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OPINION: Court case could kill progress on plastic pollution in Canada

‘The world is beginning to act to reduce the plastic crisis’
FILE – The Ocean Cleanup project’s latest iteration of plastic-collecting technology, the System 002, will leave Victoria and heads to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Photo courtesy of the Ocean Cleanup/ Twitter)

In case you missed it, the country’s biggest plastic producers are taking the Canadian government to court to attempt to overturn critical regulatory tools in the fight against plastic pollution. A Federal Court judge will hear the case in Toronto next week, starting on March 7.

Canadians overwhelmingly want to see plastic pollution tackled at the source, so we all must understand what’s at risk with this plastic lawsuit. In the time it takes to read this, roughly the equivalent of three garbage trucks of plastic will have entered the ocean – and that rate is increasing rapidly.

Plastic pollution plagues our planet, causing suffering, injury and death to animals on land, and in lakes and oceans. Countless animals, including whales, sea turtles, sea lions and seabirds have been documented starving, drowning, becoming entangled or suffering internal injuries because of their interactions with plastic pollution.

Many of these plastics killing wildlife are single-use items. Marketed as convenient for people on the go and used for mere minutes; they are usually the most common types of plastics found in the environment.

The impact of plastic pollution doesn’t end with wildlife. Our health is at risk, too. When plastics get into the environment, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics, that animals like fish confuse with food.

This form of plastic pollution provides a direct pathway for plastics to enter our food chain and our bodies. Microplastics are found in human blood, lung tissue and even in placentas, exposing babies to plastic pollution before they are born.

Because of the harm they are causing to animals and the environment, the federal government listed plastic manufactured items as Toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) – a necessary first step that provides the government the authority to regulate these items.

While CEPA may not be well known to most Canadians, it is the tool that has been used successfully to regulate other toxic substances like asbestos and DDT in Canada. The Toxic listing is the foundation of the federal government’s ability to fight plastic pollution, including the recent ban on checkout bags, cutlery, food service ware, stir sticks, straws and six-pack ring carriers.

While the plastic industry — led in this case by Dow Chemical, NOVA Chemicals and Imperial Oil, and backed by the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan — is fighting this progress, it is not providing real solutions to the plastic crisis at the scale we need.

They point to recycling as a solution, while knowing full well that less than nine per cent of plastic waste is recycled. Worse, the industry suggests the carcinogen releasing practice of burning plastics as an emerging solution to plastic waste.

Now is the time for the plastic industry to come forward with real solutions, like providing Canadians alternatives to unnecessary plastic packaging, rather than fighting progress. In the face of a global plastic disaster, continuing to ramp up production of single-use plastic, which the industry is not responsible for after sale, is a business model that fills their wallets and fails all of us.

The stakes next week are high. This is why Animal Justice, Environmental Defence and Oceana Canada are intervening in support of strong federal action to reduce unnecessary and harmful plastics. This is an issue Canadians care deeply about. Recent Abacus Data polling for Oceana Canada found that 90 per cent of Canadians believe that the government must take responsibility to reduce the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean.

Canada is in step with the rest of the world when it comes to tackling plastic pollution: the European Union, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Rwanda and Australia are among some of the many jurisdictions that have already banned or are in the process of banning harmful single-use plastics.

The outcome of next week’s case will determine whether the federal government is right to regulate plastics in the interests of the public and the environment, or whether the plastic industry can continue unchecked to create products that Canadians don’t need and that our oceans cannot handle. It’s worth our attention.

The world is beginning to act to reduce the plastic crisis. The plastic industry can either offer the alternatives Canadians want and the planet needs, or continue to obstruct progress and push false solutions. So far, their choice is clear. It’s time for them to change course.

– Anthony Merante, Oceana Canada; Camille Labchuk, Animal Justice; and Karen Wirsig, Environmental Defence

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