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The Liberal government’s single-use plastic ban, explained

This week the Liberal government announced it will ban some single-use plastic items in an effort to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030, but only a limited number of products fall under the ban and some of the prohibitions don’t kick in until 2025. 

The six categories of single-use plastics being banned make up about three per cent of the plastic waste generated annually in Canada, and while the list is short, not everything on it is being outright banned.

For example, some plastic straws are banned but there are exceptions that only restricts others. 

CBC News took a look at the regulations to see what is being banned and when, how the policy announced this week will impact the campaign to cut back on plastics globally and what was left off the banned list. 

We also put a list of questions to Environment Canada, including some that were submitted by readers to the Ask CBC team. Some of Environment Canada’s responses to those questions can be found below. 

What products are being banned by these new regulations?

There are six categories of single-use plastic products that are being banned, including:

  • Checkout bags.
  • Cutlery.
  • Takeout ware with plastics that are hard to recycle.
  • Plastic aluminum can ring carriers.
  • Stir sticks.
  • Straws.

Why are plastic drink lids for disposable beverages not on the list?

While plastic cup lids are one of the top items found on shoreline cleanups, the federal government said that it settled on the six categories of products for a number of reasons: they are found in the environment during clean ups, they pose a threat to wildlife, they are difficult to recycle and they can be replaced with alternatives. 

“With regard to plastic lids used for disposable coffee cups in particular, limited alternatives to this item were identified as being available at this time,” the government said in a statement. 

The federal government said it is continuing to monitor data and evidence and will decide if other single-use plastic products can and should be banned in future. 

Will this make much of a dent in Canada’s plastic waste?

Not a large one.

According to environmental groups like Greenpeace Canada, the six categories of products only make up about five per cent of the total amount of plastic waste Canada created in a year, according to data from 2019. 

The federal government’s estimate is even lower. In the regulation details published Wednesday, it estimated about three per cent of plastic waste created using data from 2019, or about 150,000 tonnes of plastic waste.

A box chart showing various squares that represent the end use markets for single-use plastics. The largest box is packaging representing 1.6 million tonnes. The second largest is construction at 1.2 million tonnes.

When do the bans kick in?

New rules will prohibit the manufacture and import of most items on the list for the purpose of selling them in Canada by Dec. 20, 2022. After that date the goods can still be sold in the country for another year. 

Plastic ring carriers, like those used to hold a six-pack of cans together, get an extra six-months grace. They can continue to be imported and manufactured for sale in Canada until June 20, 2023 and their sale is not banned until June 20, 2024. 

If the federal government wants to ban plastics, why is it giving such a long timeline for an export ban? 

CBC News put this question to the federal government and was told that after consultations with industry it was decided that a 42-month phase-out period would meet Canada’s international commitments while minimizing the harm for industry. 

“A gradual phase-out allows Canadian businesses to minimize disruption to their operations, while transitioning out of the market for prohibited items in alignment with global market and regulatory trends,” the government said in a statement. 

Does that mean that after Dec. 20, 2025 no banned products will be shipped through Canada?

Not exactly. New rules will continue to allow for banned plastic products manufactured in another country to be shipped through Canada to a third country without restriction. 

CBC News asked the federal government why this was the case if the goal is to remove plastics from the environment and was told that Canada’s participation in the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Article 11.8 prohibits Canada from applying technical regulations to goods in transit. 

the liberal governments single use plastic ban explained 1
A shopper places her goods into her car outside a supermarket. Canadians will need to find alternatives to single-use plastic grocery bags by the end of next year. (Mark Baker/The Canadian Press)

I thought plastic straws were being banned, but they aren’t?

While most plastic single-use straws are being banned, flexible or bendable straws are not — although they are being restricted.

Retail stores can sell flexible straws in a package of 20 more, but the package cannot be displayed where a customer can see it without the help of a store employee. 

Flexible straws can continue to be sold busines-to-business as well and for a limited time they can also be sold when packaged with a beverage container providing that packaging was done by the company that made the drink, as they are when sold with juice boxes. 

Juice box straws can only be sold until June 20, 2024, before they also fall under a ban. 

The decision not to ban flexible straws was made because they remain useful and required for people with physical disabilities or for people being cared for in a medical or long-term care facility. 

Will Canadian companies still be able to make these items for export?

In order to “enable industry to adapt to the changes” the federal government said it would allow industry to manufacture plastics until Dec. 20, 2025. Exporters need to keep detailed records of who is buying their products to comply with the rules.

Checkout bags are often used more than once by consumers who repurpose them. Why are these banned, but garbage bags that are only used only once are not?

CBC News put this question to the federal government and was told that “reusing an item for an additional single use does not make the item reusable by definition.”

According to the federal government’s definition: “A reusable item is designed and intended to be used multiple times, for the same use, without losing its original functionality. Using single-use plastic checkout bags for a second time as a garbage bag or lunch bag does not mean that it is reusable.”

WATCH | Ottawa to ban many single-use plastics by end of 2023:

the liberal governments single use plastic ban explained 2

Ottawa moves to ban many single-use plastics by end of 2023

2 days ago

Duration 2:02

The federal government is moving to ban many single-use plastics over the next 18 months including plastic bags, takeout containers, and single-use plastic straws. Companies will be banned from making or importing them by the end of this year, and from selling them by the end of 2023.

The federal government said that any benefit gained from consumers repurposing checkout bags is offset by the environmental harm caused by the product itself, noting that “16,971 units were collected from Canadian shorelines in 2021 through the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup.”

By contrast, the government said that it is not aware of data showing the same problem with garbage bags. The government said the lack of an alternative to plastic garbage bags is also a factor. 

Will single-use dog waste bags be banned too?

The federal government said that it is not banning single-use pet waste bags because the regulations have been crafted to ban “bags that are designed to carry purchased goods from a business.”

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