well, no. A growing body of academic literature paints a more positive picture when you look at the entire lifecycle of those plastics. For starters, they help to reduce food waste by enabling longer shelf lives in stores and in kitchens at home. This means emissions savings from avoided food waste/spoilage, and food source reduction. Lighter and more flexible packaging also mean reduced transportation greenhouse gas emissions, as more material can be safely transported per shipment.
Often times, these savings more than offset the environmental impacts of not being able to recycle those plastics, even when they go to landfill.
Cost impacts on consumers are also important. While it's nice to "make business pay" for dealing with the packaging it generates, costs inevitably trickle down to the consumer. This environmental sticker shock is especially important for people in lower-income households, who tend to spend more of their food dollars on packaged products, and who benefit from being able to cut food waste by storing unused food for later.
Rooting decisions in evidence
Governments across Canada face a fundamental policy question: What is the goal of our waste management system? Do we want recycling at any cost, or do we want to maximize environmental outcomes, while keeping costs down for individual Canadians?
As provinces across Canada consider producer responsibility, we need to ensure that policy decisions are rooted in data and evidence, and not emotionally or politically driven narratives. Blanket bans on certain materials and urging consumers to buy less might seem attractive, but the consequences of those decisions could lead to both environmentally and economically undesirable outcomes.
While it may seem counterintuitive, the decision to recycle everything, everywhere, is detrimental to Canadians. Like it or not, the environmental benefits of certain plastics resulting from avoided food waste (cling wrap, freezer bags etc.) can offset the negative impacts of that material ending up in a landfill. While "zero waste" and "circular economy" are things we should work toward, we must also be practical and pragmatic in our approaches.
Canadians will face tough questions as we move forward – what materials should we prioritize for recovery? How do we encourage waste reduction and reuse? Does all packaging need to be recycled? How do we contain cost? And who will pay for it all? Simply declaring a war on plastics is not the answer.