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Facing national ban, plastics re-emerge as convenient alternative during pandemic

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The impact of COVID-19 has not only forced some of Canada’s environmental protection services to be temporarily suspended, it has also delayed the implementation of new environmental protection legislation.

From the closing of a Calgary recycling plant due to a COVID-19 outbreak, to B.C’s endorsement of plastic bags that were set to be banned on a national level, Canada is experiencing some environmental fallout in most provinces during the ongoing pandemic. As are many jurisdictions around the world.

“As the COVID-19 virus spreads across the country, single-use plastics will only become more vital,” advised the U.S.-based Plastics Industry Association in an announcement at the beginning of the pandemic, referring to items such as surgical masks, gloves, protective equipment and body bags.

Canada, which has been moving towards a single-use plastics ban under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, recently extended the required comment period on a scientific assessment of the problem by 30 days, closing May 1 instead of April 1. Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson last week told The Canadian Press that while Canada is still committed to banning single-use plastics, some delays under the pandemic are to be expected.

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Plastic bags in particular had become a regular target under the development of the proposed single-use plastics ban, but fears of viral contamination from reusable bags owned by shoppers appeared to grow. In B.C., chief public health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry issued guidance saying, “Customers should not use their own containers, reusable bags or boxes.” The guidance came just two months after B.C. officials had been considering a province-wide ban on plastic bags at the retail level.

In the U.S., cities such as Boston have granted a temporary exemption to an already existing plastic bag ordinance, “to give establishments and residents the help they need during this time,” the city’s mayor said in a statement.

The move back to plastic for shopping has been somewhat unwarranted in the mind of some experts. They point out that, while different kinds of disposable packaging have different microbial limits, “the truth is single-use plastic is not synonymous with hygiene,” writes Ashley Wallis, plastics program manager with Environmental Defence. While not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, the novel coronavirus can survive on most surfaces, including plastic. Some studies have found the virus remains longer on plastic than other materials such as cardboard or copper.

In terms of plastic, more of it appears to be ending up in landfills as some municipalities suspend curbside recycling services as a precaution or necessity. Calgary Emergency Management Agency chief Tom Sampson says the city’s Cascades recycling facility had some 19 people test positive for COVID-19 and shut down the building to sterilize.

“The city will continue to collect materials from blue carts and community recycling depots but we have no viable alternatives but to take those materials to landfill until the sorting facility resumes normal operations,” Sampson said in an official statement.

In eastern Ontario, Quinte Waste Solutions, which provides recycling to nine municipalities, temporarily suspended collection of most hazardous and electronic waste for proper disposal.

“We ask that all hazardous and electronic waste be held onto until we regain normal operation,” the company said in a recent statement.

In Nova Scotia, too, several recycling depots have closed.

Even Blue Box legislation has been affected by COVID-19. In Ontario, the Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks has extended the deadline for Stewardship Ontario to submit its proposed Blue Box Program Wind-up Plan to the authority to August 31, 2020, instead of June 30. 

Beyond Plastic

While many news articles have reported improvements in air and water quality due to lockdowns during the pandemic, there are also environmental drawbacks, and some environmental action organizations have written to the federal government out of fear that some environmental laws may be rolled back under the guise of helping the economy recover.

In early April, Ontario passed a regulation under its Environment Bill of Rights that suspends the requirement for a 30-day consultation under the pretext of the need to act quickly to handle the COVID-19 emergency. The regulation requires public comment on any policy that affects water, air, land or wildlife.

Alberta’s Energy Regulator has also suspended almost all environmental monitoring requirements for the energy sector, including soil, water and air pollution.

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