Canada is asking for more time to enact a promised ban on shipping plastic waste

Canada says it needs more time to come into compliance with the latest amendments to the Basel Convention, aimed at preventing rich nations from dumping plastic waste in developing countries.

'It's an embarrassment for us' - Myra Hird, professor of environmental studies

This photo taken on May 19, 2018 shows a toy doll and other plastic waste, much of it non-recyclable, on a beach on the Freedom Island critical habitat and ecotourism area near Manila, Philippines. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

The government of Canada has formally notified the United Nations that Canada's laws will not be in compliance with a treaty meant to stop rich countries from shipping their hazardous waste to poor countries.

The specific amendments that Canada has asked for extra time to codify are intended to address a problem that is supposed to be a signature issue of the Trudeau government: plastic contamination.

"Before Canada can formally accept the amendments, it needs to complete an internal acceptance procedure. This procedure, led by Global Affairs Canada, is underway," Gabrielle Lamontagne of Environment Canada told CBC News, adding that Canada hopes to finish that work before the end of the year.

UN documents say the new rules "come into force" on March 24 of this year, but don't "take effect" until January 1.

Gap between words and actions

Some environmental scientists and anti-plastic waste campaigners say the federal government's request for a delay is the latest manifestation of a yawning gap between the Trudeau government's actions and its efforts to present itself as a leader on plastic waste and oceans.

"I think the public just isn't aware of how much we're failing to step up and do our bit to stop the pollution of the oceans and land with plastic," said Kathleen Ruff, founder of the environmental group RightOnCanada. "I don't think the public is aware that the rest of the world is moving forward, and Canada is dragging its feet, and worse, opposing it."

Officials check a shipping container holding Vancouver garbage in Mailia in this undated, handout photo. (Philippines Bureau of Customs)

Ruff said she hopes the Trudeau government makes the next deadline, but "people have the right to be suspicious, and to be disappointed that Canada is not taking strong action to protect the oceans and the land."

"It's an embarrassment for us," said Myra Hird, a professor of environmental studies at Queen's University and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. "Canada is very much behind the curve on this."

Canada is asking for a special delay in the deadline to align itself with a treaty it helped to craft 30 years ago.

Myra Hird, a professor of environmental studies at Queen's University, is a fellow of the Royal Society in Canada and director of the research project Canada's Waste Flow www.wasteflow.ca (Queens University)

'Intends to comply'

The notice sent to the UN says that Canada "fully supports and intends to comply with the amendments," but "the said process may not be finalized prior to the entry into force of the above-noted amendments."

The amendments are intended to stem the flow of microplastics into the world's oceans.

It's not the first time the Trudeau government has lagged in an area where it has claimed to be a leader. It used its role as chair of the G7 in 2018 to push for a "Canada-led" Ocean Plastics Charter.

Filipino environmental activists wear a mock container vans filled with garbage to symbolize the 50 containers of waste that were shipped from Canada to the Philippines two years ago, as they hold a protest outside the Canadian embassy at the financial district of Makati, south of Manila, Philippines on Thursday, May 7, 2015. (The Associated Press)

But that same year, at the Commonwealth Summit in London, Prime Minister Trudeau was upstaged by U.K. pime minister Theresa May, who announced a nationwide ban on single-use plastics.

Trudeau waited until 2019 before announcing that Canada would eventually take a similar step "as early as 2021."

Just two weeks after announcing that future ban, the prime minister tweeted a picture of himself at a meeting in his riding office with pizza and a pile of single-use plastic cutlery on the table in front of him. 

Rather than wait for the Trudeau government, many companies and municipalities have moved ahead with their own measures to reduce plastic waste.

Containers from Manila

The Trudeau government has faced one embarrassing incident over this issue already — when it was forced to repatriate shipping containers loaded with hazardous waste that had been dumped on a dock in the Philippines years before.

Eventually, the Philippines recalled its ambassador from Canada and the Trudeau government shipped the containers back to Canada.

The Philippines, like China and some other countries that used to accept foreign waste, has now banned the practice.

A boy collects plastic materials near a polluted coastline to sell in Manila April 9, 2008. (Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters)

"This is the logical consequence, that at some point these importing countries are going to be saturated and are going to say no," said Hird. But waste does continue to flow to Asia, exploiting loopholes that allow the import of materials that ostensibly will be recycled.

"My speculation," said Hird, "would be that [Canada is] asking for more time to comply because they want to maintain those routes of export as long as they possibly can. If there was critical analysis around our dependence on waste export, this horizon would have been seen."

Trudeau government opposed ban

The claim that Canada "fully supports and intends to comply with the amendments" appears to be at odds with the government's position during the negotiations on the Basel ban amendments.

In fact, throughout the past year Canada opposed changes that would close the recycling loophole, despite heavy lobbying by environmental groups, including the Basel Action Network.

In July, a coalition of groups wrote then-Environment minister Catherine McKenna asking her government to drop its opposition.

"At the Basel Convention's 14th Conference of the Parties in Geneva in May this year, delegates approved a decision calling on countries to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment," says the letter. "Canada stayed silent, but continues to oppose the amendment, saying Canada 'won't support a prohibition on the export of recyclables'.

"Shipping our wastes half-way around the world, allegedly for recycling, to countries that are already deluged with wastes, is, as Canada well knows, a practice that is readily abused. It is a practice that is neither environmentally responsible nor just."

Minister McKenna did not respond to the letter.

'Canada will have failed again'

Six weeks later, the coalition sent McKenna another letter: "We write once again to urge that, with regard to the issue of managing our country's wastes, the Canadian government adopt a policy that is evidence-based and environmentally responsible."

The environmental groups pointed out that Australia, which had been allied with the Trudeau government in resisting tighter regulations, had changed its stance, with PM Scott Morrison declaring "it's our waste and it's our responsibility."

"Australia is not usually seen as a great leader on the environment," said Ruff, "and yet they are stepping forward and we are not."

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The August letter asked Canada to follow Australia's lead.

"We urge the Trudeau government to be a forward thinking government of the present and of the future," it reads. "Soon the Ban Amendment will enter into force with or without Canada. Canada will have failed again to step up and lead in a world lacking leadership. This will be long remembered."

In the end, Canada chose not to formally object to the amendments, which were supported by the EU and other countries. 

Waste problem getting worse

Hird said that the problem has only grown more acute because of the Trudeau government's reluctance to regulate the waste industry.

"The government has taken a very, very weak stance with regards to waste management and recycling companies. They've allowed these companies to control our waste management."

Hird said Canada has continued to rely on dumping its waste in developing countries rather than developing its own solutions, or trying to reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place.

"This is why various municipalities and industries are having to stockpile, because we don't have a way to recycle it ourselves, and we are running out of places to send it to.

"They've required so little of these companies that produce our goods in terms of taking responsibility for packaging that they've really backed themselves into a corner that they should have anticipated."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.