A Roadmap to Support the Circularity and Recycling of Plastics in Canada

Citation

  • Immell, T., Yang, W., Quan, L., Farling, S., Patel, P., Shanmuganathan, S. (2020). A Roadmap to Support the Circularity and Recycling of Plastics in Canada – Technical Standards, Regulations and Research. Canadian Standards Association, Toronto (Ontario), Canada.

Executive Summary

The current quantity of unrecycled plastics creates an ever-growing problem, especially given the continued large growth forecasts for the plastics manufacturing industry. Plastic’s versatility, low cost, and ease of manufacturing have spurred rapid growth since production began in the 1950s; today, plastic is ubiquitous throughout society. The sheer volume of plastics produced creates environmental and waste management challenges of growing concern. To address this, national, provincial, and local governments are introducing a diverse range of policies and mandates to regulate plastics, especially single-use plastics and plastic packaging.

Under Canada’s G7 presidency in 2018, the government championed the development of the Ocean Plastics Charter to move towards a more sustainable approach to producing, using, and managing plastics. Through the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), the federal, provincial, and territorial governments approved in principle the Canada-wide “Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste.” Building on the Ocean Plastics Charter, the strategy takes a circular economy approach to plastics and provides a framework for action in Canada. The strategy outlines areas where changes are needed across the plastic life cycle, from design to collection, to clean-up and value recovery, and underscores the economic and business opportunities resulting from long-lasting and durable plastics. The strategy is expected to be a driver for innovation and to create opportunities that will increase competitiveness in new business models, product design solutions, and waste prevention and recovery technologies. In 2019, the CCME approved the first phase of the action plan, which identifies the government activities that will support the implementation of the strategy. A second phase will follow in 2020 to address the last five key areas of the strategy.

This report intends to explore the current landscape and potential for standards to help achieve a circular economy for plastics. Currently, in Canada, only 9% of plastics are recycled at their end-of-life [1]. Approximately 90% of Canadian plastics originate from the oil and gas industry. Nearly all sectors of society currently use plastic and create plastic waste, ranging from residential and work environments, to construction and agriculture. While governments, corporations, and organizations have been making commitments to address the low recycling rates, there are still major challenges and barriers that affect the recyclability of plastics.

The research for this report focused on soliciting input from industry stakeholders and experts, environmental organizations, recycling advocates, governments, and academics on the topics of barriers, challenges, opportunities, and standards-based solutions to Canada’s low plastics recycling rate. All aspects of the plastics value chain were reviewed through a series of interviews, meetings, and research that focused both on the current and future system for recycling plastics in Canada and leading jurisdictions around the world.

This report explores the management of post-consumer and post-industrial plastics that must be managed at the end-of-product use. The multiple step/multiple stakeholder processes of collection, sorting, and recycling plastics are all interconnected and influenced by the first use of the plastic materials. Several major brand owners have committed to increasing their use of recycled plastics and many are making changes to their products to increase recyclability at their end-of-life through voluntary programs such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy Global Commitment. Many jurisdictions also have policies, regulations, and standards in place to support increased recycled content in manufactured products.

The use of post-consumer plastics in new products is hindered by four important factors: (1) cost, (2) quality, (3) supply, and (4) market demand. Because of its high cost, variable quality, and limited supply, the upstream supply chain lacks incentive to use post-consumer plastics. This behaviour is equivalent to a general contractor or developer preferring to use new building materials because virgin materials are more economical, easier to work with, the quality is more consistent, there is ample supply if more is required, and there is no economic incentive to use a material that takes more time and effort to use.

An interesting development across all industry participants was an awareness of an increasing market demand for plastic products that contain recycled/post-consumer plastics. It has become evident that retailers and institutional purchasers are enquiring about or requiring a certain level of post-consumer plastics in the products they procure. Promoting this evolving market demand for post-consumer plastics is a crucial step in increasing the recycling rate of plastics entering the Canadian marketplace. The development of several key standards and guidelines is recommended to support this marketplace as summarized in the report.