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COVID-19 and single-use plastics | Daniel Dylan

Wednesday, April 29, 2020 @ 12:40 PM | By Daniel Dylan

Daniel Dylan %>
Daniel Dylan
It is undeniable that the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the world in which we live and left us wondering if the world has changed forever. The pandemic has exacerbated many of the social, economic and political inequalities that naturally exist in a classically liberal economy such as Canada’s. Governments have responded to the burgeoning economic crisis COVID-19 has precipitated by introducing legislation designed to not only assist faltering businesses, but also to save them, the jobs of their employees and the precious tax revenues generated by these businesses that such governments ultimately rely upon.

One sector of the economy hit particularly hard by the pandemic is the $93 billion a year foodservice industry. Across the nation, restaurants, bars and traditional foodservice establishments are struggling to stay afloat. Restaurants Canada, the organization that represents the foodservice industry in Canada, estimates that since March 1, approximately 800,000 foodservice jobs have been lost and may not return any time soon.

On April 2, the results of a survey that Restaurants Canada conducted were published and further revealed that: 80 per cent of Canadian restaurants have laid off employees; 70 per cent will be forced to reduce current staff hours or terminate more employees; 10 per cent have closed their doors indefinitely; and another 18 per cent are expected to do so within a month if the economic situation does not improve soon.

To stay afloat, many foodservice businesses have turned to offering takeout or delivery services from their establishments. This is not, however, a novel development. Restaurants Canada reports that in 2018 nearly $4.5 billion (a 44 per cent increase over the previous year) was spent by foodservice consumers using the Internet, mobile apps and telephones, demonstrating an increasing trend towards more takeout or delivery options being used. As such, this trend has increased single-use plastics and other forms of food packaging (recyclable and non-recyclable) demand and use.

In June 2019, however, the federal government announced legislative efforts aimed at reducing plastic pollution including a ban on single-use plastics, which it anticipated implementing by 2021.

Restaurants Canada developed the “Single-Use Items Reduction Strategy Guide” for its members, which offered helpful advice on using food packaging materials that promote environmental sustainability. At this juncture, however, it is impossible to know what kind of materials foodservice businesses are using to package takeout/delivery foods to their customers. However, while some may be able to afford more easily (or expensive) recyclable or recycled materials in which to package takeout/delivery foods, it is likely that some are simply using expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), otherwise known as “Styrofoam.”

According to the Conference Board of Canada, an estimated 14.4 million pounds of Styrofoam waste in Canada went to landfills, rivers, streams and oceans in 2012. More significantly, according to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, only 41 per cent to 44 per cent of communities in Canada recycle Styrofoam, even though it is 100 per cent recyclable.

Nevertheless, it thus stands to reason that the amount of waste being sent to Canadian landfills will increase steadily and continue to do so as long as some restaurants or bars stay closed to dine-in service and continue to use Styrofoam. If, as three different reports from Imperial College London, Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases and Harvard University suggest, we will be social distancing and on lockdown until 2022, then the amount of Styrofoam, single-use or unnecessary plastics being used may increase dramatically.

Unless Ottawa’s ban comes into effect sooner rather than later, and more communities start recycling Styrofoam (which has its own challenges), the number of single-use and unnecessary plastics and other non-recyclable materials used may increase significantly as well. This is alarming given that Ottawa reports that Canadians produce over three million tonnes of plastic waste every year and only nine per cent of it is recycled, while the remainder goes to landfills, waste-to-energy facilities or ends up as pollution.

While the merits of implementing household recycling and reducing single-use plastics continue to be debated by some when contrasted to the volume of carbon emissions, non-recyclable waste and other forms of environmental pollution caused by the Canadian industrial sectors, we should not let the COVID-19 pandemic blind us to or prevent us from reaching all of the environmental and legislative goals we had set prior to its emergence.

These include goals such as the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment’s zero plastic waste consumption initiative, for example. They also include reducing our carbon footprints, reducing our consumption, reusing materials and recycling them where possible, as well as choosing to use reusable food containers and funding innovation.

The world will be a different place post COVID-19 no doubt; thus, more than ever, we have to ensure that we protect the environment from further human degradation and destruction, because in the end, it is all we have left to leave future generations on this planet.

Daniel Dylan is an assistant professor at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, Ont. He teaches animal law, contract law, evidence law, intellectual property law and Indigenous knowledge governance.

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