A Canadian government plan to track plastics could help put more money into consumers’ pockets and keep plastic waste out of landfills.
The government announced Tuesday it’s seeking input on a new national plastics registry. Experts say it could create a lucrative system that encourages companies to salvage waste plastic and reimburse Canadians and retailers for dropping off scraps.
“Plastic waste is a commodity like anything else,” said Calvin Lakhan, a research scientist at York University’s faculty of environmental and urban change. “Right now, we’re not doing a very good job of recycling our plastics.”
The registry would track various plastic items produced in Canada. Everything from food and beverage containers to household appliances, clothing, tires and fishing equipment could fall under its scope. Government documents say the reporting requirements likely would apply to plastic producers, not consumers.
“The Government would use this information to measure progress toward zero plastic waste and inform actions to accelerate the transition to a circular economy,” says a news release from Environment and Climate Change Canada.
The federal government says the onus would fall on the producers of the plastic items to report how many items enter the market and what happens to them in the end.
The federal government says Canadians threw away 4.4 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2019 alone. Only nine per cent of it was recycled.
While a central aim of the registry is to reduce pollution and harm caused by plastic waste, the government says it could also help businesses “make investment decisions that will improve the design, manufacture, collection and management of plastics.”
According to one economic study, the plastic that ended up as litter or in landfills represented a $7.8 billion lost opportunity in 2016 for Canada.
More plastic deposit programs
One way of helping plastic producers keep track of the products at the end of their lives is to pay consumers and other users to return them — just like many do with alcoholic containers.
It’s already happening in British Columbia, where stricter provincial waste management regulations hold manufacturers, distributors and retailers accountable for what happens to the products they sell.
One solution the industry developed to keep track of its waste is a network of more than 160 Return-It depots scattered across B.C. The depots pay deposits in exchange for glass and plastic bottles, drink boxes with straws, drink pouches and even empty wine bags.
B.C.’s system has been tracking B.C.’s plastic waste for 30 years now, and has recovered over 25 billion beverage containers.
“We are absolutely running a plastics registry,” said Cindy Coutts, the president and CEO of Return-It. “We have most of the data the (federal) registry is looking for.”
To comply with the federal government’s new regulations, manufacturers in other parts of the country might want to adopt a similar return incentive model. Lakhan said that model offers a “significant opportunity” for consumers and businesses.
“We have an ability to actually incentivize consumers … to ensure that they’re able to take plastics back so that it doesn’t end up in the landfill and the environment through a return mechanism,” Lakhan said.
One grocer in the nation’s capital already has implemented a deposit return system to help track and reduce its plastic footprint.
The Red Apron, a gourmet grocer in downtown Ottawa, sells ready-to-eat meals. It used to use flimsy containers but now mostly offers rigid bowls that customers can return. Customers receive between $0.50 and $1.00 for each returned container. They can also donate the deposit fee.
“This is working. It makes sense. It is proving itself to be a success,” said Red Apron founder and co-owner Jennifer Heagle. “(More than) 200,000 containers have been used by us — 90 per cent have come back.”
The grocer bags the returned bowls (which customers often wash before returning) and their supplier, cleantech startup Friendlier, picks them up, sanitizes them and returns them at a cost that’s higher but still comparable to the cost of single-use food containers.
Friendlier’s customer base includes other places serving food, including school cafeterias. The company’s co-founder and chief revenue officer, Jacqueline Hutchings, said some students have used the incentive model as a money-making opportunity.
“We see students on college and university campuses going around and actually collecting these containers off of abandoned tables or out of the garbage and scanning them to accumulate funds to put towards different initiatives,” she said.
But only some plastic items can be tracked through such an incentive program. Some items inevitably will slip through into the black hole of Canada’s waste system.
An organization representing manufacturers argues the government’s plastic registry will place an unreasonable burden on the packaging industry.
Food, Health and Consumer Products of Canada, an industry group with more than 100 members from the consumer packaged goods industry, broadly supports tracking plastics but says some of what Ottawa is asking producers to do will be impossible.
“I get that they’re trying to get as much information as possible, but they’re putting the responsibility on the producer to track down information that I just don’t think is available to them,” said the organization’s CEO Michael Graydon.
Graydon said the industry already shares much information with provincial and territorial governments responsible for waste disposal in Canada. The government’s proposal, he said, could create unnecessary duplication.
The industry is not the only one expressing concern. Alberta’s Premier Danielle Smith suggested the federal government’s plastics registry could turn into federal overreach.
A national plastics registry… like for handguns but… run by Minister Steven Guilbeault ? <br><br>Read more: <a href=”https://t.co/Zqts1fCL7Q”>https://t.co/Zqts1fCL7Q</a> <a href=”https://t.co/mNpUl6FhCE”>pic.twitter.com/mNpUl6FhCE</a>
In a follow-up statement, Alberta’s environment minister called the proposed plastics registry a “waste of time, tax dollars” which will increase the cost of goods.
“Alberta is committed to effective plastics management, which is clearly the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories,” said Rebecca Schulz. “Ottawa needs to stay in their own lane rather than creating yet another costly and ineffective program that sounds good to Minister Guilbeault but will have little benefit to the environment.”
In a news release, Environment and Climate Change Canada said the registry would “complement existing reporting requirements such as those under provincial and territorial” programs.
The registry is expected to be phased in beginning in 2025 before fully kicking in 2028. The federal government said it would support the government’s goal of achieving zero plastic waste by 2030. Ottawa is consulting on the development of the registry until Feb. 13.