Opinion | Single-use plastic makes us safer, getting rid of it doesn’t necessarily help the environment

Last week, the Liberal government announced a single-use plastics ban that is expected to take effect in 2021. This ban is expected to encompass items like grocery bags, straws, and take-out containers.

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This isn’t completely surprising considering the Liberals’ promise of zero-plastic waste by 2030 and proposed this ban back in 2019. However, this bad news comes on the heels of the COVID 19 pandemic where single-use plastics have been instrumental in saving lives by preventing the spread of the disease. The ascension of plastics helped revolutionize modern healthcare by providing inexpensive, sterile, single-use products.

It seems almost hypocritical now that the government is saying the very things that helped us combat the spread of COVID, are made of toxic material that needs to be banned.

When the lockdowns happened, restaurants had to figure out how to continue to survive and serve customers who were now stuck at home and worried about exposure to the virus. This led to a major increase in take-out options for Canadian cities. Now this plastic ban will jeopardize the progress these restaurants have made to be able to operate during a lockdown. Many families have depended on take-out and delivery of food and groceries during the pandemic.

Aside from the role that single-use plastics have played in helping businesses stay afloat during the lockdown, they also continue to play a role post-lockdown. As kids are now back in classrooms, and parents worry about the spread of COVID, plastic wrapping helps keep kids lunches safe. Grocery store workers are also thankful for plastics bags. As the COVID pandemic took hold, stores reverted back to a policy of plastic bags, instead of reusable bags that could potentially bring the pathogens into stores.

While it is important that we keep trash and pollution out of our environment, 90% of the plastic pollution in oceans comes from just 10 rivers. None of them are anywhere near Canada. Plastic pollution is a waste management problem. Bans and moratoriums in Canada would be the opposite of progress. Innovation and technological advances in recycling are progressive.

Canadian families have enthusiastically adopted recycling to maintain the convenience of single-use plastics. Improving recycling management programs is the way to combat plastic in the environment. A study by Recyc-Québec shows that plastic bags have around a 77% reuse rate for tasks like the disposal of garbage. We could improve on this.

The alternatives to plastic bags are not great for the environment either. The Northern Ireland Assembly found that making a paper bag takes four times the energy used for plastic grocery bags. Another study by University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor showed that California’s plastic bag ban had backfired. 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated by the plastic shopping bag ban came back in the form of thicker garbage bags containing more plastic, that consumers now purchased to replace the grocery bags they were reusing

Reusable cloth and heavy plastic bags can also be more harmful to the environment if not used enough. This study by the UK Government found that reusable cotton totes needed to be used at least 131 times before it would be more environmentally friendly than a plastic bag.

Lastly, the plastic industry in Canada plays an important role in Canada’s economy. The industry adds $28 billion annually to Canada’s economy and is responsible for 93,000 jobs. It also is host to 1,932 businesses.

Instead of virtue signalling with ineffective bans on single-use plastics, the Liberal government should take a good hard look at the negative impacts that might come from it. Innovation and recycling will help us deal with the issues of sustainability and waste in the environment. This moratorium could end up having the exact opposite effect.

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