Good intentions have gone awry, writes Oscar Dewing on a federal government plan with atmospheric consequences.
Resource Works' Policy Intern Oscar Dewing is asking questions about potential contradictions in federal environmental policy.
In an effort to demonstrate a commitment to its election promises of environmental action, the federal government has unveiled a myriad of regulations to curb environmental pollutants and increase Canada's international reputation as a responsible environmental leader. Single-use plastics have become the next target of good intentions.
Reducing single-use plastics is a commendable cause. The effects of plastic pollution are obvious to all through litter and microplastic contamination in natural ecosystems. Reducing waste is a challenge that Canada’s network of plastic innovators have taken up, with the recent launch of world class eco-products.
However, incoming regulations prioritize optics over science-based policy, while favouring an interventionist approach instead of nurturing innovative solutions like these.
Canada's federal plastic ban is set to prohibit single-use plastics by 2025. Naturally, the shift away from single-use plastics will require a greater reliance on other materials, carrying their own environmental costs.
As of 2023, over 3 million tonnes of plastic were disposed in landfills each year. Over a very short timeframe, the ban will replace the 3 million tonnes of plastic waste with reusable, biodegradable materials like paper and bioplastics.
Yet municipal compost facilities are already operating at maximum capacity. Despite internal reports indicating the need to aid in facilities expansion to absorb and process the increase in biodegradable materials, the federal government has indicated no plans support these necessary expansion projects.
The consequences of not increasing capacity are dire.
When organic materials – like paper and bioplastic – decompose in low oxygen environments like landfills, they release methane: a potent greenhouse gas that has 84 times greater global-warming potential over a 20-year period than CO2.
Without any more capacity to absorb the 3 million tonnes of these new organic materials, they will inevitably be diverted to landfills where they will decompose anaerobically, emitting methane that would not have otherwise been produced with the disposal of single-use plastics.
A model has been created to estimate the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from this policy.
The model assumes that 3 million tonnes of waste will be produced annually, and that plastic recycling more than doubles from 9% to ~20% (a generous estimate which is unlikely to be met based on current market developments). These leaves ~2.4 million tonnes of waste products made up of newly produced organic materials.
A single tonne of organic waste disposed in landfills is often estimated to release ~65kg of methane. Each kg of methane has the equivalency of ~25 kg of Co2. Thus, when the lack of capacity forces these organic materials to be disposed of in landfills, it could cause up to ~156 thousand metric tonnes of methane, (the equivalent to 3.9 million metric tonnes of Co2) to be released annually. This would cause annual waste emission to rise from 27 mt Co2 eq to 30.9 Mt Co2 eq, the equivalent of roughly 787,000 new vehicles on the road yearly.
At the current pace, this result is likely an inevitable outcome.
With Canada’s total methane emissions being 92 Mt Co2 eq, the additional of 3.9 Mt would represent a 4.15% increase in methane. In a strange turn of events, the federal government will have failed to reduce waste levels and increased methane emissions, all while boasting the image of being environmental stewards who operate with science as the guiding parameter for policy development.
If Canada remains dedicated to reducing methane emissions by 35% below 2020 levels by 2030, it will force other sectors to abate larger amounts of methane emissions in order to compensate for the rise in waste emissions. Will farmers, energy workers, or others be forced to pick up the government’s slack?
While the federal government's efforts to reduce single-use plastics initially appear commendable, a closer examination reveals the consequences of promising too much to too many different groups. Thanks to this misstep, the government will have taken steps backwards from their ambitious goals, while also reducing the credibility of Canada as a haven for science-based, harmonized policy. The burden of these decisions threatens Canada’s international reputation as an emerging environmental leader, while reducing the ability of government to be able to perform perhaps its most basic task: taking out the garbage.
Oscar Dewing is a Policy Intern at Resource Works, and an avid composter. He is currently studying Public Policy and Economics at St. Francis Xavier University. Check out his Linkedin for commentary on natural resource policy, urbanism, and active transport.