Multi-criteria decision making framework for plastic packaging: An expanded life cycle approach

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D., Co-Investigator: “The Waste Wiki” – Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

This white paper is a general overview of a tool being developed by York University and Pollution Probe to help stakeholders better understand the impacts (environmental, economic and social) of plastics with respect to product and packaging design. Our goal is to provide methodological guidance and create a common set of evaluative criteria that stakeholders can use to make informed decisions regarding plastics. This includes the development of an expanded life cycle analysis model, that attempts to model the economic, environmental and social impacts of plastics, at all stages of its life.

Often times, one of the greatest obstacles in the debate surrounding the role of plastics in a circular economy is that we either operate on incomplete information (i.e. how much is actually being generated and diverted), or we fixate on one component of a products life cycle (i.e. recycling at end of life), and evaluate its viability through that narrow lens.

It’s our hope that this tool (and more broadly, the methodological approach), be used in a way to ensure that stakeholders have clear and prescriptive guidance regarding what needs to be considered when making product design and policy decisions.

**Note: The development and dissemination of the expanded life cycle analysis tool is contingent on raising sufficient funding and support from stakeholder groups. If funding can be secured, the anticipated deployment of this tool will be in Fall of 2020.**

Issue Overview

Plastics have transformed everyday life, with more than 400 million tonnes of plastic and plastic products being generated every year across the world. While plastics often bring many societal benefits and play an instrumental role in manufacturing, technology, healthcare etc. there are significant concerns regarding the quantities of plastic waste being discarded into the environment. In Canada, it is estimated that only 10% of all plastics produced in the country are actually recycled, with the balance accumulating as waste in landfills, public spaces, water ways and oceans. This accumulation of plastics entering into terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems poses acute risks to both human and animal health, with bio-accumulation of plastics being observed as causing endocrinological disruptions to wildlife. It is with this in mind that in January of 2020, the Canadian federal government announced a proposed ban on single use plastics items by the year 2021. This decision was informed by a report commissioned by Environment Canada concluding that single use plastics posed significant risk to the environment resulting from both their manufacturing and disposal.

While this decision has generally been met by a favorable response from both environmental groups and the public, there remain significant questions regarding what single use plastics will be banned. There remains considerable uncertainty regarding what the rationalization and methodology for evaluating which materials should be banned, in addition to the short and long term economic implications resulting from a single use plastics ban.

However, despite the findings of the Environment Canada report, and the prevailing negative sentiment surrounding plastics, and particularly plastic packaging, it is important to recognize that not all plastics are created equal. While the vast majority of plastics are made from ethylene derived from hydrocarbon sources, there exists a significant heterogeneity with respect to the types of resin (polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene etc.), including how it is made, how it is used, why it is used and what can be done with it at end of life.

Many of the environmental concerns attributable to plastics tend to be focused on the manufacturing stage and available end of life waste management options. It is during these two stages that the release of macro plastics (pieces larger than 5mm) and micro plastics (pieces smaller than 5mm) into the environment is considered highest.

While the Environment Canada report undertakes a comprehensive literature review to determine the risks posted to both human and ecological health attributable to plastics in our environment, it does not offer any guidance regarding which plastics to ban, or provide an evaluative framework that can assist decision makers in identifying problematic materials.

One of the dangers of characterizing all single use plastics the same way (bad for the environment, should be banned etc.), fails to capture the complexity and nuances of plastics, particularly for packaged goods.

This white paper outlines a potential evaluative framework for examining the environmental, economic and social impacts of plastic materials (with a specific emphasis on household plastic packaging). The purpose of this framework is to provide both policy makers and plastic producers with a decision making tool that captures the latest in life cycle thinking and consequential impacts (both economic and social), resulting from proposed material bans.

Life Cycle Analysis Thinking

Life cycle thinking for the purposes of informing policy decisions is not a new phenomenon – in fact, many of the studies included in the Environment Canada literature review included a life cycle component when evaluating the environmental safety of various packaging types.

However, most contemporary approaches to life cycle analysis, particularly within the context of end of life management of packaging waste, define system boundaries that are too limited in scope. Often times, model boundaries are defined from the point of disposal, to its final end use application (recycling, composting, energy from waste, or landfilling). The environmental impacts of a particular end of life option are compared against a baseline assuming 100% virgin production (i.e. Recycling 1000 tonnes of PET, would be compared against the environmental impacts of producing 1000T of virgin PET, with the delta in LCA key performance indicators being the measured impact)

The vast majority of life cycle analysis specific to waste management and material design is only concerned with what happens to an item once it reaches its end of life. It is through this lense that many plastics, particularly single use plastics, are deemed to be environmentally problematic. In many instances, particularly for light weight and composite plastics, these materials cannot be readily managed in existing waste management infrastructure.They either cannot be recycled or composted, and even when sorted at a material recovery facility, there are limited end markets for most non PET and HDPE plastics.

As a result, the characterization of these materials is often seen as being “bad” for the environment, with many environmentalists and municipalities pointing to the lack of recyclability as being the primary driver for banning single use plastics. In the absence of recycling or reuse, there is no offset to the environmental burdens associated with virgin production of these plastic materials. If these materials end up in a landfill, the risk of entering into our environment and disrupting both aquatic and terrestrial eco systems increases.

