Environmental experts are praising the Montreal plastic ban that will see the city prohibit the use of some kinds of single-use plastics, but they say Canada is still a long way from its apparent targets of being plastic-free.
Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante announced on Wednesday that the city would ban retailers and restaurants from distributing plastic bags in the city by end of August 2022.
Six months later, a number of other single-use items will be banned, she said, including takeout food containers, cups, lids, utensils and stir sticks made from unrecyclable or hard-to-recycle plastics.
Plante described her city’s plan as the most ambitious in North America, particularly in its focus on reducing plastic at the source. “For some cities, recycling is priority No. 1,” she said. “For us, it’s reducing, reducing, reducing.”
She added that the 12- and 18-month delays in the bylaws coming into effect should give businesses ample time to adjust, as well as offering entrepreneurs opportunities to help fill the void left by plastic products.
Karel Ménard, executive director for the Quebec Coalition for Ecological Waste, hailed the move as an important first step. “I think it is the first time that a large city such as Montreal aims for reduction at the source,” he said.
Ashley Wallis, a plastics pollution expert for environmental charity Oceana Canada, also gave particular praise for the decision to include drink cups on the list of banned items — something other governments, including Ottawa, have stopped short of doing.
“We do know that 47 per cent of Canada’s plastic waste is from single-use plastics and plastics packaging, so I think there is a huge opportunity by focusing on things like these single-use takeaway items,” Wallis said.
A long way to go
However, Wallis said despite the cities’ best efforts, Canada is still far away from a plastic-free future.
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In 2019, the federal government announced it intended to ban several single-use plastic items, including plastic bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and hard-to-recycle takeout containers. Those regulations, which Wallis called “too narrowly scoped”, were promised by end of 2021 but have yet to be unveiled. Wallis fears they could be derailed by the upcoming federal election.
Montreal’s plan contains some omissions, as it doesn’t include cardboard takeout containers with plastic coating, polystyrene trays used to package meat and fish, or single-use plastic items used by non-profit organizations who distribute food or establishments that only do delivery.
It also can’t affect anything outside the city’s jurisdiction, which includes grocery store items because they’re packaged outside city limits.
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Wallis notes these as areas that still need to be addressed, and stressed that federal legislation on plastic should include takeout cups and all forms of polystyrene and oxo-degradable plastics, which break down quickly. Longer-term, she said a comprehensive, sector-by-sector plan to reduce and reuse plastic will be imperative, with manufacturers being given the main responsibility for collection and recycling.
Meanwhile, Karen Wirsig, the plastics program manager for advocacy group Environmental Defence, said more federal and provincial action is needed to push back against a plastics industry that is reluctant to change. The most effective way to do that, she said, is to “make the people who produce those things responsible for them at end of life,” and make sure they can’t just bury or burn them.
While that’s largely a provincial and federal effort, she said cities, too, have a role to play. In addition to banning plastic items, Wirsig said cities can create more local infrastructure to help businesses and restaurants offer reusable containers. “Nationwide standards are important. But for things like infrastructure, those really need to be local,” she said.
Wirsig acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic had represented a setback for plastic reduction efforts.
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However, she said it was also an opportunity for creative thinking. Takeout and delivery packaging has become more problematic with the rise in off-premises consumption, but the pandemic also led many people to question their relationship to their local environments.
“There’s no question that the pandemic put us back, but I think it’s also been a moment where people are rethinking their relationship with their surroundings, their relationship with their local environment, and it may be a great moment to change some of those old ways we had,” Wirsig concluded.