In today’s world, plastic is an inescapable truth that sticks with us wherever we go. At the supermarket, inside our homes, and even at the beach, we are surrounded by plastic in all different shapes, sizes, and colours. Single-use plastic should be a memory of the past, but a simple walk through the supermarket proves just how prevalent it remains in our daily lives. Yet, initiatives taken by Canada inspire hope that provinces can transition away from single-use plastic and work towards the elimination of plastic pollution.
The Problem with Plastic
The creation, distribution, and management of plastic has detrimental impacts on our health, the environment, and wildlife. However, there is little research indicating the full ramifications of plastic on human health. The chart below summarizes points during the life cycle of plastic that have harmful effects on our health. 1 From the beginning of plastic’s life cycle to the end, people may be exposed to a number of illnesses, including but not limited to:
· Impairment of the immune system
· Respiratory problems
· Nervous system damage
· Reproductive and developmental problems
· Cardiovascular diseases
· Auto-immune conditions
· Neuro-degenerative diseases
Plastic production also negatively impacts the environment. Piles of trash from across the world are seeping into oceans and harming sea life. Marine life suffers from our dependence on plastic and it is common for discarded items to end up in the stomachs of fish and other sea creatures.
Turtles are especially vulnerable to swallowing plastic, as plastic bags resemble some of the
species that make up their diet, including jellyfish. Approximately 52% of the world’s turtles have eaten plastic and for 22% of the turtles, eating even one piece can result in death. The situation is dire for the many more marine species suffering from eating waste, getting stuck in plastic products, or living in polluted ecosystems.
Plastic pollution is a global threat and international laws should be utilized to decrease the harm it causes. Dr. Duvic-Paoli, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College London, asserts that there are ways to use the current international legal landscape in order to address the plastic crisis. One such tool is the no-harm rule, which prevents states from causing transboundary harm. Under this rule, states are obligated to preclude the negative effects of plastic usage from leaving their borders. Other applicable international mechanisms include the Sustainable Development Goals and the law of the sea. Although there are international laws and policies which can be used to prevent plastic pollution, it remains the state’s responsibility to regulate the dissemination of harmful plastics.
Canada has taken several important steps towards phasing-out single-use plastic. In 2019, the Canadian government began the process of banning certain single-use plastics with the possibility of finalizing the regulations by late 2022. City and Provincial governments are also making changes to reduce plastic waste. Vancouver regulations for example, which are in force as of January 1st, 2022, place a ban on plastic shopping bags and increase the price of disposable cups to $0.25.
Listed below are a few of the initiatives taken by the Canadian government to help regulate the harmful impacts of plastic.
Ocean Plastics Charter - Led by Canada, the Charter has been adopted by France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. The Charter is a five-step plan to reduce the negative impact plastic has on the environment. The Charter provides a framework to sustainably manage the production and consumption of plastics.
Zero-Plastic Waste - The Zero Plastic Waste is a nation-wide strategy intended to build upon the Ocean Plastics Charter through a circular economy approach. The plan identifies key areas to execute the strategy, including product design and recycling capacity. It also establishes concrete actions and timelines to ensure the plan’s implementation.
Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA) - The primary purpose of the CEPA is to prevent pollution. In 2021, “plastic manufactured items” were added to the Toxic Substances List. This is not only an important step towards addressing the plastic pollution problem in Canada, but a meaningful move towards a ban on single-use plastics that impact human health, the environment, and wildlife.
Completely eradicating single-use plastic is not an easy task. Yet, as consumers, we have the responsibility of making informed buying decisions. There are small, yet impactful, changes that can be made in our day-to-day lives, such as investing in reusable grocery bags and water bottles. However, conscientious buying choices only get us so far in the battle against plastic. It is time for governments and corporations to effectively regulate plastic production and pollution, establish transparency, and provide consumers with a choice.
_____  Center for International Environmental Law, “Plastic and Human Health: A Lifecycle Approach to Plastic Pollution” (2021), online: <https://www.ciel.org/project-update/plastic-and-human-health-a-lifecycle-approach-to-plastic-pollution/>.  Ibid  World Wildlife Fund, “What do Sea Turtles Eat? Unfortunately, Plastic Bags.” (2022), online: <https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/what-do-sea-turtles-eat-unfortunately-plastic- bags#:~:text=Sharp%20plastics%20can%20rupture%20internal,lead%20to%20slow%20reproduction%20rates.>.  Ibid.  Duvic-Paoli, L-A, “Symposium on Global Plastic Pollution. Fighting Plastics with Environmental Principles? The Relevance of the Prevention Principle in the Global Governance of Plastics” (2020) 114 AJIL Unbound 195 at 195.  Government of Canada, “Government of Canada Moving Forward with Banning Harmful Single-Use Plastics” (December 21, 2021), online: <https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/news/2021/12/government-of-canada-moving-forward- with-banning-harmful-single-use-plastics0.html>.  City of Vancouver, “Single-Use Item Reduction Strategy,” online <https://vancouver.ca/green-vancouver/background.aspx>.  IUCN, “IUCN Endorses Global Oceans Plastics Charter” (May 28, 2019), online: <https://www.iucn.org/news/marine-and- polar/201905/iucn-endorses-global-oceans-plastics-charter>.  Government of Canada, “Zero Plastic Waste: Canada’s Actions” (December 24, 2021), online: <https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/managing-reducing-waste/reduce-plastic-waste/canada-action.html>.  Canadian Environmental Protection Act, SC 1999, c. 33.