While this outcome may lend credence to the decision to ban single use plastics, it fails to account for the upstream impacts (economic, environmental and social) of a material, prior to consumption. In spite of many single use plastics possessing low levels of recyclability, potential benefits attributable to plastic packaging include:

  • A reduction in the amount of materials used. The transition to plastics for many products has resulted in the light weighting of materials – less physical material is used to make the product.
  • Logistical efficiencies (more material can be transported per shipment) – largely attributed to the reduction in overall weight, the use of light weight and composite plastics has resulted in a reduced emissions footprint related to the transport of materials.
  • Increased durability, longer shelf life (both in the store, and in the home), and allowing for discretionary consumption (you only use what you need). This is particularly true of plastic food packaging. As an example, a laminate package for soup (in lieu of the conventional tin can) allows users to reseal the pouch, allowing it to be stored longer and avoiding waste.

This white paper expands the list of criteria for what should be considered in a life cycle analysis, as a means to create more informed and defensible policy decisions.

 Expanding life cycle criteria

This white paper recommends expanding the boundaries of a life cycle analysis to capture criteria such as material reduction/light weighting, logistical impacts attributable to light weighting, effects on useful product life (both at the store and in the home for perishable items packaged using plastics), discretionary consumption, direct and indirect economic impacts, available waste management infrastructure, risks when landfilled and risks when incinerated.

Table 1 below summarizes what variables are included in the proposed expanded life cycle analysis. It is important to note that depending on the scenario and circumstances being modeled, not all criteria will apply (nor have all criteria been defined)

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The above KPIs include both quantitative measures (i.e. $ cost per tonne managed,) as well as qualitative variables that provides useful contextual information that can better inform decision making.

While expanding our life cycle approach to capture these variables may result in a more time and data intensive life cycle analysis, adopting this methodology is critical in understanding the “true” impact of plastics, particularly single use plastic packaging. In theory, a comprehensive life cycle analysis is intended to capture the aforementioned components, however, there is little methodological guidance with respect to how to do that, and for which materials can it be applied. Further complicating the inclusion of these additional variables is an issue of measurement – how can we measure things like waste reduction, shelf life etc?

Development and Deployment of Expanded Life Cycle Analysis Tool

York University and Pollution Probe are currently working together in order to develop an expanded life cycle analysis calculator that includes the aforementioned components shown in table 1 above. Accompanying this tool will be a guidance document that explains how to measure and weight the above KPI criteria, and how to interpret the output in a meaningful way to help inform decision making.

This purpose of this tool is four fold: 1) allow users to capture life cycle impacts that have traditionally been omitted from previous investigations into LCA or plastic packaging 2) provide an evaluative framework to stakeholders who are looking to evaluate and compare the economic, social and environmental impacts of different types of plastic materials 3) quantify the environmental and economic affects attributable to potential programmatic changes (i.e. a ban on LDPE film), or allow users to model multiple scenarios to see how various options compare (i.e. landfilling all LDPE film, or recycling all LDPE film).

The tool that will be developed and distributed by York University and Pollution Probe will be populated with default data and assumptions (reflecting Ontario specific transportation distances, energy grid mixes, available infrastructure, and material management costs). Users will have the ability to change the underlying assumptions to better reflect differences in their particular jurisdiction, or model scenarios involving trans-jurisdictional management of waste. York University and Pollution Probe can also work closely with stakeholders in developing a more granular expanded life cycle calculator that pertains to the specific operations of a particular organization or municipality.

In the absence of conducting an expanded life cycle analysis, policies and decisions may not be fully informed, potentially resulting in inferior economic, social and environmental outcomes. Using an expanded life cycle approach is intended to capture both the upstream and downstream impacts of plastics, with the intention of helping stakeholders arrive at the most sustainable outcomes.

It is important to note that the most sustainable outcome isn’t necessarily the one that diverts the most material. Understanding what impact material decisions will have on cost (both in terms of material management costs and indirect impacts on the price of packaged goods), and which groups are most likely to be adversely impacted by changes in cost, access or availability, is critical in sustainable materials management.

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About the Author

Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior.

Canada asks for extension on legislation to ban plastic waste exports

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The Government of Canada recently made a formal notification to the United Nations (UN) that its laws will not be in compliance with the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal (“Basel Convention”).

The definition of “hazardous waste” in the Basel Convention was extended to include contaminated plastic waste. Canada has yet to pass legislation banning the export of this waste stream.

“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. Canada is requesting a special delay from the UN in order to give it more time to enact the required legislation. 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.”

During the Basel Conference of the Parties from 29 April to 10 May 2019, Governments amended the Basel Convention to include plastic waste in a legally-binding framework which will make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated, whilst also ensuring that its management is safer for human health and the environment. At the same time, a new Partnership on Plastic Waste was established to mobilize business, government, academic and civil society resources, interests and expertise to assist in implementing the new measures, to provide a set of practical supports – including tools, best practices, technical and financial assistance.

What Power Does Canada Have to Restrict Single-Use Plastics?

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Written by Jonathan D. Cocker, Baker McKenzie and Peter Hargreave, Policy Integrity Inc.

With all of the talk from the Government of Canada about the coming laws targeting single-use plastics (SUP), it’s worth asking whether the Parliament has such powers and what’s needed for them to act on SUP.   After all, the federal government has ceded much of its role to the provinces and territories which regulate over environmental protection generally, including most waste management matters, and some provinces have expressed hostility and a willingness to commence legal challenges to any encroachment on their jurisdiction, often on environmental matters such as climate change.   

Regional exceptionalism has become the norm as the federal government has for decades left the provinces and territories to take the lead without national coordination. As a result, the federal approach to SUP which will inherently value (in some measure) national consistency over regionalism will have difficulty in establishing balance, particularly given that some provinces rely upon plastics production as critical revenue sources.  So where exactly does the federal government believe they possess the powers to fulfil their promises to impose a SUP law across Canada?

