Life in plastic: it’s not so fantastic

Experts say new provincial legislation to tackle single-use plastic pollution is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Plastic takeout containers and utensils will soon go the way of flimsy shopping bags and polypropylene straws in BC, thanks to new provincial legislation that expands the scope of prohibited single-use plastic items.

      The legislation, which comes into effect on December 20, largely mirrors the federal plastic prohibitions passed in 2022 that banned plastic bags, food service wares, ring carriers, stir sticks, and straws on juice boxes over the next year. All items will also be banned for manufacture, import, and sale for export by any company in Canada by the end of 2025. Both the federal and provincial bans include food service wares made from oxo-degradable and compostable plastics, though BC’s regulation includes more kinds.

      “Oxo-degradeable plastics are considered a kind of biodegradable plastic, but they are not really,” Juan José Alava, principal investigator with the Ocean Pollution Research Unit at the Institute for the Ocean and Fisheries at UBC, tells the Straight over video. Oxo-degradable and compostable plastics fragment into tiny pieces called microplastics, he explains; this isn’t the same as true biodegradation, where the molecular bonds forming polymers completely break down. (Plastic is a stubborn beast: it can take hundreds of years to truly degrade.)

      Microplastics have become a flashpoint in recent years, as research has revealed how prevalent the tiny particles are in oceans, wildlife, and even drinking water.

      The provincial legislation comes as part of the CleanBC action plan, which was launched in 2019 to reduce plastic waste and pollution in the province. Another part of the initiative includess a $10-million investment in the CleanBC Plastics Action Fund, which provides money to local businesses and researchers who are trying to reduce plastic use or expand re-use.

      Conor Curtis, head of communications at Sierra Club Canada, tells the Straight over the phone that the policy is “commendable,” but notes exemptions that somewhat weaken the ban.

      Polystyrene trays for packaging raw meat and seafood are allowed until 2030, well after other regulations take place later this year; disposable food service accessories can still be sold in packs of 20 or more; and there are no such regulations on items “intended for sale or distribution to a person outside British Columbia.”

      In other words, the ban does not extend beyond BC’s borders, allowing provincial single-use plastic production of some materials that are banned in BC (but not federally) to continue, so long as it is shipped to another province.

      In an email, a spokesperson from the provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy justified the delay in banning polystyrene by saying more time is needed “to transition to the manufacture and use of acceptable alternatives.” In addition, companies are allowed to continue sending plastic to other provinces “to ensure businesses exporting these items are not disproportionately affected by the ban.”

      There are also plenty of single-use plastics that aren’t currently regulated by either provincial or federal legislation: Alava singles out plastic bottles, while Curtis mentions cigarette filters.

      “Either level of government should be taking initiative,” Curtis says. “Neither one wants to wait for the other to act.” Double-layering federal law into provincial law helps to strengthen the commitment to the policy, while offering incremental additions.

      In the classic slogan of “reduce, re-use, recycle,” recycle is last for a reason: very little plastic actually gets this treatment. In Canada, only six per cent of plastic waste is recycled; worldwide, that figure is not much better at nine per cent, according to a 2022 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. BC has higher rates than this; Recycle BC figures indicate that 48 per cent of the plastic that goes to market gets collected or recycled, with the vast majority of rigid and flexible plastic going to end markets (for conversion into things like pellets, or for further research). However, single-use plastics aren’t generally eligible for recycling.

      “Recycling should really be considered the last option,” Curtis says. “We should be looking at reductions in production.” That’s where strong legislation comes in.

      Even on a federal level, Canada is only one country. Scaling back plastic production here will not have a meaningful impact on the rest of the world at large. In 2022, a letter was published in the leading research journal Science with researchers around the world arguing that the only way to deal with the issue of plastic pollution was for governments to put caps on global production. “That would be one of the best ways,” says Curtis, “to ensure that we actually deal with the issue of plastic.”

      For Alava, an important aspect is how this kind of regulation can work to shift mindsets: both for personal consumption and for business. The public has to move away from relying on single-use plastic items like bottles and packaging, reducing what he calls our “consumption footprint”—but regulations can also hopefully signal to the industry that there is an economic imperative to changing its products. “The anthropocene is becoming, really, the plasticene,” Alava says. “It’s the most-used product today.”

      According to a 2021 study, 20 companies are responsible for more than 55 per cent of the Earth’s plastic waste, with nearly 60 per cent of funding coming from 20 banks.

      “The fossil fuel industry is playing an important role to really buoy [the plastic industry],” Alava says. A proactive way to act is to try to transition into new, innovative materials, he suggests: “Try to go for substitutes that are more reliable in the long term.”