Why Canada must push for a G7 plastics charter

As featured in The Globe and Mail on June 3, 2018.

By John Coyne

John Coyne is vice-president, legal and external affairs at Unilever Canada and executive board chair of Canadian Stewardship Services Alliance (CSSA).

The federal government will advocate for a “plastics charter” at this week’s G7 summit in Quebec. Many are framing this charter as a potential Paris-style agreement for the clean-up of ocean garbage and Canadians can rightly take pride in this global leadership.

The plastics charter couldn’t be more timely or necessary. Every year, humans allow more than eight million tonnes of plastic to enter the world’s oceans. At this pace, there will be one pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish in the oceans by 2025. Already, microplastics are entering the food chain through ocean organisms at an alarming rate that will only accelerate without urgent, determined and co-ordinated action by governments, businesses and consumers.

Keeping plastics out of our oceans is not only right for the environment and the future of our species, it’s also good for business. Plastics are an important material with rapidly expanding uses, but 95 per cent of global plastic packaging ends up as waste and is lost to the economy, creating costs and lost opportunity.

The plastics charter will be an important step toward achieving a circular economy – one in which all plastics are recaptured as a reliable stream of resources to be properly repurposed. The elegant beauty behind a circular economy is that it’s an economy without a tailpipe. Nothing gets dumped into the ground, emitted into the atmosphere or shunted into our oceans and waterways. Waste is designed out of the system.

Another essential element of a circular economy is extended producer responsibility (EPR), which places the financial and operational responsibility for material recovery on the businesses that sell products to consumers. It creates a natural incentive to design products and packaging that have less impact on the environment. And, when accompanied by the operation of more efficient material-recovery systems, it can create the economies of scale necessary to support a circular economy.

In Canada, true EPR for packaging and paper is only in effect in British Columbia. Across the rest of the country, we have a patchwork of regulations and collection regimes. Four provinces (Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) regulate businesses with shared responsibility programs in which businesses pay either a portion or all of municipal recovery and recycling costs.

Shared responsibility causes fragmentation because it leaves the operational decisions to individual municipalities. Consequently, across a single province there can be hundreds of different recycling programs. Fragmentation creates confusion for consumers since neighbours across municipal boundaries are not recycling the same set of materials; businesses are not made accountable for their packaging choices because they have no way of influencing local programs; and essential economies of scale cannot be achieved.

But what is required to make EPR from coast-to-coast a successful reality? All levels of government, businesses and consumers have important roles to play to achieve better outcomes.

The federal government can take the lead by establishing a national framework that places the responsibility on businesses to collect and manage their packaging. It can establish common definitions for recycling, set targets and standardize labelling.

Provincial and territorial governments can collectively apply a national EPR framework that recognizes local geographic and socioeconomic realities while providing consistent regulatory oversight and enforcement. They can also stimulate better material recovery by using economic instruments such as disposal bans.

For municipalities and First Nations communities, there are opportunities to collaborate with businesses as commercial partners to achieve mutual benefits and better outcomes for residents.

Businesses that produce consumer materials have much to gain by assuming full responsibility for recycling their packaging and paper. Businesses can also set their own corporate packaging and recycled-content goals, which in turn can help drive up demand for recycled material.

And for all of us, we can learn to recycle frequently and well because as consumers, we need to adapt how we approach consumption.

EPR is a transcendent idea that you can find a compelling rationale for, regardless of your jurisdiction or your politics.

While a national framework for EPR won’t solve the plastics crisis or eliminate climate change on its own, it is an essential component of a circular economy. Leadership is necessary and Canadians are increasingly expecting a bolder, more effective range of solutions here and around the world. It’s time for everyone to play their part in building a prosperous, circular future.