Courts expose Ottawa’s green overreach

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, November 22, 2023
Courts expose Ottawa’s green overreach

It has been a rough autumn for the Trudeau government. First, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down significant parts of the federal Impact Assessment Act (also known as Bill C-69), ruling the act to be broadly unconstitutional and finding that the government had made the review process ambiguous and overly broad while intruding on provincial authority. Then last week, Canada’s Federal Court struck down the Trudeau government’s ban on single-use plastics finding the government’s classification of “plastic manufactured items” (PMI) as toxic materials under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) to be unsound.

And yet, the Trudeau government has already signalled the next stage in its crusade against plastics. Having banned a limited set of plastics-of-convenience (straws, cutlery, etc.), it plans to ban plastic films and containers used up and down the food chain to keep foods isolated from contamination, protected from pests and destructive oxidation, and cold, which is critical to preventing microbial contamination and spoilage.

One can hope that this second court strike will lead the government to reconsider and preferably scrap its entire “Zero Plastic Waste by 2030” plan, which is deeply flawed. As I showed in a 2022 study published by the Fraser Institute, Canada does not have a significant plastic waste problem. Less than 1 per cent of plastics used in Canada end up as waste in the environment while 99 per cent is safely buried in landfills, recycled or incinerated. Canada is not a measurable part of the world’s plastic pollution problem.

Moreover, the government’s own analysis suggests that pursuing this war on plastics will ultimately lead to greater waste of alternative materials, raising concerns among environmentalists. Even if the Trudeau government’s “Zero Plastic” plan were to work, it would produce an undetectable reduction in the growth of global plastic pollution of three thousandths of one per cent. Remember, this is by the government’s own admission.

And even that small reduction in environmental harm will likely be offset by increased environmental harms due to replacements for the plastic products banned by the government. Again, per the government’s own analysis, “Zero Plastic” regulations are expected to increase the waste generated from substitutes by almost 300,000 tonnes in 2024 and by around 2.9 million tonnes over the full life of the plan (2023 to 2032), mainly driven by paper substitutes.

Bottom line—the Trudeau government’s anti-plastic regulations would keep about 1.5 million tonnes of plastics from entering the waste stream over the course of the program, but would add about 2.9 million tonnes of other materials to the waste stream from the use of substitutes. And increase the costs of waste management in Canada.

The government should take a hint from the two recent court rulings—which found two of its signature environmental initiatives unconstitutional, unreasonable and ill-founded—and take both the Impact Assessment Act and the “Zero Plastic Waste by 2030” plan back to the drawing board. Of course, given federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s reaction to the Supreme Court ruling—basically, the government doesn’t think it’s doing anything wrong and does not intend to change course—this government is unlikely to make serious efforts at compliance with the new court ruling on plastics. Serious reform will likely have to wait for a change in government.