CEPA and Toxic Substances

The federal government will, by all accounts, attempt to use Part V of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, Controlling Toxic Substances.   Specifically, Environment and Climate Change Canada has the power to regulate plastics under section 90(1) of CEPA, if satisfied that the substance is toxic, to place them on the List of Toxic Substances, which is Schedule 1 to CEPA. 

Findings of toxicity were made for plastic microbeads in toiletries in 2017. Section 64 defines a substance as toxic if

“it is entering or may enter the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that:

  1. have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity;
  2. constitute or may constitute a danger to the environment on which life depends; or
  3. constitute or may constitute a danger in Canada to human life or health.”

On the Toxic Substances List already are substances Canadians would recognize as inherently dangerous such as lead and mercury.  In contrast, the federal government would be seeking to make a common household material, broadly used to contain and preserve our foods, medicines, etc. equivalent under CEPA to these clearly toxic substances.  It would be a difficult argument to claim that plastics are toxic at all times and for all purposes.    

The ECCC presumably intends to assess plastics as toxic on a more narrow and functional basis – namely that plastics become plastic pollution as they degrade over time, principally as waste material, especially when not managed properly at the end of life.  As waste management is admittedly a provincial/territorial area of legislative authority, the toxicity claim would blur jurisdictional lines.  In short, it’s not as straight forward as the federal government has suggested. 

The Test to Establish Plastics are Toxic

Curiously, while the test for plastics to be placed on Schedule 1 List is that plastics are toxic, the considerations the ECCC are to adopt in assessing a substance are expanded under section 68 to whether a substance is toxic or is capable of being toxic.  The considerations include:

  1. whether short-term exposure to the substance causes significant effects,
  2. the potential of organisms in the environment to be widely exposed to the substance,
  3. whether organisms are exposed to the substance via multiple pathways,
  4. the ability of the substance to cause a reduction in metabolic functions of an organism,
  5. the ability of the substance to cause delayed or latent effects over the lifetime of an organism,
  6. the ability of the substance to cause reproductive or survival impairment of an organism,
  7. whether exposure to the substance has the potential to contribute to population failure of a species,
  8. the ability of the substance to cause transgenerational effects,
  9. quantities, uses and disposal of the substance,
  10. the manner in which the substance is released into the environment,
  11. the extent to which the substance can be dispersed and will persist in the environment,
  12. the development and use of alternatives to the substance,
  13. methods of controlling the presence of the substance in the environment, and
  14. methods of reducing the quantity of the substance used or produced or the quantities or concentration of the substance released into the environment;

As this is a list of considerations and not a strict legal test, no particular item may be necessary or sufficient for the federal government to declare plastics are toxic – there is likely considerable latitude where the science supports concerns over environmental harm.

Does the Draft Assessment Provide Sufficient Scientific Support?

On January 31st, 2020, the ECCC released its draft Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution.   The assessment was not focused upon plastics itself, but rather on plastics when it comes pollution.   This might be understood as an assessment of how plastics are capable of being toxic and not a study on the inherent toxicity of plastics, which has a separate assessment process.  This itself is a departure from the ECCC’s common assessment process, although used for microbeads as arguably the first of those lifecycle toxicity tests.

The findings from the draft Assessment, still in consultation until the end of March, are limited to the pollution (read: waste) effects of plastics and not plastics absent their current usage:

The purpose of this report is to summarize the current state of the science regarding the potential impacts of plastic pollution on the environment and human health, as well as to guide future research and inform decision-making on plastic pollution in Canada. It provides a review of the available information on plastic pollution, including its sources, occurrence, and fate, as well as on the potential effects of plastics on the environment and human health.

It’s also notable that the draft Assessment is identifies as a “survey” of existing science and anticipates further research on plastics, even though the assessment is to serve as to “guide regulatory activities”. 

This report is not intended to quantify the risks of plastic pollution on the environment or human health, but rather to survey the existing state of science in order to guide future scientific and regulatory activities.

The broad remedial powers of the ECCC under CEPA likely cure these defects in science for a finding of plastics as toxics, but proceeding to regulation from the draft Assessment alone may open the ECCC up to challenges that more is needed before such as determination can be made. The ECCC seems to leave the door open to more science, perhaps as much due diligence as inquiry.

It is also worth noting that the regulation of SUP in the name of plastic pollution mitigation aligns with Canada’s commitments under the Ocean Plastics Charter. Such an agreement does not however vest the federal government with implementation powers it does not already have.

So Which Plastics Would Be Declared Toxic?

The draft Assessment divides plastics into two categories:  microplastics (5mm of less) and macroplastics (more than 5mm).   There is some other discussion regarding alternative plastics, such as biodegradable, compostable and bioplastics, but these arguably aren’t sufficiently addressed in isolation in the draft Assessment to warrant findings specific to these alternatives.   

It’s likely that each of microplastics and macroplastics will be the subject of distinct regulatory control measures on behalf of the ECCC under the coming law, with microplastics perhaps attracting the greater restrictions given the greater nexus to contamination.   After all, “microbeads” of 5mm or less are already listed as a toxic substance on Schedule 1.  

It’s also clear that the federal government views SUP as a more pressing matter in light of the 2021 implementation by member states of the European Union’s (EU) Single-Use Plastics Directive and the Ocean Plastics Charter.  In fashioning a Canadian version of a SUP law, it’s worth understanding what regulatory instruments the ECCC would have under CEPA.

