We know that we need smart solutions to build a circular economy for plastics. The old model of a linear economy, that starts with raw materials and heads straight towards disposal, is a dead end — destroying finite resources, contributing to pollution and creating excess garbage. Essentially, we need to eliminate the plastics we don’t need, and innovate the valuable plastics we need.
We have an opportunity to collaborate with governments at all levels and partners along the plastics value chain to identify solutions that are in the best interest of Canadians, as well as the environment. Industry has embraced targets to make plastic packaging 100 per cent recyclable or recoverable by 2030 and 100 per cent reused, recycled or recovered by 2040.
This shift to a circular economy started in other parts of the world. On the international stage there are over 1,000 organizations that are part of the New Plastics Economy Initiative started by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Plastics Pact Network.
Canada joined this initiative in January of this year, with the formation of the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP), uniting partners behind a vision for a circular economy for plastic, in which plastic stays in the economy and out of the environment. The first targets of the CPP are to eliminate unnecessary plastics, support efforts for 100% reusable and recyclable packaging and ensure recycled content is used in new packaging.
Global initiatives need roots in local stakeholders to affect wider change, and the CPP and other efforts across Canada recognize the need for collaboration across sectors and organizations.
We have the opportunity in jurisdictions like Alberta to lead this change. Partners across the province including the multi-stakeholder group, the Plastics Alliance of Alberta (PAA), are focused on a combination of levers to advance solutions including regulation, innovation and investment.
From our local expertise in the petrochemical sector, we already know how to innovate and we just need to harness the work we do well to create environmentally responsible solutions that reduce plastic waste by design and keep valuable plastics in the economy and out of the environment. Solutions such as advanced chemical recycling break plastic down into its foundational elements, allowing us to rebuild new materials from these feedstocks.
Companies like Montreal-based Pyrowave and those operating in Alberta, including Enerkem and NOVA Chemicals, are already investing in research on advanced recycling technologies to turn waste plastic back into new plastics — allowing the maximum value from existing resources and moving toward eliminating plastic waste from the environment.
We also need additional investment in research to continue identifying innovative and cost-effective waste reduction and recycling methods, strategies, and programs for different types of plastics. Financial incentives establish standards and end markets for recycled plastic content in products. This in turn drives demand to capture plastic for recycling from across the value chain.
A critical component for success is a robust harmonized extended producer responsibility (EPR) that shifts the costs and operational responsibilities for managing recycling systems from local governments to producers of products and packaging. The economic and environmental benefits of doing so are abundantly clear from examples of EPR’s success in other jurisdictions. British Columbia’s EPR program has come out ahead of global market changes and the COVID-19 pandemic because they have an established market and system for recycling plastic domestically.
The Recycling Council of Alberta estimates that implementing an EPR program for packaging and paper products would save Alberta municipalities more than an estimated $100 million annually. The savings would only grow from there as we expand EPR programs to cover additional material streams. The Government of Alberta has announced plans to advance engagement on EPR early this year.
These examples highlight local initiatives that contribute to national and even international efforts and advance a circular economy across Canada. It is clear we can, and should, learn and collaborate to implement the best possible solutions as we move toward a circular economy for plastics.
Christina Seidel is the executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta and co-chair of the Plastics Alliance of Alberta. For more information and resources on recycling, visit www.recycle.ab.ca.