Current government initiatives
Many businesses, business associations and NGOs have done a tremendous amount of work to reduce packaging waste, but their efforts are not having a deep impact on the system because only a limited amount of focus is on reducing the generation of packaging. Within the waste management hierarchy, recycling receives the most attention, but it is not the first stage of the hierarchy. Without regulatory interventions that shift the focus to reducing packaging or changing the materials in the packaging, these efforts will continue to be sub-optimal. In part, this is because many private companies are reluctant to change packaging in a way that challenges consumer behaviour and investment sensibilities (NZWC, 2020). This is why the state needs to step in. But to date, government initiatives are insufficient.
Oceans Plastics Charter
Adopted at the 2018 G7 meetings, Canada has committed to actions (with international and domestic partners) under the Oceans Plastics Charter. Addressing only part of the food packaging problem, but covering a wider range of sectors, it contains many commitments related to clean up, recycling, product development, secondary markets and alternative measures (e,g., working with industry towards 100% reusable, recyclable, or, where viable alternatives do not exist, recoverable, plastics by 2030). With regard to the Waste Management hierarchy (see below), it is notable that reducing the production and use of plastics as part of sustainable lifestyles is discussed only as a research initiative, and as it relates to limiting single use plastics. The majority of commitments and targets relate to lower levels of the hierarchy, and while important, once again demonstrates a failure to address the fundamental problems of plastics and packaging. This, despite government's using the hierarchy in their reports (cf. Government of Canada, 2019). Equally problematic is the absence of implementation plans and details on the federal government's web site supporting the Charter, though it may be that it considers the CCME Action Plan on Zero Plastic Waste and the proposed integrated management approach to plastic products (see below) as the plan for the Charter.
Federal and intergovernmental
As discussed in the Jurisdiction section, the federal government does have food safety authority and a number of measures are in place to regulate this aspect of the food packaging story. Because environmental protection is primarily provincial, and the federal government has yet to play an active leadership and co-ordination role in this area, it is not yet clear on many aspects of food packaging and the environment whether the federal government can or wants to act alone. The focus has primarily been on plastic waste, not the wider issues related to resource extraction.
A Canada-wide Action Plan on Extended Producer Responsibility and an Action Plan on Sustainable Packaging were adopted by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment in 2009. The EPR plan for packaging, targeted for 6 year implementation, had not been well executed at the time of a benchmarking study (see Giroux, 2016), with significant inconsistencies across the provinces, and activities to that point largely reflecting a very limited EPR approach focused on who pays for end-of-life costs and diversion. Very little regulatory infrastructure has been proposed, or is in place, to require reformulation and redesign of products to minimize resource use and extraction,despite that being central to an EPR approach.
The Sustainable Packaging Action Plan was nominally motivated by concern for energy consumption and resource use. It's intent, like the EPR plan, was to create a harmonized nation-wide approach. "CCME envisions a Canada where packaging is safe and of benefit to people, the economy and the environment, and where zero waste is created throughout the packaging life cycle" (CCME, 2009:9). It suffers, however, from the same weakness as all government initiatives in this area, a focus on the back end, and a failure to implement measures that redesign packaging to minimize resource use.
Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment’s have since adopted an action plan to implement the Canada-wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste (Government of Canada, 2019). Priorities include co-ordinating consistent EPR implementation across the country (it appears mostly a voluntary guidelines approach to be ready by the end of 2020); single use plastics; performance standards for recyclable plastic content, certified compostable items, and repair, re-manufacturing and refurbishment; incentives for a circular economy (regulating contaminating additives, low landfill costs, and materials that can't readily be recycled); infrastructure and capital to support industry change; procurement changes and green operations. Many of the commitments are to be implemented by 2022.
