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Terence Corcoran: Hey hey, ho ho! The plastics ban has got to go!


It was another media manipulation masterpiece from environmental activists. With a few emails to journalists and news releases from different groups, a little battalion of anti-corporate greenies sought to seize the narrative over the use of plastics in Canada. It worked like magic. On Monday the CBC’s flagship news show, The National, managed to squeeze in a two-minute news item that showed maybe two dozen protesters outside a Federal Court in Toronto. “Hey hey, ho ho! Plastic pollution has to go!” sang the little group of demonstrators bearing signs that said “Plastics kill animals.”

A banner from Greenpeace — “Stop Big Plastic” — filled the screen followed by mandatory videos of plastic debris floating on water. Other media fell into line. The Globe and Mail covered the story with extensive quotes from representatives of Ecojustice and Environmental Defence. Global News also ran a report led by the flimsy demo, including a clip of what looked like a 12-year-old reading an anti-plastic script.

The target of the protesters was the opening day of a three-day court hearing into a plastics industry attempt to overturn the Trudeau Liberals’ ban on single-use plastic (SUP) products such as shopping bags, plastic straws, cutlery and food takeout containers. Parts of the ban came into effect in December.

The corporate players include Dow Chemical Canada, Imperial Oil, Nova Chemicals and other companies among a group of 20 members of the Responsible Plastics Use Coalition. The coalition was launched in 2021 in response to Ottawa’s decision to ban the plastic items on the grounds that plastic shopping bags, straws and takeout containers are “toxic substances” under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

The industry case looks compelling. The ban may be unconstitutional because it treads on provincial territory, but more important is Ottawa’s manipulation of the definition of “toxic” under the environmental protection act. The corporations say the science behind the ban is flawed and “is not based on fact, data, measurement, or scientific study. It is based on estimates, and even these are outdated and do not originate in Canada.” The Liberal cabinet, it adds “cannot rely on a mere assertion.”

The plastic shopping bag case could provide an important turning point against the activist attempt to turn all plastic uses into a crime against the environment. Calls are going out for Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault to expand the bag ban to other products, and ultimately to all plastics under Ottawa’s commitment to zero-plastic waste by 2030. The Ontario Rivers Alliance said the move to a wider ban on plastics was necessary to “accelerate a just transition to zero waste; circular systems centre on reuse.”

The ideological machine driving the activists is the concept of a “circular economy” in which all aspects of economic activity are controlled and manipulated to eliminate all waste. The Canadian version is driven by Circular Economy Leadership Canada, a cabal of corporations and activists who claim the circular economy “is poised to unlock $4.5 trillion of economic growth by 2030, and as much as $25 trillion by 2050. It could boost companies’ competitiveness and profitability, make global supply chains more resilient, and create over a million jobs in the next decade.”

That propaganda doesn’t quite fit the economic facts around the plastics ban. Missing from the activist debate is the increased costs hoisted on the economy by moving from low-cost plastics to significantly more expensive substitutes.

The higher costs of non-plastic bags and straws was systematically documented in a formal Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement on the single-use plastic ban issued on Christmas Day, 2021, by the federal departments of health and environment. It’s an analysis that one assumes is part of the corporate case now before the court.

The statement’s evaluation of the proposed ban suggests the costs exceed the benefits in both dollar and environmental terms.

First there is the environmental impact of the plastic substitutes. The proposed regulatory ban on SUPs “would prevent approximately 1.6 million tonnes of plastics from entering the waste stream over the analytical period, but would also add about 3.2 million tonnes of other materials to the waste stream from the use of substitutes, due to their increased unit weights relative to SUPs.” This increase in tonnage waste would represent additional costs for municipalities and provincial authorities, as they are usually responsible for managing collection, transportation, and landfilling of plastic waste, and would assume most of the associated costs, which would ultimately be passed on to taxpayers.

In dollar terms, the statement provided estimates of the costs of shifting from plastic to other materials. And Canadians use lots of SUPs: checkout bags, cutlery, foodservice ware, ring carriers, stir sticks and straws. Measured in constant 2019 dollars, the 10-year cost of the ban was estimated at $1.95 billion. That number would be substantially higher if measured in today’s inflation dollars.

So what are the offsetting dollar benefits? The statement sets the estimate at $619 million over 10 years, leaving a net cost of $1.3 billion. But the $619-million benefits figure contains questionable elements. First, 94 per cent of the benefits come from an estimate of “the avoidable cost of terrestrial litter cleanup.” The other six per cent of benefits comes from “avoided marine pollution cost.”

Whether there will be any significant environmental benefits is far from clear given that all replacements add new environmental impacts. The corporations argue that the science aspects of the attempt to ban plastics as toxic are far from solid. Could this case mark the beginning of the end of the circular economy idea?