The world is struggling with plastic pollution — Canada is no exception

As thousands of delegates meet in Ottawa this week to work toward a global treaty on curbing plastic waste, the experts say the world may never get a better opportunity to confront the problem.

In a series of interviews with CBC’s The House airing Saturday, participants at this week’s United Nations conference said the problem of plastic waste goes far beyond questions about whether a particular item can go in the blue bin, or what happened to plastic straws.

The Ottawa negotiations are the second-to-last meeting before 176 countries are expected to finalize a treaty to tackle plastic waste by addressing plastics throughout their lifecycle, from production to use and disposal.

“Ottawa really needs to be a turning point,” Graham Forbes, the global plastics project leader at Greenpeace, told CBC News ahead of the meetings. “We’re in a make-or-break moment for the global plastics treaty negotiations.”

The House27:49How Canada — and the world — plan to deal with garbage

<p>As more than 4,000 people descend on Ottawa for UN negotiations aimed at stopping plastic pollution, Catherine Cullen goes along to meet some of the delegates, including Fijian scientist Rufino Varea; Greenpeace Philippines campaigner Marian Ledesma; president of Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada Lisa Qiluqqi Koperqualuk; Circular Materials CEO Allen Langdon; Eli Browne of the grocery chain Sobeys; the head of the UN Environment Programme Inger Andersen and others to ask how the world can get rid of plastic waste.</p>

One expert told The House host Catherine Cullen this week that the treaty needs to address aspects of waste disposal even more basic than questions about international plastic standards and recycling.

“Well, the reality is that 67 per cent of the global population do not have access to waste collection services,” said Clarissa Morawski, CEO of Reloop Platform, an anti-waste advocacy group.

“And that’s the fundamental reason why we have a plastics pollution problem. So the first thing we need to do is get everybody around the world up to that 95 per cent coverage level.”

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault told CBC’s Power & Politics this week that the international approach would allow the global community to meet ambitious targets, including the goal of ending plastic pollution by 2040 agreed to by a group of countries known as the High Ambition Coalition.

“Right now it’s a handful of countries that are doing things like bans of single-use plastics. But when it’s 100 countries, 150 countries, almost 200 countries, then it is going to be much easier to do that,” Guilbeault said.

  • This week Cross Country Checkup wants to know: Do you care about how much plastic you are using? Is a world with less plastic even possible? Fill out the details on this form and have your say!

The struggle over single-use plastics

Domestically, debate continues over the best way to address plastic waste in Canada.

The federal government recently announced a registry to track the kinds of plastic that are produced in Canada. It’s part of an effort to create a national standard to replace provincial tracking programs that Environment Canada says are not consistent across jurisdictions.

The registry is part of the federal government’s overall effort to reduce plastic waste in Canada. Canadians throw away more than four million tonnes of plastic waste every year, according to Ottawa. Only nine per cent is recycled, with the bulk ending up in landfills.

WATCH | The fight against plastic waste:

Why it’s so hard to end plastic pollution

Thousands of delegates are in Ottawa trying to hammer out an historic treaty to end plastic pollution, but the road to get there is littered with hurdles. CBC’s Susan Ormiston examines why it’s so hard to curb the problem and what it will take for the world to agree on a plan.

A Federal Court judge also ruled last year that Canada’s decision to list plastics as toxic, a step that helped lead to a ban on some single-use plastics, was unconstitutional. Ottawa is appealing the ruling.

That ruling has been stayed, meaning the anti-single-use plastic regulations are still in effect. But the Conservatives are pushing legislation that would bring back plastic straws, spurred by new research showing that some compostable items are made with what are known as “forever chemicals,” potentially harmful substances.

Another key development in recycling programs in Canada is the transition across the country — at different stages in different provinces and territories — to what’s called extended producer responsibility (EPR). Under EPR, producers take on responsibility for products throughout their lifecycles. For plastics, that means dealing with them after they’re used by consumers.

A man wearing glasses and a suit poses for a photo.
Allen Langdon, CEO of Circular Materials, attends side meetings at a UN conference on plastic waste in Ottawa, Ontario on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. (Jennifer Chevalier/CBC)

“Ultimately, what we’re on the precipice of is this huge shift in how recycling is going to be run, and it’s going to not only be a better system, but a system operated and funded by the people who are making the packaging,” said Allen Langdon, CEO of Circular Materials, an organization founded by a coalition of plastic producers that implements EPR programs.

“I think what we’re going to see over the next three years is a system where we’re going to see almost every package in the country being able to be put in your blue box. And then we’ll develop pathways to make sure that material can not only be recycled, but eventually returned to the producers.”

A man wearing a suit poses for a photo.
Rufino Varea, a Fijian scientist with the Scientist Coalition for an Effective Plastic Treaty, poses for a photo at a UN conference addressing plastic waste on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. (Jennifer Chevalier/CBC)

One participant in the plastics conference this week expressed skepticism that recycling programs on their own can make a dent in the global problem.

“Recycling is a Band-Aid solution if you’re looking at it from a scientific but also from an economical perspective. Recycling is not economical and many, many industries that are pushing for it don’t actually engage in recycling because it’s too expensive,” said Rufino Varea, a Fijian scientist attending the conference.

Varea said more research needs to be directed toward long-lasting (not single-use) materials that could replace plastics.

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