The Range of Control Measures Available

Once some category of plastics are deemed “toxic”, the ECCC inherits a considerable range of control instruments to regulate those plastics.  Section 93 of CEPA provides the ECCC ability to control:

  1. the quantity or concentration of the substance that may be released into the environment either alone or in combination with any other substance from any source or type of source;
  2. the places or areas where the substance may be released;
  3. the commercial, manufacturing or processing activity in the course of which the substance may be released;
  4. the manner in which and conditions under which the substance may be released into the environment, either alone or in combination with any other substance;
  5. the quantity of the substance that may be manufactured, processed, used, offered for sale or sold in Canada;
  6. the purposes for which the substance or a product containing it may be imported, manufactured, processed, used, offered for sale or sold;
  7. the manner in which and conditions under which the substance or a product containing it may be imported, manufactured, processed or used;
  8. the quantities or concentrations in which the substance may be used;
  9. the quantities or concentrations of the substance that may be imported;
  10. the countries from or to which the substance may be imported or exported;
  11. the conditions under which, the manner in which and the purposes for which the substance may be imported or exported;
  12. the total, partial or conditional prohibition of the manufacture, use, processing, sale, offering for sale, import or export of the substance or a product containing it;
  13. the total, partial or conditional prohibition of the import or export of a product that is intended to contain the substance;
  14. the quantity or concentration of the substance that may be contained in any product manufactured, imported, exported, offered for sale or sold in Canada;
  15. the manner in which, conditions under which and the purposes for which the substance or a product containing it may be advertised or offered for sale;
  16. the manner in which and conditions under which the substance or a product containing it may be stored, displayed, handled, transported or offered for transport;
  17. the packaging and labelling of the substance or a product containing it;
  18. the manner, conditions, places and method of disposal of the substance or a product containing it, including standards for the construction, maintenance and inspection of disposal sites;

It is likely that a suite of these measures will be adopted distinctly for microplastics and macroplastics. (It’s not clear if alternative plastics would attract their own measures.)  The EU’s Single Use Plastics (SUP) Directive may be instructive, it sets out a number of measures including:

  • Aggressive recycling targets for beverage containers (77% by 2025 and 90% by 2030);
  • Design requirements for beverage containers (i.e., recycled content and tethered caps);
  • Labelling requirements for products that are often not disposed of properly (tobacco products, beverage cups, wet wipes and sanitary towels);
  • Expanded producer responsibility requirements; and
  • Bans by 2021 on single-use plastic cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, sticks for balloons; all products made of oxo-plastic; cups, food and beverage containers made of polystyrene foam.

Enter the Provinces

It is generally understood that most jurisdictions in the EU will achieve most of the outcomes in the Directive through EPR provisions. Given the diversity in approaches to EPR in Canada that could prove difficult to achieve as these efforts have firmly and institutionally rested with the provinces (and increasingly, territories) in Canada.  The ECCC is playing catch up and there are some questions related to their legislative authority over this mechanism without the support of the provinces. A comprehensive strategy around SUP will necessarily involve provincial /territorial for which the 2018 Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment’s (CCME) Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste was just the beginning of a new age of cooperation on (plastic) pollution.


About the Authors

Jonathan D. Cocker heads Baker McKenzie’s Environmental Practice Group in Canada and is an active member of the firm’s Global Consumer Goods & Retail and Energy, Mining and Infrastructure groups. Mr. Cocker provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environmental and product compliance matters, including extended producer responsibilities, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, and contaminated lands matters. He assisted in the founding of one of North America’s first Circular Economy Producer Responsibility Organizations and provides advice and representation to a number of domestic and international industry groups in respect of resource recovery obligations. Mr. Cocker was recently appointed the first Sustainability Officer of the International Bar Association Mr. Cocker is a frequent speaker and writer on environmental issues and has authored numerous publications including recent publications in the Environment and Climate Change Law Review, Detritus – the Official Journal of the International Waste Working Group, Chemical Watch, Circular Economy: Global Perspectives published by Springer, and in the upcoming Yale University Journal of Industrial Ecology’s special issue on Material Efficiency for Climate Change Mitigation.

Peter Hargreave, the President of Policy Integrity Inc., has over 15 years’ experience in providing strategic advice in the development, implementation and oversight of public policy. Over his professional career, he has developed a strong network of relationships with regulators, public and private organizations, and other key stakeholders involved in environmental issues across Canada, the United States and abroad. He has extensive experience in assessing waste management policies at the federal, provincial, and municipal level across the country. He has also played a key role in leading major research efforts in the waste management sector including data capture and analysis, and understanding the economic and environmental impacts of various waste management activities.

Canada’s Single-Use Plastics Law May Restrict Biodegradable Plastics

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Written by Jonathan D. CockerBaker McKenzie

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 2020After 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.

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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.

Republished with the permission of the author. This article was first published on the Baker McKenzie website


About the Author

Jonathan D. Cocker heads Baker McKenzie’s Environmental Practice Group in Canada and is an active member of the firm’s Global Consumer Goods & Retail and Energy, Mining and Infrastructure groups. Mr. Cocker provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environmental and product compliance matters, including extended producer responsibilities, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, and contaminated lands matters. He assisted in the founding of one of North America’s first Circular Economy Producer Responsibility Organizations and provides advice and representation to a number of domestic and international industry groups in respect of resource recovery obligations.

Should Countries Outside of Europe Adopt EU Single-Use Plastics Law?

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Written by Jonathan D. Cocker, Baker McKenzie

The European Union’s landmark Single-Use Plastic (SUP) Directive is set to be enacted into member states’ national laws by 2021.  Some countries outside the EU have already signaled their intention, in all but name, to adopt consistent SUP laws, for good commercial and regulatory reasons.    

Confidence in the EU as the world’s standard bearers on environmental management, including product environmental regulatory matters, is in its ascendancy, particularly with initiatives such as the Circular Economy Action Plan and the recent Green New Deal.   

