Plastic, more than meets the eye

What a toxic designation could mean for Canada’s plastics industry.

By Caroline Fyvie

When you think of plastics, you might think of grocery bags, plastic water bottles, straws, or product packaging. With several months of the pandemic behind us, maybe you think of face shields, plastic barriers at restaurants and bars, or gloves. Regardless of what comes to mind, we all know plastics are part of our everyday lives.

Last Fall, Canada’s federal government announced their proposed plastics ban. Some believe this ban is long-overdue, with the preliminary list of banned products including checkout bags, stir sticks, beverage six-pack rings, cutlery, food packaging made from plastics that are difficult to recycle, and of course, plastic straws.

The list sounds harmless enough, but there’s more to the story. Canada’s plastics industry is actually worth $35 billion in economic value annually. All the plastics we use aren’t just imported from outside the country. Nearly 100,000 Canadians are directly employed in the plastics industry, and it’s estimated another 280,000 are suppliers to the industry.

Canada’s plastics industry includes leaders in plastics manufacturing, such as Husky Injection Molding Systems, Ltd., where President and CEO, John Galt, and his team of 1,200 employees in Bolton, Ontario, make myriad items, including robots.

“We design and manufacture equipment for the processing of materials, most of which are plastic polymers. We also process and are on the leading edge of developing solutions for non-traditional or bio-based material processing in our machines. We make molds, robots, sub-systems, automation equipment, things of that nature. Matter of fact on a global scale, in certain markets, we are the largest supplier of manufacturing equipment to several segments of the plastics manufacturing industry. When new materials are developed to serve critical food, beverage, personal care, homecare or medical applications we are part of that development process.” Galt says.

With the federal government putting increasingly stringent legislation on the manufacturing industry in Canada, Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. has been involved with the Coalition of Concerned Manufacturers & Businesses of Canada (CCMBC) for the past year. The CCMBC represents manufacturers in every sector from small to medium businesses across the country with an aim to improve the policy framework in which Canadian businesses operate.

Grocery store products in plastic containers.

Jocelyn Bamford with the CCMBC, and Galt, both believe the most concerning part about the plastics ban is the fact the Canadian government wants to declare plastics as toxic. Bamford says it’s ridiculous to declare plastic as toxic when we wrap our foods in it because of its sterile nature. Galt also explains plastics are inert, meaning they do not adversely affect other matter which they come into contact with, and are therefore chosen for medical applications. According to both, the problem with declaring plastics as toxic, which isn’t proven, is that the government could then ban any type of plastic products thereafter.

“People are saying don’t worry about the toxic designation, we’re only banning things like straws,” notes Galt, “but if you read the actual document from the government and discussion papers, they tell quite a different story. They say plastics are toxic, they make a weak case, and then they go on to chart out virtually all plastics used in Canada as being potentially toxic and subject to some kind of regulation. As a company like us, and the rest of the industry, you have your chance to invest here or elsewhere; when those investments can be rendered useless with the flick of a pen from a government minister, why would I invest here in Canada?”

Declaring plastics as toxic creates all sorts of complications for not only Canadian manufacturers, but also international trade agreements. “This is where we start to get hundreds of questions and zero answers,” explains Galt, and says the U.S. government even sent a letter of objection to the Canadian federal government on the ban. While it’s unknown whether imported goods would fall under the ban or if the ban would only regulate domestic products, either way, retooling entire manufacturing processes would be pricey, impacting the cost of goods for Canadian consumers.

Essential food items like produce and meat are wrapped in plastic because they are highly sensitive to bacteria degradation. Plastics have extended the shelf life of foods, and without them there would be increased food waste. Plastics can be processed at very low temperatures relative to alternatives, and require less energy to produce, making their environmental footprint smaller. Galt says he has worked with alternatives proposed by the government, and if you take the entire environmental footprint of those products, from planting, harvesting, fertilizing, production, and yields, none of them perform the task quite like plastics. You will end up using more material, increasing waste, spoilage of essential items and create a void that can’t reasonably be filled by other materials.

Galt believes the real issue at hand is waste management, not plastics themselves.

“The most recycled plastic in Canada has the recovery rate of about 76 per cent. Many other types of polymers have very little recycling activity in Canada today and so much of it goes into the landfill. And then there’s a small amount of leakage from inappropriate dumping that ends up in the environment.”

Galt says we need to do better, and investing in recycling management would be the best way forward. There’s a strong demand to build recycling infrastructure in countries such as the U.S., which since July 2017 has had over 64 recycling projects started, and over $5.3 billion in investment going into recycling systems.

“We have global leaders right here in Canada, why don’t we extend and expand those programs to recover the rest of this material and put value on it rather than unwinding it all?”

We can’t forget plastics have been used almost exclusively during the pandemic due to their sterile nature, with nearly all Canadian grocers only accepting plastic bags at the checkout instead of reusable alternatives. In addition to building up our recycling practices, Galt recommends we take the lessons we learned from the pandemic and build up our Canadian supply chain of crucial items like medical syringes, PPE, and other key diagnostic items, instead of importing them during a crisis.

Health care professional administering COVID-19 test using plastic PPE.

“I think for Canadians, the best thing is to demand to be informed. Every decision has consequences, we know we all want to solve the problem of eliminating the waste in the environment or in the oceans, even though Canada is an incredibly small contributor to those problems. We all want to be better, let’s think openly as Canadians normally do.”

“Can we not all look at the problem from a truly scientific perspective and find out what we’re going to have to give up? Higher costs, perhaps losing the essential supply of critical medical items that could no longer be produced here even though we’ll be importing them from a foreign land out of necessity. The loss of jobs, all of these things. I think Canadians deserve to have a complete understanding of what a decision might mean to them as key stakeholders, and they should demand they bring all parties to the table.”

Plastics are beneficial in countless ways, and our recycling potential has yet to be unlocked. Alberta, for instance, has plans to become a continental leader in plastics recycling by 2030, which would help reduce waste on a global scale. Getting rid of plastics altogether won’t stop other countries from using them, and would hurt Canadian industries. The CCMBC has a plastics petition you can sign here. In the meantime, the CCMBC will continue to make recommendations to provincial and federal opposition to stop the ban from going forward.