When pressed by the Conservatives about reports this week that he had previously met with an individual now accused of running an illegal casino operation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the opposition of chasing unhelpful distractions.
As Trudeau declared in the House during question period Wednesday, “the Conservatives are focused on trying to score political points at a time where Canadians expect people to come together and work for them in this COVID crisis … so regardless of what the Conservatives want to focus on, we will stay focused on Canadians in this pandemic.”
Trudeau is not wrong about what ought to be the government’s primary focus at the moment.
It was more than a little awkward, however, to make such a statement on the very same day that the government was focused on an issue that in no way helps address this pandemic.
The federal government announced Wednesday that they will be pressing ahead with plans to ban single-use plastics by the end of next year. Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson prefaced the announcement with the declaration that “we are living in extraordinary times.”
We are indeed, but not in the way that he meant.
A study released in August found that Canadians have actually been using more plastic products and food packaging since the pandemic began. Not surprising, given the increase in restaurant take-out options and hygienic concerns around reusable items.
As one of the authors put it, “a lot of Canadians are not overly keen now to see bans. They want to just see industry and government wait until we’re done with this pandemic.”
Certainly for restaurants, which have already been hard-hit by this pandemic and face all sorts of new economic uncertainty with rising cases and new restrictions in Ontario and Quebec, the timing of this announcement is mystifying.
We have put restaurants in a position where they had had to rely more on plastics — everything from plexiglass and other PPE to bags, packaging, cutlery, and straws for take-out — and now we’re throwing them this curveball at a time when they’re fighting for their survival.
There simply aren’t widely available alternatives for restaurants to simply switch over to, and it’s not fair to put this burden on them.
Why the rush here? It’s hard to see why the government can’t take a slower and more collaborative approach that would involve developing alternatives and giving consumers and municipalities more options when it comes to recycling plastic products.
There’s also the question of unintended consequences, above and beyond the negative economic consequences that will surely befall the restaurant and the plastics industries.
For example, if we eliminate plastic grocery bags, what might consumers switch to as a result? In 2018, an Australian researcher took a closer look at the impact of California’s ban on plastic grocery bags, and found some interesting consequences. Fewer plastic bags were used, to be sure, but far more paper bags — which can be much worse for the environment — were used as a result.
So the 40 million-pound annual reduction in plastic bag trash was offset by an 80 million-pound increase in paper bag waste.
Furthermore, because people no longer had grocery store plastic bags to line their garbage bins, sales of plastic garbage bags skyrocketed.
Even when it comes to the problem of plastic pollution — which the government has specifically pointed to — it’s unclear whether this approach will have any impact. Single-use plastics are a tiny portion of the overall amount of plastic products used by Canadians, and Canada’s overall contribution to the problem is quite miniscule. Ottawa’s own numbers show Canada is a source of only about 0.4 per cent of ocean plastic pollution.
Even absent a pandemic, there are reasons to be concerned about the government’s proposed ban. But in the midst of a pandemic, it’s hard to see how it makes any sense at all to prioritize this.
The prime minister should heed his own words and put the focus where it needs to be.
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