Ottawa aims to eliminate single-use plastics from federal operations

Ottawa argues one province's failure to bring in a carbon tax will harm others

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Canada's environment and climate change minister has pledged to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics within the federal government.

Catherine McKenna made the announcement during the G7 ministers meeting in Halifax on Thursday. The meeting has focused heavily on finding ways to address plastic pollution in the world's oceans.

As part of Ottawa's move toward zero plastic waste, McKenna said federal government operations will be reusing and recycling at least 75 per cent of all of its plastic garbage by 2030.

"We can't just be talking about what everyone else needs to do. We need to be taking action," McKenna said during a news conference.

The effort means Ottawa will aim to eliminate plastic straws, cups, cutlery, packaging and bottles from its operations. It also includes using government purchasing power to lead change, said McKenna.

"I'm putting on notice all of our caterers, all of our hotels, those who we procure products from, the buildings we use — we are going to be looking at your operations, and we will be working with amazing suppliers who are committed also to the zero plastic waste vision."

Zero-waste national strategy

McKenna said Canada also needs a zero-waste national strategy, something she hopes to discuss with her provincial and territorial counterparts at meetings this autumn.

"We have to do more. We have to do much more."

The minister highlighted the efforts of cities such as Vancouver, St. John's and Montreal, to eliminate the distribution of plastic shopping bags, stressing the need to move away from bags that "take five seconds to make" but can last "in our oceans for five centuries."

McKenna said government will work with businesses, companies and NGOs to find solutions and innovative ways of dealing with plastic. That includes a partnership with the World Economic Forum.

"We see this as an opportunity also to highlight Canadian companies that are driving innovation, that are driving change and creating great jobs right here in Canada."

In that vein, McKenna also announced a $12 million fund for plastic innovation.

'It's time to turn trash into cash."

The fund will focus on the top four plastic-producing sectors: packing, building and construction, textiles and consumer products.

'You're out of line'

The CEOs of several large companies also pledged today to sign the ocean plastics charter that Canada has been promoting. The charter calls for national governments to set standards for increasing the reuse and recycling of plastics rather than trashing them.

Five of the seven G7 nations and the European Union signed on to the charter at the recent G7 leaders summit in Charlevoix, but the U.S. and Japan still haven't endorsed it.

Paul Polman, the chief executive of Dutch-British multinational Unilever — a massive consumer products firm — attended the morning session of the G7 meeting and told the ministers those that haven't signed on are falling behind a world trend led by consumers.

He referred to the charter as a starting point for all nations.

"You've put a stake in the ground of what the minimum is that the whole world should adhere to, even though I realize there are some countries still hesitating to sign," he said.

"I can only tell you, you're out of line of where the consumers are."

In addition, on Thursday a group of companies including Unilever Canada, Walmart Canada, Ikea Canada and Loblaw joined non-government groups to announce a coalition dedicated to finding ways to use plastic rather than throwing it away.

Some firms, including Ikea, have already promised to eliminate single-use plastic products from its shelves by 2020, including straws, plates, cups, freezer bags, garbage bags and plastic-coated paper plates and cups.

Call for legislation

Mark Butler, the director of Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre, said while the voluntary commitments of companies and the international charters are useful, stronger legislation is needed to eliminate throwaway plastics and commit companies to recycling and reuse.

"Voluntary is great, but we need mandatory," he said. "The basic approach is if it can't be recycled, we shouldn't be using it."

The Canadian-led conference didn't appear to convince a representative of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration to consider signing the plastics charter.

As he prepared to depart Halifax, Andrew Wheeler, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the United States intends to follow its own domestic plans to reduce plastic waste.

Wheeler said most plastic waste comes from southeast Asia.

"As I said in the meeting today after the press left, we have to be aware of the fact that 60 per cent of the plastic waste comes from five countries that are not represented by us," he said in an interview.

"The G7 needs to do a better job of outreach to those countries if we're going to solve this problem internationally."

With files from The Canadian Press