But questions must be asked – how clear and portable is the EU law and does local replication of the SUP Directive outside of Europe make sense?

SUP Directive to Regulate “Plastic”

In June of 2019, following months of dire warnings over the proliferation of plastic pollution, the EU passed the SUP Directive with the stated aim of reducing the impact of “certain plastic products” on the environment – namely many of the most prevalent plastic items regularly found on beaches in Europe, along with fishing nets, which together are said to account for a substantial amount of the (visible) marine plastic pollution. 

The SUP Directive adopts a variety of regulatory measures depending upon the material:  from outright bans to mandatory extended producer obligations to product labelling and consumption reduction obligations.   The core regulated material is “plastic” but, surprisingly, this is the beginning, not the end, of the story.

Natural v. Synthetic  – But Both Pollution

Definitions of plastics start with long-chain synthetic polymers which can be generated from petroleum or plant-based materials subjected to imposed polymerization and therefore regulated as a plastic.   Conversely, the SUP Directive excludes:

            Natural polymers that have not been chemically modified

Natural polymers are free of imposed polymerization but may also become synthetic through any “chemical modification” – though exactly when this occurs is more a question of arcane chemistry than environmental protection and, interestingly, might have reference to other regulatory treatments of the material.  In some instances, the designation of a natural v. synthetic polymer can be a distinction without a difference at it relates to environmental impacts. 

Non-Plastic Alternatives May Be Regulated 

The recital to the SUP Directive appears to recognize this quandary in expressing an intention (but not mandating) that (non-plastic) single-use products within a material category capturing plastics can also be regulated under the SUP Directive unless the product can be shown to have a substantially reduced impact on the environment relative to a regulated plastic alternative.  

In other words, industry should be prevented from making only a technical product content switch to a non-plastic category without any appreciable environmental gain.   But this moves the law away from strict international plastic product standards and brings in a host of local considerations.  

The Case of Wet Wipes – No Clean Distinctions to Be Made

The recent joint report by environmental consultants Eunomia and Reloop entitled What is Plastic?explores the tension between plastics taxonomy and environmental impacts using a concrete example of consumer wet wipes and points out that they can be made by synthetic or natural polymers, including man-made (non-plastic) cellulosic fibres (MMCFs), with similar environmental impacts.   

The report looks at whether either a technical or purposive reading of the SUP Directive would potentially capture certain MMCFs as equally harmful in wet wipes to plastic alternatives.  In conclusion, the competing goals of meaningful environmental protection (with a broad interpretation of SUPs) and potentially inconsistent Directive implementation across the EU remains unresolved, with some clarity hopefully coming through 2020 EU policy statements.  

This is not the turnkey plastics legal regime the rest of us might have hoped for.

If Environmental (not “Plastic”) Harm is the Question, the Answer Won’t Be the Same Worldwide

The final point in understanding what is coming under plastics regulation, regardless of which scheme is adopted, is that countries / regions will need to look at the prevalence and persistence of waste in their ecosystems in determining where to draw the line on material bans / regulatory restrictions, and, of course, it won’t necessarily be wet wipes which creates the greatest local challenges.  

In short, countries / regions need to do their own strategic thinking around environmental, commercial and social outcomes in developing a plastics law – simple local replication of the SUP Directive isn’t a viable option.

This article has been republished with the permission of the author. It was first published on the Baker McKenzie website.


About the Author

Jonathan D. Cocker heads Baker McKenzie’s Environmental Practice Group in Canada and is an active member of the firm’s Global Consumer Goods & Retail and Energy, Mining and Infrastructure groups. Mr. Cocker provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environmental and product compliance matters, including extended producer responsibilities, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, and contaminated lands matters. He assisted in the founding of one of North America’s first Circular Economy Producer Responsibility Organizations and provides advice and representation to a number of domestic and international industry groups in respect of resource recovery obligations.

Researchers produces biodegradable plastic from Cactus plants

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Led by Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, a chemical engineering professor at the University of the Valley of Atemajac, scientists at the Universidad del Valle de Atemajac in Guadalajara, have successfully create biodegradable plastic from the juice of the prickly pear cactus.

The researchers trim cactus leaves, and then put them into a juicer and create a bright green liquid. After it’s mixed with other natural materials and processed, it later undergoes a process that transforms the cactus juice into a biodegradable plastic.

Currently it’s being made as prototypes at Oritz’s lab and the process takes 10 days to make. Extensive research is still needed to test the efficiency and to scale up the production of the plastic alternative.

The non-toxic plastic takes one month to biodegrade in soil, and a week in water. The project was supported by a scholarship for graduate students awarded by the National Council of Science and Technology in Mexico.

The bioplastic created from the cactus juice is nontoxic if it’s eaten. “The cactus of this species contains a large amount of sugars and gums that favor the formation of the biopolymer,” says Professor Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, the lead researcher.

Dr. Pascoe Ortiz hopes the bioplastic can replace most single-use plastic products in the world. “I hope the cactus-based plastic will help reduce the impact of solid waste in Mexico and around the world,” stated Pascoe Ortiz.

The plastic dilemma: half of the 348 million tons of plastic produced per year becomes waste

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According to a report recently issued by Statista, the world is experiencing a severe plastic waste crisis, primarily due to the enormous amount of plastic manufactured and the state of plastic waste management. Globally, manufactures produce 348 million tons of plastic each year, compared to 1.5 million tons in 1950. In Europe, only 30% of plastic waste gets recycled, meaning it is collected and treated but not entirely returned into the production system. In the most recent DossierPlus on the topic, researchers from Statista present the status quo of plastic waste treatment and how plastic impacts the environment.

