Plastic Waste: How Do Canadian and Chinese Policies Compare?

Plastic Waste: How Do Canadian and Chinese Policies Compare?

Written by Savannah Tuck, Volunteer Policy Analyst, Public Policies with BCCIC Climate Change.

Policy measures to reduce or eradicate the impact of plastic pollution have been a central concern of climate action plans. Plastics rely on the extraction of fossil fuels, and production is responsible for high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. With the ubiquity of plastics in our society, plastic products have a high carbon footprint, and improper disposal can have negative consequences on the environment and society. Plastic pollution negatively impacts water, soil, and air sources, potentially causing harm to the functioning of ecosystems, biodiversity, and the habitat of organisms. Further, plastic pollution may have detrimental impacts on human health via the unintentional ingestion of microplastics. The National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Ecology and Environment of China’s statement, Direction on Further Strengthening the Control of Plastic Waste, promotes an aggressive and comprehensive strategy to combatting plastic pollution within a relatively short time frame. Compared to the Chinese strategy, the Canadian approach to tackling plastic pollution is not as streamlined, with Canada’s division of powers making it more difficult to implement a single, comprehensive approach to plastic pollution from the federal government. While many municipalities and provincial governments across Canada have taken local action against plastic pollution, the Canadian government has indicated its desire to assume a leadership role in controlling plastic pollution through various strategies and statements. How do Canadian policies compare with China’s strategy, and what factors impede or facilitate the realization of each country’s plastic pollution goals?

A summary of the major goals of Direction on Further Strengthening the Control of Plastic Waste include:

By 2020: 

  • China hopes to take the lead in banning and restricting the production, sale, and consumption of some plastic products in some regions and areas of the country. 

By 2022:

  • Significantly reduce the consumption of single-use plastics; 
  • Promote alternative products; 
  • Increase the amount of plastic waste reutilization and waste-to-energy practices;
  • Encourage scalable reductions in prominent plastic use sectors such as ecommerce, courier delivery, and food takeaway

By 2025:

  • Establish a management system for the production, distribution, consumption, recycling, and disposal of plastic products; 
  • Form a multidisciplinary co-governance system; 
  • Improve the development and application of alternative products;
  • Amount of plastic waste in key municipalities will be significantly reduced, and plastic pollution effectively controlled 

Canada’s plastic pollution strategies include:

  • June 2019 Statement by the Government of Canada declaring a ban on harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021. 

This includes plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks. Additional steps will be taken to reduce pollution from plastic products and packaging. The federal government also seeks to collaborate with the provinces and territories to develop targets and standards for companies that manufacture or sell plastic products and packaging. 

  • Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste (2018)

This strategy builds on existing government programs and regulations, voluntary initiatives by industry, environment, and community organizations, and the continued implementation of current initiatives such as the Canada-wide Action Plan on Extended Producer Responsibility (2009). The foundational principle of the Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste is a circular economy approach, which seeks to prolong the useful life of plastic products to keep them in the economy and out of the environment. The circular economy approach relies on consumer education, research, regulation, market-based instruments, and innovation throughout the plastic life-cycle. Measures and activities to enable buy-in to a circular economy approach include performance-based approaches (product regulation, extended producer responsibility, distribution bans, standards and performance agreements), market instruments (incentives, fees, taxes, deposit returns, direct investments, public procurement), and voluntary initiatives (industry targets, certification programs, education and awareness, corporate initiatives). 

  • Ocean Plastics Charter (2018)

The Charter is a partnership between 26 governments and 65 businesses and organizations to commit to taking action towards a sustainable approach on plastics use. The Charter prioritizes sustainable design, production and after-use markets, collection, management, and other systems infrastructure, sustainable lifestyles and education, research, innovation, and new technologies, and coastal and shoreline action. A snapshot of some of the Charter’s goals include working with industry towards 100% reusable, recyclable, and recoverable plastics by 2030, working with industry and various levels of government to recover 100% of all plastics by 2040, harmonizing G7 science-based monitoring methodologies, and promoting leadership of youth and women as promoters of sustainable consumption and production. 

  • Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment Phase 1: Canada-Wide Action Plan on Zero Plastic Waste (2019) identifies six priority action areas for plastic pollution with estimated completion dates focused on product design, single-use plastics, collection systems, recycling capacity, domestic markets:
  1. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), December 2020
  2. Single-Use and Disposable Plastic Products, December 2021
  3. National Performance Requirements and Standards, December 2020-2022
  4. Incentives for Circular Economy, ongoing 
  5. Infrastructure and Innovation Investments, 2020
  6. Public Procurement and Green Operations, December 2020-2021

Where Do We Stand?

Although the Canadian government declared a ban on some single-use plastics, which isn’t in effect until 2021, China is focused on a complete prohibition on the sale and production of certain plastic products like plastic bags, disposable tableware, plastic supplies used by hotels, and packaging by 2020. The shorter transition period puts pressure on Chinese industry to develop innovative and sustainable solutions to plastic products, optimize new business models grounded in green supply chains, and corporate environmental responsibility. This is emphasized by the strategy’s aim to lead by innovation, which is supported by technology. Phase 2 will focus on preventing plastic pollution in waterways, oceans, lakes, advancing science in monitoring the impacts of plastic pollution, consumer awareness, clean-up, and global action. Ministers will consider Phase 2 in 2020. 

Diversified participation and corporate responsibility are also prioritized within the Chinese strategy. Specifically, government supervision and management will ensure effective implementation of plastic pollution policies, ecological protection, and enforcement of plastic waste regulations through strengthened environmental law enforcement. China’s policy supports the investigation and punishment of entities that have not adopted plastic waste regulations. Although Canada aims to engage various stakeholders and industries to reduce plastic pollution, it is done so through voluntary initiatives or EPR programs where plastic pollution responsibility is transferred to corporations and producers. There are no legislative bans on single-use plastics in effect at the federal level in Canada, therefore there are no grounds for punishment for industries and corporations who are plastic polluters. However, a handful of municipalities are leading the effort on single-use plastics bans across the country. Further, the Canadian strategy promotes a collaborative model across industry, businesses, and different levels of government where best practices and tools can be exchanged in order to achieve its plastic pollution goals. 

If Canada wants to be a climate leader, it will need to take more decisive action against plastic pollution. The Chinese strategy demonstrates the urgency required to combat plastic pollution. Both highlight the need for innovation and technology in the plastics industry and industries that rely on plastic products. China’s policy may be effective due to its model of governance, whereas Canadian policy must take into account various levels of government, stakeholders, and interests. Further analysis of how Canada’s policies compare to China’s will be examined in a detailed report coming out at the end of the month. 


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