Back in 2019, the Canadian government announced its intention to ban some single-use plastics, part of its ambitious efforts to have ‘zero plastic waste’ by 2030. The plan targeted some of the most wasteful or hard to recycle plastics, such as single-use cutlery, grocery bags, and takeout containers. Sectors like healthcare, where single-use items made with plastic are commonly used for sanitary reasons, were exempt.

Consultations with the general public and interest groups were promised. When the novel coronavirus spread worldwide in March 2020, the plastics ban, along with many other agenda items, was put on hold. Plans resumed by October, and as recently as this summer, the government said the goal is to have the ban in place by the end of 2021. Let’s take a closer look at what that means for businesses, and Canada’s efforts to shift to a circular economy.

The business of plastic

Plastic is a popular material in many industries, favoured for its cost, efficiency, and variety of forms and uses. While some plastics can be reused, composted, or recycled, there are some that can’t; these are known as ‘hard to recycle plastics’ or simply, ‘end plastics’. The problem with end plastics is that, if overused, they can clog landfills or wind up in our oceans and waterways.

Still, plastic is big business in North America, Canada included. In 2018, Environment and Climate Change Canada commissioned a study on the use of plastics and plastic-resin in Canadian business. The study found that plastic accounted for more than $35 billion in sales in the manufacturing sector, employing more than 93,000 people throughout the industry. Packaging, construction, and the automotive industries were found to be the predominant users of end-plastic.

There’s a reason plastic is so widespread, even though it can be potentially harmful to the environment. As stated above, it’s a flexible, cost-efficient material, one of the main reasons it became the predominant product of our current era. It wasn’t long ago that most milk came in glass bottles, or grocery stores used paper bags.

Why ban only single-use plastics?

One of the main criticisms of the proposed single-use plastic ban is that it doesn’t go far enough. Some say it won’t push us close enough toward zero-plastic waste, and that the ban should instead cover all plastics. While the 2018 study was on all plastics and not just single-use products, it makes clear that the plastics industry is so pervasive, it would be extremely difficult to ban all plastic at once.

Banning all plastic would also be tough since it’s unfortunately so widespread in products and everyday items. In this sense, single-use plastics are at the top of the hierarchy; the easiest ones to target, as they are the most wasteful plastics and can be more readily replaced.

The impact on businesses

Another reason why single-use plastics were targeted could be that, as mentioned, a wider ban would require a major overhaul for all sectors, which could take years. This is already a main concern for the businesses most impacted by the ban, like restaurants and hotels.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business represents more than 95,000 small businesses across the country (i.e. less than 500 employees), about 20,000 of which are in the hospitality sector. Aside from healthcare, this is the sector most concerned about the ban, as many of their materials consist of single-use plastic or plastics-blended products, like cutlery, takeout containers, or coffee cups. Adhering to a single-use plastic ban may take a significant shift of their supply chains overnight, even though these processes usually take time.

What’s more, small businesses have been hit hard during the pandemic, with many shutting their doors or struggling to stay afloat through shutdowns and other challenges in the economic landscape. Shifting to a whole new line of products, especially ones that may cost more, could be simply too difficult to do in an already cash-strapped environment. While the government has promised to consult with business groups about the ban, it’s not yet clear how these concerns will be addressed.

A rush to the circular economy

From the lens of the circular economy, this type of ban seems like a step in the right direction. Theoretically, it would force industry to move away from reliance on non-reusable or non-regenerative plastic products and replace them with something more sustainable. It will have businesses start to adopt more sustainable practices, a core feature of the circular economy.

With that said, a single-use plastic ban is only effective if the replacement products are truly sustainable. Otherwise, we’ll just recreate the same problem. It’s important for decision-makers to be aware that some products said to be recyclable or compostable aren’t truly so; sometimes facilities can’t accommodate it, or the user doesn’t dispose of it properly. For example, some facilities end up sorting out compostable cutlery as it often looks the same as plastic cutlery, and they don’t always have the capacity to verify each piece.

As with any step toward sustainability, Canada’s single-use plastics ban isn’t perfect. Some key details are still missing, but it makes one thing clear: our country and the world’s economy relies much too heavily on plastic, and it’s time to start shifting away from it.