Europe alone produces 60 million tons of plastic. Drastic measures taken by the European Environmental Agency (EEA) have shown to be vital in reducing potentially ruinous levels of waste generation. The measures aim mostly on reducing the use of single-use plastics and packaging, as those are the biggest culprits when it comes to plastic waste. The data reveals significant differences in selected EU countries when it comes to waste treatment. In Germany, for instance, only 0.1 percent of plastic packaging ends up in landfills, while Spain reported 38.2 percent of packaging in landfills.

Data looking at the trade of plastic reveals the potential impact of China banning the importation of foreign plastic waste in 2018. The measure shocked the global scrap trade and forced western countries to rethink the recycling agenda. According to the University of Georgia’s forecasts, by 2030, almost 111 million tons of plastic waste worldwide will need to be processed elsewhere, if China continues its ban of plastic disposal.

The DossierPlus also investigates the negative impacts of plastic production on the environment, including its impact on emissions and therefore climate change, as well as health risks caused by pollution.

Discarded plastic degrades into small particles that contaminate the environment. These microplastics end up in oceans, fishes’ organs and even the human food chain and are intentionally added to a long list of products in the cosmetic industry. Most clothing is also made from synthetic fabric containing plastic microfibers which additionally end up in wastewaters.

With bio-based plastic as a controversial alternative for sustainability, the report suggests rethinking the lifecycle of plastic products starting from material design. The full report is available here.

New Waste Plastic to Hydrogen Facility planned in the UK

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Peel Environmental – part of Peel L&P – recently announced it was working in partnership with Waste2Tricity to build a waste plastic to hydrogen facility at its 54-hectare Protos site near Ellesmere Port, England.

The $12 million (Cdn.) plant will use ‘UK first’ advanced thermal treatment technology developed by PowerHouse Energy Group (AIM:PHE) at Thornton Science Park, next door to Protos. The pioneering DMG® (Distributed Modular Generation) technology could transform the way plastics are dealt with in the region. The plant will take up to 35 tonnes of unrecyclable plastics a day and create a local source of hydrogen which could be used to power road vehicles.

This local source of hydrogen could be used as a clean and low-cost fuel for buses, Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) and cars, helping to reduce air pollution and improve air quality on local roads. The facility would also generate electricity which could be provided to commercial users via a microgrid at Protos, helping to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Peel Environmental is looking at developing a closed loop solution at Protos where plastics are recycled on-site with the leftover material used to create hydrogen.

The development would see a further 14 full time permanent jobs created at the Protos site with over 100 jobs created in the North West during fabrication and construction.

Myles Kitcher from Peel Environmental – part of Peel L&P – said, “This is a great step forward towards delivering the first of many waste plastic to hydrogen facilities across the UK. There is huge potential for hydrogen to replace fossil fuels in our transport system. We already have hydrogen buses in Liverpool and trains being converted to hydrogen in Widnes. Using waste plastic to generate a local source of hydrogen could not only help to reduce our reliance on landfill but improve local air quality with a clean and low-cost fuel for buses, HGVs and cars.”

David Ryan, CEO of PowerHouse Energy Group (AIM:PHE), said, “The submission of the planning application is an important step forward in delivering the first commercial application of the DMG technology, creating hydrogen from waste plastics. The team have worked hard to develop a robust application and we’re hopeful of securing consent and subsequent financial close in the coming months.”

The Protos strategic energy hub sits within the Energy Innovation District (EID), which is spearheaded by the Cheshire Energy Hub and brings together energy users, network owners, innovators and partners working alongside Cheshire & Warrington LEP, Cheshire West and Chester Council and the University of Chester. The EID is looking to develop a local, smart energy microgrid which a recent report demonstrated could lead to energy cost savings of up to 25% and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 34%.

The project is also one of many under the North West’s bid to become the UKs first low carbon cluster by 2030. The North West Energy and Hydrogen Cluster is being led by the North West Business Leadership Team, with support from Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region Mayors and the Cheshire & Warrington LEP.

Making the Case for a Zero Plastic Waste Economy: Canada Moves to Ban Single-Use Plastics in an Effort to Reduce Plastic Pollution

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Written by Selina Lee-Andersen, McCarthy Tetrault

There is no doubt that plastics provide unparalleled functionality and durability across a range of products in our everyday lives. The production and use of plastics is growing faster than any other material due to their many practical uses. However, certain characteristics that make plastics so valuable can also create challenges for their end-of-life waste management. In particular, the low costs of producing and disposing of plastics have increased the amount of disposable plastic products and packaging entering the consumer market. According to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), over half of these disposable plastic products and packaging are designed to be used once and thrown away. CCME reports that an estimated 95% of the material value of plastic packaging (or between $100 and $150 billion dollars annually) is lost to the global economy after only a single use.

In recent years, plastic pollution has emerged as a critical environmental issue, one that must be addressed globally. To reduce plastic waste in Canada, the federal government announced in June 2019 that it will ban single-use plastics as early as 2021. The ban is expected to include items such as plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates and stir sticks. The federal government will also work together with the provinces and territories to introduce Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs, which would seek to establish standards and targets for companies that manufacture plastic products or sell items with plastic packaging.

The federal government has indicated that these measures will align with similar actions being taken in the European Union and other countries. In addition, these initiatives complement Canada’s adoption of the Ocean Plastics Charter in June 2018, which lays the groundwork for ensuring that plastics are designed for reuse and recycling. In addition, the federal government’s efforts to reduce plastic pollution includes ongoing work through the CCME to develop an action plan to implement the Canada-wide 2018 Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste.

