House Call with Carol Hughes

Fighting plastic pollution can’t become the punch line to a social media joke

For decades we have learned how plastic is making its mark on the planet. Whether it’s microplastics from our clothing and consumer goods changing the waterways we depend on, or floating mats of garbage choking the oceans, these polymer products have become a problem that must be dealt with. When they were novel and new, there was less focus on long-term issues tied to plastic waste, but we now understand this pollution is a direct threat to our ecosystems, food chains and human health.

Despite our understanding and the simple fact that plastic pollution represents huge costs for our economy, environment and communities, Canada has fallen behind on reducing waste and phasing out single-use plastics. Without federal leadership, communities are filling the void by proposing bans to restrict single-use plastics for items like straws, bags and coffee cup lids.

New Democrats have brought plastic waste issues to Parliament with some success including the motion that lead to the ban on microbeads in consumer products like toothpaste. In this Parliament we pushed further, passing a motion demanding the government take actIon to reduce plastic pollution in our rivers, lakes and oceans. We even announced a plan to ban single-use plastics as part of a comprehensive Waste Reduction Strategy. That item caught the government’s eye and they followed up with an announcement of their own.

If the government had a strong record of turning announcements into action we would be well on our way to banning single use plastics, but their record doesn’t inspire that kind of confidence. To make matters worse, the prime minister bungled the media event that accompanied the announcement and social media filled up with his struggles to describe paper board packaging used to hold beverages (think milk cartons). The danger is that the social media jokes take away from the severity of the issue.

Meanwhile, the stakes grow higher and nowhere near enough has been done to address the problems associated with plastic pollution. New Democrats believe we can build on the success with microbeads and urged the government to take immediate action to declare single-use plastics, micro-plastics and micro-fibres as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. This would be followed up with plastic packaging reduction targets for sectors distributing or selling fresh and prepared foods.

Action like this will require the government work with provinces and territories, municipalities, and Indigenous governments to harmonize provincial recycling targets and ensure that single-use plastics currently in circulation are captured and recycled. Ultimately, we can reduce Canada’s waste in the future by working with all levels of government to require strong, enforceable Extended Producer Responsibility legislation that holds companies responsible for the entire life cycle of their plastics products and packaging, while reducing clean-up costs for our communities. If we get this right, polluters will pay, not consumers.

The key to making changes like this will be strong leadership and determined action. It will require consultations with persons living with disabilities to ensure that accessibility issues are addressed. This community was among the first to raise the importance of straws in this debate and will bring additional unique and important perspectives to the discussion. This also highlights the fact that plastic has many valuable uses. That said, there are demonstrable ways in which plastic is threatening our environment and it will be irresponsible to leave it to future generations to clean our mess.