Environmental groups across Canada are calling on the plastics industry to end their lawsuit against the federal government, calling it a “trashy tactic” to stop meaningful action against plastic waste.
On May 12, the federal government added “items made of plastic” to the list of toxic substances under Canada’s Environmental Protection Act. Within a few days, 27 members of the US $ 35 billion Canadian plastics industry founded the Responsible Plastic Use Coalition.
The label “toxic” allows the government to ban six single-use plastic items – plastic bags, plastic straws, cutlery, stir sticks, six-pack rings, and take-away containers made of hard-to-recycle plastic – by the end of 2021 without introducing new laws. The designation also enables the government to require that new plastic products contain recycled content.
In Canada’s Environmental Protection Act, toxins are defined as substances that cause immediate or long-term damage to the environment, biodiversity or human health.
Members of the coalition include Canada’s three largest plastics producers: NOVA Chemical, Dow Chemical and Imperial Oil / ExxonMobil. These three companies make about three-quarters of the plastic polymers made in Canada. Plastic polymers are made from ethane, a component of natural gas. These polymers are then made into plastic items, including packaging that is often used only once and then thrown away.
Every day in Canada at least 8,000 tons of plastic waste ends up in landfills, incinerators or directly in nature. According to a 2019 government study, only nine percent of plastic in Canada is recycled after it’s used.
Environmental groups – such as the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defense, Greenpeace Canada, Health and Environment Justice Support, Sierra Club Ontario, Surfrider Foundation Canada, and Toronto Environmental Alliance – are calling on the federal government to defend the “toxic” listing and move swiftly to address it implement the promised regulations.
The Canadian government wants to achieve its zero plastic waste target by 2030.
The Responsible Plastic Use Coalition states: “The declaration of objects made of plastic as ‘toxic’ is a considerable excess by the federal government and will have unnecessary and unintended consequences.”
According to The Globe and Mail, the coalition document filed in federal court reads:
“The definition of ‘made of plastic’ is an incredibly broad term that encompasses thousands of products essential to modern life, from medical devices to food packaging to personal protective equipment.”
The coalition also argues that the label “toxic” is unconstitutional because waste disposal is a provincial, not a federal, jurisdiction. In addition, the coalition notes that the federal government has not provided sufficient scientific evidence to justify a “toxic” label.
However, University of Ottawa law and economics professor Stewart Elgie told The Globe that Canada’s environmental protection law includes the precautionary principle as a guiding principle.
As quoted in The Globe, the law states: “When serious or irreversible harm is threatened, the lack of complete scientific certainty should not be used as a reason to postpone cost-effective measures to prevent environmental damage.”
Because of this, Elgie told The Globe, governments don’t need scientific assurance in order to take regulatory action.
The coalition claims that “the challenge we face is not that plastic is toxic, but rather the challenge of post-consumer plastic in the environment resulting from human behavior and systemic waste management and lack of recycling.”
As Karen Wirsig, program manager for plastics at Environmental Defense, stated in a joint press release with other environmental groups:
“Big Plastic likes to pretend that the plastic waste is someone else’s fault: consumers, garbage cans and municipal waste management. But the real problem is that there is already too much plastic and the industry doesn’t want the government to do anything about it. “
Wirsig pointed out that the European Union, Kenya, Australia, New Zealand and China are all enforcing single-use plastic bans.
“It is time Canada did the same,” she said in a July 8 statement.
Plastics and federal funding
A December 2020 report by Greenpeace Canada found that between 2017 and 2020, federal and provincial governments allocated more than $ 334 million to virgin plastics manufacturers, with millions more allocated during the pandemic.
Ironically, one of the companies suing the federal government has received millions from the same government in recent years. In 2018, NOVA Chemical received a grant of US $ 35 million from the German government’s Strategic Investment Fund for a new polyethylene plant to manufacture virgin plastics.
When asked if NOVA Chemical should return the money, Wirsig replied by email:
“It is unfortunate that the government is subsidizing plastic production on the one hand and trying to combat plastic pollution on the other. Worse still, NOVA Chemical has taken money from the federal government that it can now use against us. Should NOVA pay back the money? “Sure. But more important at this point is to drop the lawsuit that wastes public resources so we can focus on protecting the environment.”
The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) published a report in September 2017 with the title “Plastic Industry Awareness of the Ocean Plastics Problem”.
The report revealed that researchers discovered plastic in the digestive tract of seabirds as early as 1960. Big plastic and petrochemical companies, including Dow Chemical and Mobil (now ExxonMobil), knew about plastic pollution in the oceans as early as 1973 but did nothing about it.
In fact, Mobil Oil introduced plastic bags to the United States in 1976
Plastic bottles and bags are now the most widespread plastic waste in the oceans.
“#ExxonKnew” usually refers to the company’s decades of denial and cover-up of climate change, but should now be expanded to include the company’s knowledge of plastic pollution in the oceans.
In the United States, cities and states have filed nearly two dozen lawsuits against the oil industry over environmental degradation compounded by decades of lies and deceit to quell climate warnings from their own scientists. The same fees could be charged for plastic pollution.
The fact that Imperial Oil / ExxonMobil is suing the government to suspend action against the plastics regulation is outrageous, but it fits in with the industry’s efforts. Many fossil fuel companies view petrochemicals and plastics as “the backdrop to the future of their industry, the product the world really cannot live without”.
But as Greenpeace Canada’s plastic activist Laura Yates stated in the same joint press release:
“Our only way out of this crisis is to phase out investments in single-use plastics and petrochemicals and adopt and support reusable models. Canadians must help the federal government enforce the proposed ban on single-use plastic, and tell Big Plastic they have lied enough. “
Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books. It can be reached at www.joycenelson.ca
Image: Chemist 4U / Flickr