Policy Initiatives to Reduce Plastic Pollution

The specific policy initiatives announced by the federal government include:

  • Banning harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021 under theCanadian Environmental Protection Act and taking other steps to reduce plastic waste, where supported by scientific evidence and when warranted – and taking other steps to reduce plastic waste. The ban would cover single-use plastic products and packaging (e.g. shopping bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks); the specific products and measures included in the ban will be determined once a State of the Science assessment on plastic pollution in the environment has been completed. The assessment will include a peer review, public consultations, and socio-economic considerations. Additional regulatory actions could include requiring products to contain a set amount of recycled content, or be capable of being recycled or repaired.
  • Ensuring that companies that manufacture plastic products or sell items with plastic packaging are responsible for managing the collection and recycling of their plastic waste. EPR programs are recognized as an effective mechanism to support the creation of a circular economy. Under an EPR program, companies making products are responsible for the end-of-life management of their products and packaging. Through the CCME, the federal government will work with provinces and territories to support the development of consistent EPR programs across the country. This will include setting targets for plastics collection, recycling, and recycled content requirements.
  • Working with industry to prevent and retrieve abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear, known as ghost fishing gear – a major contributor to marine plastic debris. The federal government will work with stakeholders through a new Sustainable Fisheries Solutions and Retrieval Support Contribution Program. In particular, the federal government will support fish harvesters to acquire new gear technologies to reduce gear loss, and take actions to support ghost gear retrieval and responsible disposal. In addition, the federal government will seek to reduce the impacts of ghost fishing gear in Canadian aquatic ecosystems. It is important to note that a significant amount of plastic in the oceans is comprised of fishing nets. In a study by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation that was published in 2018, scientists found that at least 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from fishing nets, while miscellaneous discarded fishing gear makes up the majority of the rest.
  • Investing in new Canadian technologies. Through the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge, the federal government is helping small businesses across the country find new ways to reduce plastic waste and turn waste into valuable resources supporting a circular economy. Seven challenges have been launched so far, providing over $10 million dollars to 18 Canadian small- and medium-sized enterprises. These businesses are working to reduce plastic waste from food packaging, construction waste, marine vessels, and fishing gear. They are also improving plastic recycling through artificial intelligence and refining technologies for bioplastics.
  • Mobilizing international support to address plastic pollution. At the 2018 G7 meeting in Charlevoix, Canada launched the Ocean Plastics Charter, which outlines actions to eradicate plastic pollution in order to address the impacts of marine litter on the health and sustainability of the oceans, coastal communities, and ecosystems. As of July 2019, the Charter has been endorsed by 21 governments and 63 businesses and organizations. To assist developing countries in reducing marine litter, the federal government is contributing $100 million to help developing countries prevent plastic waste from entering the oceans, address plastic waste on shorelines, and better manage existing plastic resources. This includes $65 million through the World Bank, $6 million to strengthen innovative private-public partnerships through the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership, and $20 million to help implement the G7 Innovation Challenge to Address Marine Plastic Litter.
  • Reducing plastic waste from federal operations. The federal government is strengthening policies, requirements, and guidelines that promote sustainable procurement practices, and has committed to divert at least 75% of plastic waste from federal operations by 2030.
  • Reducing plastic microbeads in freshwater marine ecosystems. To reduce the amount of plastic microbeads entering Canadian freshwater and marine ecosystems, Canada prohibited the manufacture and import of all toiletries that contain plastic microbeads (such as bath and body products) as of July 1, 2018. A complete ban came into force July 1, 2019.
  • Supporting community-led action and citizen-science activities. The federal government has committed $1.5 million in 2019 for organizations to start new plastics projects that mobilize and engage citizens. This funding is designed to support community-led action through education, outreach, and citizen science, and support concrete actions through community cleanups and demonstrations to reduce plastic waste.
  • Launching Canada’s Plastics Science Agenda. The federal government will accelerate research into the life cycle of plastics and on the impacts of plastics pollution on humans, wildlife, and the environment. This agenda is aimed at supporting evidence-based decision-making and innovative approaches to sustainable plastics production, recycling, and recovery. Canada’s Plastics Science Agenda will also identify priority areas for multi-sector research partnerships to help achieve Canada’s zero plastic waste goals.

Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste

In July 2018, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) commissioned a study to provide insights into the entire plastics value chain in Canada, from raw material production and products manufacturing to use and end-of-life. In June 2019, Deloitte and Cheminfo Services Inc. delivered its report to ECCC – the Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste (the Report).  Highlights of the Report are set out below.

The scope of the Report encompasses most plastics types used across all key sectors. The Report’s authors found that with total sales of approximately $35 billion, plastic resin and plastic product manufacturing in Canada accounts for more than 5% of sales in the Canadian manufacturing sector. The sector employs approximately 93,000 people across 1,932 establishments. In Canada, plastic products are in demand in most sectors of the economy, with approximately 4,667 kilotonnes (kt) of plastics introduced into the domestic market on an annual basis. The packaging, construction and automotive sectors account for 69% of plastic end-use.

In terms of the life cycle of plastics in Canada, the Report notes that it is mostly linear in nature, with an estimated 9% of plastic waste recycled, 4% incinerated with energy recovery, 86% landfilled, and 1% leaked into the environment in 2016. The main generators of plastic waste in Canada are:

  • packaging (43%);
  • automotive (9%);
  • textiles (7%);
  • electrical and electronic equipment (7%); and
  • construction (5%).

