OTTAWA — Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says she has asked her department to look at what else Canada can do to reduce the amount of Canadian garbage that is ending up overseas.
As recently as Aug. 1, McKenna’s officials dismissed the idea of banning plastic waste exports entirely, fearing such a move could be economically harmful to countries with recycling industries that rely on the material.
Canada pointed to Australia, New Zealand and Japan as countries with similar policies.
But last week, Australia’s federal and state governments came together to start planning for an eventual ban of plastic waste exports.
McKenna says Canada has already taken steps to cut down on plastic waste, including a planned ban on most single-use plastics like straws and take-out containers within the next two years, and requiring producers to take more responsibility for ensuring the material is recovered and either recycled or reused.
She says there is also room for Canada to show leadership on exports and is “pushing” her department to figure out how.
“We need to look at what more we could do,” she said.
Canada has very limited ability to recycle plastics and has for decades relied on foreign nations, mostly China, to take its plastic waste. China, however, banned most plastic waste imports in 2018 because it was getting too much additional material that couldn’t be recycled.
As a result, much of the ensuing volume has been shifted away from wealthy nations to places like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, where governments — now facing a deluge of material both legal and illegal — are contemplating bans of their own.
Many waste experts and environment advocates want Canada to simply stop exporting plastic waste entirely. In 2016, Canada did change its regulations to require permits whenever plastic garbage is exported to countries that see it as hazardous waste.
That move came after fruitless efforts to sanction a now-defunct Canadian company that shipped more than 100 containers full of garbage, falsely labelled as plastics for recycling, to the Philippines — a diplomatic dustup that ended only after Canada agreed to spend $1.14 million to ship what was left of the waste back to Vancouver.
That regulatory change hasn’t stopped unwanted Canadian plastic garbage from arriving in foreign nations, however. No permits have been requested or issued since 2016, but in the last few months both Malaysia and Cambodia have reported finding containers of Canadian plastic garbage in their ports.
Environment Canada is investigating those claims.
Kathleen Ruff, founder of the online advocacy campaign RightonCanada.ca, wants Canada to agree to stop shipping plastic waste out of the country. She has been critical of the federal Liberals for refusing to agree to amend the Basel Convention to stop plastic waste exports. The convention is an international agreement to prevent the world’s wealthiest nations from dumping hazardous waste on the developing world.
Ruff said she was happy to hear McKenna say there was room to do more — and suspects the Oct. 21 federal election may have something to do with it.
Indeed, the Philippines fiasco prompted a spike in public interest in plastic trash, prompting all the major parties to put it on the agenda: the Conservatives say they would ban any plastic waste exports unless the importing country can prove it will be recycled, while the NDP wants to ban exports entirely, as well as the production and use of disposable plastics by 2022.
The Green party, meanwhile, would phase out the use of landfills for unsorted waste, and impose a system to ensure all electronic waste is recycled.
Canadians are among the biggest producers of waste in the world, churning out as much as two kilograms per person every day.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press