Approximately one - third of plastics used in Canada are single use. In 2019, the federal government announced (as part of its commitment to the Oceans Plastics Charter) a nation-wide ban on harmful single-use plastics, as identified by evidence, to be implemented by 2021 under CEPA (PMO, 2019). This would be carried out under the provisions of CEPA toxic that state a substance is toxic "if it is entering or may enter the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that (a) have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity; (b) constitute or may constitute a danger to the environment on which life depends." (CEPA, s64). If deemed CEPA toxic, the government can enact measures to ban import and sale, and develop mitigation strategies. Such an initiative would likely mirror the intervention to ban microbeads in toiletries. The stage may have been set for such an intervention by the Federal Government's 2020 Draft Scientific Assessment of Plastic Pollution (and final assessment released in Oct. 2020) which opines that there is sufficient scientific evidence to conclude that "macroplastics have been demonstrated to cause physical harm to environmental receptors on an individual level and to have the potential to adversely affect habitat integrity". In October 2020, more details were announced (ECCC, 2020). The proposed banned single use plastics are
- Checkout bags
- Stir sticks
- Beverage six-pack rings
- Food packaging made from plastics that are difficult to recycle
Not included in the proposed ban that are part of the food system are:
- Garbage bags
- Milk bags
- Snack food wrappers
- Beverage containers and lids
The federal government also announced plans, related to the CCME action plan on plastics, for improvements that better recover and recycle plastic and to establish recycled content requirements in products and packaging. All these provisions are open to comment until Dec. 2020, with plans for implementation by the end of 2021. Also announced was over $2M for 14 new Canadian-led plastic reduction projects through the Zero Plastic Waste Initiative.
Governments are working with industry, universities and NGOs to prevent and retrieve ghost fishing gear. DFO has reporting requirements, and grant programs for new technologies that help reduce the loss of gear and clean-up the oceans (Ghost Gear Fund). Rope and net recycling programs are being implemented, with some of the recovered material being turned into diesel fuel (Walker et al., 2020).
The federal government has also committed to reducing plastic waste from federal operations, a 75% reduction of plastic waste by 2030. This clearly involves changes to procurement, but there are few details at this point about how this will be implemented. It has also committed to support community-led action and citizen-science activities at the level of $1.5 million for organizations to start new plastics projects. Given the scale of the problem, this is an exceedingly small amount and, as discussed in numerous places on this site, grant programs are typically limited in their effectiveness.
The Canada-wide Action Plan on Extended Producer Responsibility involves 3 phases and most provinces by 2017 had implemented numerous elements of Phase I. BC was the first to complete Phase I, whereas the Atlantic provinces and Alberta have been significantly slower, with Alberta the only province without significant EPR implementation. Many provinces are still working with Product Stewardship programs that are not based on EPR. Product stewardship programs have had some success, but are deficient relative to what is possible with an EPR approach. Phase II, with the addition of new sectors of the economy, has barely been implemented and is behind schedule (Arnold, 2019). Phase I and II do not fully address all packaging materials, with the focus mostly on paperboard and recyclable containers.
Municipalities have primary responsibility for waste management, mandated by provinces, including recycling. However, most municipalities are primarily concerned with diversion from landfill, not integrating their waste management program with a circular economy approach. While certain materials have high rates of diversion and recycling (e.g., aluminum), others are very low (only 9% of all plastics in Canada are recycled, with 84% in landfill, 4% incinerated, and 1% littered, Deloitte and Cheminfo Services, 2019). Different municipalities have different rules about what they collect and recycle. Clearly, recycling programs in Canada are not working very well, particularly since China stopped taking alot of Canada's materials in 2018.
Some municipalities have imposed charges or banned thin plastic shopping bags to encourage use of reusable bags, paper and carboard boxes (e.g., Montreal, Victoria), while others have bans or charges on food packaging, disposable cups, or straws (for a breakdown, see Retail Council of Canada). Toronto implemented a ban and then charges but the programs failed, although some companies continued to charge after the by-law was rescinded. At least two provinces, NS and NL, have imminent province - wide bans affecting all municipalities on single use plastics. It all adds up to an incoherent and spotty patchwork of responses.
NGO and business initiatives with some governmental participation
Many NGOs and industry bodies (e.g., National Zero Waste Council, Cleanfarms) are involved in packaging and waste issues, in part because of government failures in this area. Many businesses have changed practices, sometimes in response to NGO or government pressure, sometimes based on their interpretation of changes in consumer attitudes and behaviour. Governments have to some degree incentivized innovation in plastic packaging, as part of their suite of initiatives discussed above. Some community organizations have received funding under the Zero Plastic Waste Initiative.