The Report found that plastics materials that were not recovered (i.e. 2,824 kt of resins sent to landfill or leaked into the environment) represented a lost opportunity of $7.8 billion for Canada in 2016, based on the value of virgin resin material. By 2030, the Report estimates that Canada’s lost opportunity in respect of unrecovered plastics could rise to $11.1 billion based on a business-as-usual scenario. Given forecasted trends in waste streams and economic drivers, the Report indicates that the linear profile of the Canadian plastics economy will not improve under a business-as-usual situation. The Report concluded that:

  • Given current market prices, structures, business models and the low cost of disposal, there is limited direct economic incentive for plastics recycling and value recovery in Canada. Primary (i.e. virgin resin production) and secondary (i.e. recycled) plastics compete against each other in the same market, based on price and quality of the resins. This competition is difficult for the recycling industry, which has to deal not only with prices, but also with quality issues as a result of uneven feedstock composition. While secondary plastics producers enjoy lower upfront investment than their counterparts in the primary market, they face greater financial exposure during periods of low oil prices (which bring down the price for virgin resins) because their cost structure is more labour intensive. Key barriers to the recovery of plastics include a combination of factors including low diversion rates (only 25% of all plastics discarded are collected for diversion), process losses in the sorting (e.g. shredded residues containing plastic are sent to landfill) and reprocessing stages, and the near absence of high volume recovery options for hard-to-recycle plastics (such as plastics waste coming from the automotive sector).
  • A zero plastic economy would deliver significant benefits to Canada. The Report’s authors modeled a 2030 scenario to examine the potential costs and benefits of achieving zero plastics waste. This scenario used a 90% landfill diversion rate as a proxy for zero plastic waste and assumed that: (i) plastics production and end use applications increased, but followed the same patterns as in 2016; (ii) mechanical recycling was quadrupled from its business-as-usual level; (iii) chemical recycling was significantly scaled up, taking into account readiness levels and associated learning curves; and (iv) energy from waste was leveraged to deal with the remaining volumes and hard-to-recycle plastics. An analysis by the authors demonstrated that the 2030 scenario would result in benefits including $500 million of annual costs avoided, 42,000 direct and indirect jobs created, and annual greenhouse gas emission savings of 1.8 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalent.  
  • The analysis indicates that zero plastic waste cannot be achieved without concurrent, strategic interventions by government, industry stakeholders and the public across each stage of the plastic lifecycle and targeted at sectors. According to the Report, achieving 90% plastic waste recovery will require significant investment to diversify and expand the capacity of current value recovery options including mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling, and waste-to-energy. The Report also notes that significant improvements to current plastic waste diversion rates will be required. In particular, a systematic approach across sectors will be needed because no single public or private sector action can shift the system.
  • The Report identifies the following five sets of interventions (including policies, measures and calls-to-action) to achieve zero plastic waste in Canada:
    1. Creating viable, domestic, secondary end-markets. This includes:
      • Creating stable, predictable demand for recycled plastics that is separate from virgin markets (e.g. requirements for recycled content, taxes/fees on virgin resins).
      • Improving the quality of recovered plastics at both the point of collection and in materials processing.
      • Improving access to domestic supply of recycled content.
      • Supporting innovation in product designs and uses for secondary plastics.
    2. Getting everybody onboard to collect all plastics. This includes:
      • Creating sector-specific requirements for collection (e.g. extended producer responsibility, performance agreements).
      • Restricting disposal (e.g. landfill taxes or bans).
      • Requiring/incentivizing collection (e.g. industry targets, deposit refund).
      • Developing more consistent requirements and rules across Canada (e.g. common curbside recycling).
      • Improving public information on collection and recyclability.
    3. Supporting and expanding all value-recovery options. This includes:
      • Supporting development of innovative value-recovery options, such as advanced mechanical and chemical recycling.
      • Focusing primarily on improving mechanical recycling.
      • Increasing the ease and speed at which new value recovery facilities can be developed by removing policy barriers and investing in innovation.
    4. Increasing efficiency throughout the value chain. This includes:
      • Facilitating collection and value-recovery by creating requirements for the reusability and recyclability of product design (e.g. standards and public procurement).
      • Improving performance by investing in sorting and separation.
      • Educating and engaging actors and consumers throughout the value chain.
    5. Extending plastics lifetime to reduce and delay waste generation. This includes leveraging opportunities to extend the lifetime of durable goods, which account for approximately 51% of total plastics waste, but have a very low recycling rate (2%) compared to that of non-durable goods (15%). In addition, the Report recommends introducing measures that contribute to increased reuse, repair and remanufacturing such as standard requirements for reparability or reusability, and tax exemptions to reduce and delay waste generation from durable goods in Canada.

In order to achieve zero plastic waste, radical changes will be required across the life cycle of plastic products. This includes not only changes in consumer behaviour, but also a significant increase in the number of recycling facilities in Canada, investments in recycling technology and the need for innovative government policies such as landfill taxes or product standards. As noted above, there is no single public or private sector action that can shift the system. Taking into consideration international benchmarks from ten European jurisdictions as well as US and Australian case studies, the Report’s authors note that a systemic approach is needed that is supp

This article has been republished with the permission of the author. It was originally posted on the McCarthy Tertrault Canadian Environmental Perspectives Blog.


About the Author

Selina Lee-Andersen is a partner in our Vancouver office and a member of the firm’s Environmental, Regulatory and Aboriginal Group, Energy & Mining Group, Retail and Consumer Markets Group, Defence Initiative and Asia Group. Recognized for her in-depth knowledge and range of experience, her practice focuses primarily in the areas of environmental law, corporate/commercial law, regulatory law, compliance, and Aboriginal issues in the energy and natural resource sectors.