Some might have wondered what the purpose might be for this joint assessment from Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada: Draft Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution, January 2020. After all, the federal government and the provinces have already entered into an agreement through the Canadian Council of the Ministers of the Environment to create a regulated circular economy for plastics in the name of environmental harm reduction.
In fact, a single-use plastics law was promised by the federal government in June 2019 (and reaffirmed in January 2020), with a likely effective date coincident with the implementation of the European Union Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive. It’s a virtual article of faith in Canada that some plastic pollution is adversely impacting the environment – so what does the Draft Assessment tell us about the scope of the promised Canadian single-use plastics law that we don’t already know?
The Rise of Alternative Plastics…
Since the plastic pollution crisis of 2018, there has been a sudden rush of new end-of-life labels and certifications applied to common products, including those very same products targeted by the EU SUP Directive. Initially, many of the promoted environmental claims were pulled from pre-crisis times, and were disseminated broadly even though they were neither verified nor verifiable. “Bioplastic” was one such label – which did not necessarily perform any better environmentally than its petroleum-based cousin but arguably benefitted from commonly held beliefs as to its environmental superiority.
Many industries were compelled to respond to public skepticism and attributes such as “Compostable” and “Biodegradable” have become increasingly standardized, with biodegradable / compostable certifications available under international standards such as ASTM. The growth of these alternative plastics for many common items has been meteoric, attracting long-term capital investment and seemingly setting new industry standards for years to come.
…and Their Coming Fall?
But wait – the landscape in Canada may have just shifted again… The Draft Assessment seems to signal that the plastic product, and not its composition, will be the focus of single-use plastics restrictions (and of those other laws to follow). Scant attention is paid to alternative plastics in the Draft Assessment, which draws little distinction between conventional plastics and these newer offerings. To the extent alternative plastics assessments were specifically considered, the Draft Assessment suggests little differentiation in the coming law will be made:
Although biodegradable plastics and bioplastics are increasingly being used as alternatives to conventional plastics, they may not degrade more readily than conventional plastics once in the environment.
In contrast, the Draft Assessment fundamentally divides plastics between macroplastics (greater than 5mm) and microplastics (5mm or less and inclusive of nanoplastics). The near silence on alternative plastics may be deafening for the multitude of industries with substantial (and recent) investment in the viability of these alternatives.
Some Reason for Optimism
The Draft Assessment does seem to contemplate, within the range of alternative plastics, a need to “differentiate degradation pathways under different conditions” to recognize where alternative plastics may deliver preferable environmental performance:
- for instance, some biodegradable variants are accepted as biodegradable in industrial composting facilities, but will not biodegrade under natural conditions;
- Bioplastics may bepreferable to conventional plastic feedstock in decarbonization efforts or in providing demand for residual biomass that exists in integrated agriculture and forestry sectors;
- There is insufficient evidence as to whether oxo-degradable plastics have accelerated degradation (it remains an open question); and
- At least one biodegradable plastic was found to have largely degraded chemically and morphologically in sea water over a 180 day period.
In short, there wasn’t substantial evidence to support alternative
plastics’ environmental value, but, for the most part, nor was there sufficient
proof of the opposite. An informational
gap exists in this area.
More to Be Said on Alternative Plastic Before the Law?
As the Draft Assessment opens the door to a 60-day consultation period ending April 1st, 2020, there remains a window of opportunity for all industries engaged in the production, sourcing or sale of alternative plastics to provide input, technical and policy-driven, to preserve a space for environmentally beneficial alternatives to conventional plastics in Canada.
The coming Canadian single-use plastics law is just the first initiative in a broader legislative program on plastics eventually regulating all plastic products, containers and packaging. The time is now for Canadian industry to supply missing information on alternative plastics before long-term decisions about their role in the economy are made.