Single-use food containers became a necessary evil during the pandemic. Restaurants were kept afloat by takeout orders, and diners relied on delivery to stave off the monotony of home cooking. The health crisis remains top of mind, but our ongoing plastic crisis is in dire need of renewed attention.
Recently, Montreal became the first major Canadian city to set a hard timeline for phasing out single-use plastics. Retailers and restaurants have until next August to do away with plastic bags; six months later, single-use items such as food containers, cups, lids, utensils and stir sticks will suffer the same fate.
Montreal’s urgency may have something to do with the fact the city’s only landfill is expected to fill up entirely by 2029, but it’s an urgency all jurisdictions, including Winnipeg, should share.
Fewer offshore countries are willing to take Canada’s plastic waste — until 2018, we were shipping 96 per cent of our scrap plastic to China (an unsustainable and unfair so-called "solution" to the problem). Since being cut off, the country has been forced to reckon with its wastefulness.
Our recycling capacity is also nowhere near able to match our plastic use. Of the three million tonnes of plastic waste Canadians throw away every year, only nine per cent is actually recycled. The vast majority ends up in landfills, with a significant amount making its way into the natural environment, where some breaks down into harmful microplastics that poison wildlife and pollute our drinking water.
Last October, the federal government introduced a plan to ban checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and food containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics. The national plan also proposed to expand local recycling programs and make plastic producers and sellers responsible for collecting their own products.
The regulations for phasing out select plastics are set to be announced at the end of this year — although the federal election outcome could put a wrench in those plans — and the goal is to achieve zero plastic waste in Canada by 2030. Manitoba also tabled a bill to ban plastic bags and straws by the beginning of this year, but it was put on hold indefinitely amid the pandemic.
Instead of waiting for higher governments to make the call, Winnipeg should follow Montreal’s lead and implement its own plastic ban. Garbage and recycling is a municipal responsibility, and the city currently diverts a paltry 32 per cent of its waste from the landfill annually through recycling. A plastic ban could help reduce the overall amount of garbage heading to the curb.
For a ban to succeed, financial support and creative alternatives to plastic will be needed locally. Some retailers have already returned to brown paper shopping bags, while many restaurants have made the switch to compostable clamshells, cups and cutlery — although, the latter can be cost-prohibitive.
It’s also important to avoid putting all our eggs in a biodegradable basket. Compostable waste is still waste, and Winnipeg is still lacking in the municipal composting department, which means many of those environmentally friendly packages end up decomposing and releasing harmful methane gas in the landfill. The focus going forward should be on reducing how much we rely on single-use plastic.
There are many examples of companies banning plastic from their business models, but like every environmental crisis facing the world today, individual choice will never be able to make up for inferior political will. Governments large and small need to enact policies that address the problem of plastics or risk a future ruled by garbage. Plastic straws should be the final, well, straw.