Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson speaks during a news conference announcing the ban of specific plastic products Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020 in Gatineau, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Plastics industry urges gov’t to rethink ‘toxic’ label

OTTAWA — The federal government’s plan to ban some single-use plastic products by labelling them “toxic” to the environment is defamatory and harmful to the companies that produce them, an industry group said Wednesday.

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced a list of six single-use plastic items that will be banned because they are both harmful to the environment and difficult to recycle.

Plastic straws, stir sticks, cutlery, six-pack rings, carry-out bags and Styrofoam plates and takeout containers won’t be allowed to be sold in Canada once the ban takes effect, likely by the end of 2021. Other single-use items will be managed by setting standards to encourage them to be reused or recycled.

To do all of that, Wilkinson said on Oct. 10 he will add “plastic manufactured items” to the “toxic substances list” under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

Things on that list must then be managed to limit their release into the environment. In this case, that means banning some things, and setting standards to encourage recycling or reuse of others.

But Elena Mantagaris, the vice-president of the plastics division at the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, said plastic products don’t belong anywhere near a list of harmful products that includes mercury, asbestos and lead.

“It’s a criminal-law tool and it’s intended to manage toxic substances,” she said. “Plastic is an inert material. It’s not toxic.”

Putting plastics up there with chemicals that kill people is just giving critics of the plastics industry a chance “to use a label for their own interests,” she said.

“That’s reputational damage to a sector, suddenly calling it toxic,” said Mantagaris. “That’s not fair game.”

Under the act, known as CEPA for short, a toxic substance is defined as one that can have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on environmental or human health if it gets out into the world.

Anything designated as toxic under the act must first undergo a scientific assessment to determine if there is harm.

The final scientific assessment on single-use plastics was released Wednesday and confirmed preliminary findings, made public in January, that plastics are found often in the environment, and have been proven harmful to wildlife and habitat. Turtles and birds and sea mammals, in particular, have been hurt or killed by ingesting plastic or being entangled in it.

The impact on human health is still unknown, but some studies have found tiny particles known as microplastics, in air, food and water.

Wilkinson said to him the fact plastics cause harm is not in question and Mantagaris said the industry agrees that plastics should not be in the environment. But, she said, working to keep plastics out of the environment doesn’t mean they are toxic.

Wilkinson said if the issue is just one of semantics, the word could be changed.

“What I have said to them very clearly is we are open to a conversation,” he said. “If the issue is a nomenclature issue we’re willing to engage that conversation but the fundamental issue around pollution remains and we need to address it.

Mantagaris said the industry isn’t in favour of bans at all, but would rather work with the government so plastics are continually recycled and never end up in the environment. But she said the government’s words on that front have not been backed up with any kind of funding or real plan.

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