Plastics Politics: Single-use, or Here to Stay?

Last week, the federal government unveiled the six single-use plastic items they will be labelling as toxic: plastic grocery bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and food containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics. The Liberals chose these six items based on criteria including the presence of a viable replacement and damage to the environment. Clearly, something must be done about plastic pollution, but many critics oppose the drastic “toxic” label, particularly during a pandemic that has pushed plastic PPE use way up. Whether it’s the right or wrong move from a policy perspective, it’s clearly a political winner for the Liberals. This is just the beginning of plastics politics in Canada.

The Liberal, NDP, and Green voter bases have been clamouring for action, any action, on plastics for years now, marking a strong vote pickup opportunity for the Liberals. For a centre-left party that has absolutely zero chance of winning over the more conservative west, the Liberals’ best gambit is to tack left and eat up the progressive voters who themselves are hungry for action on climate change. Although policy analysts might contend that the toxic label will have knock-on effects down the road, action on climate change has been so delayed that voters will take whatever wins they can get.

Progressive voters are not the only ones who are watching the plastics file. Business concerns about the viability of their own plastics products are high, and they do register with the Liberals. Offering only six items to start with, instead of outright banning all single-use plastics, is part of that classic Liberal incrementalist strategy. Simultaneously keeping the confidence of both business and progressives is what this government has tried to do since the start, but make no mistake, even an incrementalist policy will progress over time. No where is that clearer than in the government’s own plastics policy process.

To come up with their shortlist of the sinful six, the Liberals first created a plastics long-list, showcasing all the plastics products they would consider for a ban, before whittling it down based on the above criteria. Many items were omitted from the ban due to their usefulness, lack of available replacement, and even a lack of political will. In time, new products will appear to eclipse the old plastics ones, and political viability will grow for others. This long-list gives us a roadmap for how the Liberal government, if they remain in power, will pursue their plastics long-game.

Will the plastics you produce or use end up banned? Check the long-list. If it’s on there, then now is the best time to start thinking about government relations strategies to see how you can get in on the ground floor on plastics. Connecting with the opposition will be key as well since the plastics file will hang over successive governments for years to come, but remember, Conservatives will have a tough time with voters if they undo a plastics ban. A smart government relations strategy is one that accepts that plastics bans are coming, are here for the long-term, and works to put your interests in front of government.


Tyler Downey is an Associate Consultant at Ensight Canada