Bans on single-use plastics are on the rise. As media attention increasingly focuses on the topic, jurisdictions all over the world are introducing bans on single-use plastic products such as grocery bags, utensils, and cups.
The bans respond to the growing, and increasingly recognized, problem of plastic pollution. It is estimated that approximately a trillion plastic bags are used around the world every year—of which 3 billion are used in Canada alone. The average plastic bag is used for 20 minutes and takes more than 400 years to break down. Much of the planet’s plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans and other water bodies. Over time plastics persist in the environment, particularly in water, in the form of microplastics, where they threaten marine biodiversity and, potentially, human health.
At an international level, in December 2017, the United Nations Environment Assembly, the governing body of the United Nations Environmental Programme (“UNEP”), published a Draft Resolution on Marine Litter and Microplastics. The Resolution encourages states and stakeholders to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution” by 2025. (Note that a stronger resolution that would have committed states to binding targets was rejected). UNEP also recently launched a campaign encouraging people to end their “toxic relationship” with single-use plastic by “breaking up” in time for Valentine’s Day.
In January 2018, the European Union introduced its pan-European strategy for reducing plastics as part of achieving a circular economy. This strategy seeks to improve the biodegradability and recyclability of plastics, including requiring that all plastic packaging be recyclable or reusable by 2030.
In North America, municipalities have introduced bans on plastic bags. In Canada, currently at least 18 cities have banned single-use plastic bags in some way, with additional cities considering implementing similar by-laws.
China’s recent ban on all imports from developed countries of certain kinds of solid waste, including plastics for recycling, has made the reduction of plastic waste even more urgent. The ban, which came into effect on January 1, 2018, has left many jurisdictions scrambling to find ways to deal with backlogs of unwanted plastic waste, including through increasingly aggressive policies designed to encourage reduction.
Given this landscape, it’s almost certain that such bans are destined to continue to proliferate, both in Canadian jurisdictions and abroad.