In mid-January, the British Columbia government announced that it was considering a broad ban on single-use plastic grocery bags to end a piecemeal, city-by-city approach to the problem of pollution from plastics.
Ten weeks later, the province’s chief public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, issued directives saying the exact opposite. Stores had to provide clean transport bags, she told retailers on March 30, as the province neared 1,000 positive COVID-19 cases.
“Customers should not use their own reusable containers, bags or boxes,” said the instruction.
It was just a sign that environmental policies must be among the first things to be put aside or put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada.
Fear of contamination from reused packaging and the need to work with fewer staff and less interaction between people has prompted retailers to ban reusable packaging from bags to coffee cups. Restaurants were forced to choose a take-out only model, which pushed the need for plastic and polystyrene containers through the roof.
And as the use of plastic containers has increased, some cities have been forced to cut or even cancel municipal recycling programs altogether.
Last week, Calgary completely suspended blue bin operations due to a COVID-19 outbreak at the city’s recycling plant. Edmonton said about a quarter of what it collects in the blue bins goes to the landfill because it doesn’t have the staff to handle all of the equipment. In eastern Ontario, Quinte Waste Solutions, which is recycling in nine municipalities, has suspended the collection of most electronic and hazardous waste for proper disposal. In Nova Scotia, several recycling depots have been closed.
The Alberta energy regulator has suspended almost all environmental monitoring requirements for the energy sector, including soil, water and air pollution. Originally applicable to certain oil sands operations, the regulator extended the exemption for the entire energy sector on Wednesday, saying it was no longer safe to do so with the threat of COVID-19.
In early April, Ontario adopted a regulation under its Environmental Bill of Rights that suspends the requirement for 30 days of public consultation on any policy affecting water, air, soil or wildlife. The government cited the need to be able to respond quickly to COVID-19 as the reason, although the requirement was not lifted not only for all COVID-19 policies, but for anything.
Executive Director of Environmental Defense Tim Gray said that governments that were already less inclined to care a lot about the environment are abandoning policies as quickly as possible, but there are also delays in the protections promised due to the COVID-19 which could become a longer term problem.
Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said last week that the government remains committed to its plans to ban climate change and plastics, but that some policies have been delayed somewhat due to the virus.
“What worries me is that it will last so long that it will push it so far that it cannot be done before another election,” said Gray.
He said the decisions to suspend the ban on plastic bags are a “panic response” that may cool as more information and scientific knowledge about the virus becomes available. This week, the Centers for Disease Control in the United States changed its wording on how the virus is transmitted to say that it does not spread easily by touching contaminated surfaces.
Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Howard Njoo, said Friday that frequent and thorough hand washing and not touching your face without washing your hands will prevent any virus that you may have caught from you. make sick.
The plastics industry has seen increased demand amid the virus, said Bob Masterson, President of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada.
“What I would say has changed is that people, thanks to COVID, have a much better appreciation of the benefits of plastic as a sanitary material for the food industry,” he said.
Stores across the country have rushed to wrap their crates with plastic screens and equip their employees with plastic gloves and face shields. The demand for hand sanitizer – mostly in plastic bottles – has skyrocketed.
John Thayer, senior vice president of petrochemical manufacturer Nova Chemicals, said that while some orders have been canceled due to COVID-19, demand has increased for plastics used in the manufacture of food packaging, the requirements for packaging and shipping for e-commerce and medical packaging and protective equipment. . Everything from face masks to surgical gowns to respirators, test tubes and COVID-19 test kits uses plastic.
“Polyethylene and other polymers help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and treat those affected by the virus,” said Thayer.
Sarah King, head of the oceans and plastics program at Greenpeace Canada, disputes that plastics are safer as a means of protecting consumers. She said plastics have a place in the medical world, but studies have shown that the virus actually lives longer on plastic than on any other material.
A regularly washed cloth bag is less likely to be contaminated than a plastic bag, she said.
“There is a lot of misinformation about plastics as a healthy alternative,” said King.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 23, 2020.