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Opinion Trudeau’s plan to ban single-use plastics is an unworkable, feel-good fantasy

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on Parliament Hill to attend a sitting of the Special Committee on the Covid-19 Pandemic in Ottawa on May 20. (Dave Chan/AFP/Getty Images)
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Sometimes it’s tough to avoid partisan cliches. Take the hackneyed insult that a politician is “putting ideology above common sense.” Is there any other way to describe Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent promise to prohibit “single-use plastics” by 2022? By any standard, this is a purely ideological flight of fancy that fails every test of sane policymaking.

As a goal, Trudeau’s blunt “ban” on six types of everyday objects — “plastic checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery, and food ware” — is far too ambitious for the federal government to seriously pursue, and even if it could, the consequences for millions of Canadians would be regressive and painful. It’s a superficial stunt with no plausible correlation to its planet-healing promises and is doomed to flop, even on its own terms.

Though still polling well, Trudeau has lost much of the razzle-dazzle that made him a global pinup a half-decade ago. Entering the second year of his second term, he has exerted scant capital on anything that could be described as daring progressive leadership. A showy decree against soda rings and takeout containers represents a return to gimmicky form.

Canadian environmental policy has always been heavy on symbolism. This massive country of endless unspoiled wilderness already ranks about as high as any can in terms of clean air and water, while internationally, Canada remains too small to affect much of importance. Accordingly, Canadian pollution data must be framed in “per capita” terms to seem alarming.

Per capita, Canadians are indeed producing an awful lot of plastic waste. A 2013 Conference Board of Canada study on 17 developed countries found us generating the most trash per person — approximately 1,713 pounds per year. In an opinion piece justifying the plastics ban, environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson added that “every year, Canadians throw away about three million tonnes of plastic — the equivalent of 570 garbage bags full of plastic every minute, every day.” A 2019 study by the Parliamentary Research Service found in 2016 alone, about 29,000 tonnes of Canadian plastic “leaked into the environment as litter.”

Yet that same report also concluded that “between 4.8 million tonnes and 12.7 million tonnes of plastics enter the world’s oceans annually,” making Canada’s contribution seem like, well, a drop in the ocean. When it comes to climate change, meanwhile — which the production of plastics does heavily contribute to — Canada’s 0.5 percent share of the planet’s population is simply too small a consumer base to affect global trends.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Canadian behavior has outsize impact on global habits, via our good example or whatever. Will banning single-use plastics make Canada an inspiring role model of zero-waste sustainable living? Unlikely.

In theory, assuming Trudeau’s ban is implemented with the draconian strictness required, banning single-use plastics should result in fewer disposable plastic straws and cups and other items from being bought and therefore trashed. If single-use plastic things were irrelevant frivolities, you could imagine this being an easy zero-sum win, like quitting smoking.

But, of course, single-use plastic things aren’t frivolous — they make up necessary equipment for our daily life, tools we use to eat and drink and move stuff from one place to another. What will we use in their absence? The answers aren’t pretty.

Cloth tote bags, for instance, despite being a totem of enlightened environmentalism, are now increasingly regarded as little more than virtue-signaling fashion accessories, since manufacturing these fancy, inefficient things requires far more resources — electricity, labor, carbon and so forth — than the humble plastic bag. The same is true of multi-use straws, metal cutlery, glass food containers and every other utensil mass-produced in some carbon dioxide-belching factory on the other side of the world.

The only real path to zero-waste sustainability is for consumers to radically change their habits. This means purchasing (ideally, secondhand) exactly one single, sturdy, permanent tool for each of life’s tasks and reusing it as long as humanly possible. Business would have to play along as well, selling fewer reusable products overall to discourage excess ownership. This would result in lower profits and employment — basically the opposite of Trudeau’s “we can have it all” pitch, which promises to deliver not only a blow against climate change but “42,000 jobs across the country” to boot.

What Canada will actually get — to quote another political cliche — is government-picked winners and losers. The losers: the nation’s already coronavirus-crippled small businesses, restaurants and shops forced to introduce expensive new products and procedures to conform with Ottawa’s new anti-plastic crusade. The winners: the prime minister’s ideological allies in Canada’s green-industrial complex, subsidized to produce eco-novelties.

The whole thing is a deeply dishonest spectacle, and the question is how much burden the country will be forced to bear before this unworkable, feel-good fantasy is inevitably abandoned.

Read more:

J.J. McCullough: Canada’s oil-loving Conservatives bet on climate change indifference

Christo Aivalis: Canada’s ‘Green New Deal’ could change the game ahead of the elections

J.J. McCullough: Canada’s climate change policy is devolving into political theater

David Moscrop: Trudeau’s carbon-pricing plan shows real leadership. Here’s how he should sell it.

The Post’s View: Canada’s election results are a victory for the planet

Washington Post Staff: 11 climate policy ideas to protect the planet