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We can’t forget about the environment, single-use plastics legislation | Daniel W. Dylan

Friday, September 18, 2020 @ 10:08 AM | By Daniel W. Dylan

Daniel W. Dylan %>
Daniel W. Dylan
In April, I wrote a piece for The Lawyer’s Daily (“COVID-19 and single-use plastics”) in which I expressed concern over the increase in single-use plastics consumption that the onset of COVID-19 protection measures would precipitate in keeping food service establishments afloat with takeout and delivery service options.

Nearly five months later, Canadian society and the world continues to be deeply and irrevocably affected by COVID-19. Despite the phased reopening of economies in Ontario and other provinces, the resumption of teaching at schools and universities and dine-in options at food service establishments once again, a new single-use plastics problem has emerged: one involving personal protection equipment (PPE), namely, face masks made from polypropylene.

While there is debate on the scientific merits of social distancing and face mask wearing to prevent COVID-19 transmissions, seemingly little of this debate has seized Canadians as zealously as it has elsewhere. Some Canadians have even found a niche market by making customized reusable face masks; others have used masks as a way of supporting their favourite sports team or band, and of making social and political commentary.

Face masks are required in nearly every public space in Ontario now, and while some people wear them out of safety, others throw caution to the wind, leading the Ontario premier to not rule out another provincial shutdown.

Despite some Ontarians and others not following safety protocols, an immeasurable number of people are wearing single-use surgical (i.e., disposable) face masks, using disposable latex gloves and increasing their regular use of hand-sanitizing products. The people who arguably need these the most are hospital staff, patients and other front-line workers. Nevertheless, the amount of unrecycled waste is growing exponentially and that should be concern for us all.

The United Nations estimates that approximately 75 per cent of plastic waste ends up in landfills and water systems. One organization estimates that consumption of single-use plastics in Canada has gone up by 250 per cent to 300 per cent under COVID-19. Additionally, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates that global PPE sales this year will be $166 billion, up from approximately $800 million last year.

We thus see and are likely to continue to see absurd amounts of plastic waste disposed of in our rivers, lakes and oceans which, over time, become micro-plastics that threaten species and ecosystems in those water systems, including human beings. What’s perhaps worse is some people try to dispose of these face masks, gloves and other plastics down toilets and end up causing local sewer damage, creating another host of problems.

In response, a group of University of British Columbia scientists has begun research to develop a biodegradable face-mask solution. There is hope that easily biodegradable face masks will become available, but it will be some time before they come to market.

Until they do, Canada has to do its part to stop the nearly eight million tonnes of plastic from being dumped into the world’s oceans, and all the excess that will be borne from COVID-19 single-use plastics consumption.

What is particularly concerning is that Canadians seem to care less about single plastic consumption legislation and regulation during COVID-19 than they did before it emerged.

Nevertheless, when Parliament resumes on Sept. 23, it is critical for Canada to resume its efforts to meet climate targets and introduce legislation that was promised by the Liberals to be implemented by 2021. Such legislation should regulate not only the “ordinary” use of single-use plastics but also the increased amount precipitated by COVID-19 protection measures.

Whether this is one issue that the minority government can survive in what is forecast by political pundits to be a non-confidence vote following what is also expected to be a COVID-19 spending-heavy throne speech remains to be seen.

Going forward, governmental procurement policies for PPE should have collection, recycling, biodegradable and other green criteria. In the meantime, those of us who can should be using reusable face masks and limiting our consumption of single-use plastics, recycling them and disposing of them properly.

Daniel Dylan is an associate 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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