John Ivison: Why the Liberals' plastic plan may need recycling

The government’s confidence in its ability to change consumer and producer behaviour is puzzling, in light of past failures to execute on its grand designs

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I doubt I am the only householder to be shocked by the revelation of how small a percentage of plastic is recycled from the small mountain we lug to the curb in our blue boxes.

Just nine per cent of the three million tonnes produced a year is re-used, with the rest ending up in landfills or, worse, entering the environment as pollution.

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson wheeled out an impressive array of supporting statistics to justify the government’s ban on single use plastics like straws, six-pack rings, coffee stir sticks, cutlery, food containers and the 15 billion grocery bags we use annually.

These products are difficult to recycle and there are readily-available alternatives, Wilkinson said, pointing out that restaurants like Starbucks and A&W have already abandoned plastic straws and many brewers have done away with six-pack rings.

There may be restaurants that quibble about extra costs but I suspect few people will lament the demise of ownerless plastic bags billowing down our streets, or left stranded on our beaches.

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Likewise, there will probably be broad concurrence with the Liberal plan to create a more “circular” economy through regulated recycle content standards and targets towards recycling rates.

The goal is to get to zero plastic waste by 2030, with 50 per cent recycled content in plastic products. Wilkinson said the European Union’s target of a 90 per cent collection rate of plastic bottles is “an appropriate place to start in terms of level of ambition.”

It all sounds so reasonable – the rough plan released in a discussion paper on Wednesday will reduce 1.8 million tonnes of greenhouse gases and create 42,000 jobs, in addition to reducing the physical waste, the government said.

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But, like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, the Liberals have come up with the sentence first and the verdict afterwards.

The discussion paper notes that there is a weak end market for recycled plastics; that collection rates are low; and, that only a fraction of plastics are recycled because of infrastructure deficiencies.

Aaron Henry, senior director of natural resources and sustainable growth at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that there are only 39 facilities in this country that are able to recycle plastics and they are not evenly distributed, which creates inevitable problems in servicing rural communities.

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The Liberals seem to believe that, with the stroke of a pen, they resolve those problems; that they will create a market by imposing recycled content requirements, which they hope will incentivize investment in sorting and processing facilities.

The government’s confidence in its ability to change consumer and producer behaviour is puzzling, in light of past failures to execute on its grand designs.

Requirements for recycled content in products and packaging “will drive investment in recycling infrastructure and spur innovation in technology and products design to extend the life of plastic material”, it said in its release.

Perhaps. Alberta released plans this week to help create the circular economy that Wilkinson was talking about by establishing itself as a “centre for excellence” for recycling.

For once, Ottawa’s plan might create economic opportunities in Alberta, though the petrochemical industry might argue otherwise, given the cost implications of increased recycled content and the imminent introduction of a clean fuel standard.

The danger is that the recycled content requirements are too onerous and it becomes yet another regulation strangling an industry already under pressure.

Responding to the announcement, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage pointedly said Alberta had the right to develop its natural resources.

“One thing we know for sure is that we have a very robust petrochemical plan here in Alberta. It’s part of our natural gas strategy. It’s part of our need to recover as a province and create jobs and diversify our economy,” she said Wednesday.

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Businesses are also worried that any plan will fall foul of the new trade agreement with the United States, under its chemical substances annex. Wilkinson dismissed the concern with the same assurance his government treats all naysayers, pointing out new regulations would “treat products manufactured here or elsewhere in the same way.”

Experience suggests that things will go less smoothly than the government tells us they will.

But it would be nice if this time its confidence is not misplaced, if only to extinguish the nagging sense that there is actually a net cost to the environment in vigorously rinsing out a peanut butter jar in hot water before throwing it in the blue box.

? Email: jivison@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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