Plastics in a circular economy: Canadian and global updates

In Oslo on October 23, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment Programme  published the first annual Progress Report on the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment .  Part 1 provides a high-level overview of the Global Commitment and its achievements; Part 2 profiles of the programs reported by some of the 400 businesses, organizations and governments which have signed on to the Global Commitment since it launched in 2018. An overview of the Global Commitment, including a list of all participants, is here .  The Progress Report states that  the aim of  the Global Commitment is to: “eliminate the plastic items we don’t need; innovate so all plastics we do need are designed to be safely reused, recycled, or composted; and circulate everything we use to keep it in the economy and out of the environment.” This first progress report sets a benchmark against which progress can be measured, and clearly calls for an increase in the ambition level, particularly to go beyond recycling, to encourage elimination and reuse.   The Press release and summary is here .

Recent actions to reduce Plastic waste in Canada:

The Canadian government is not a signatory to the Global Commitment, although at least one Canadian organization, Sustainable Prosperity Institute at the University of Ottawa, is a signatory, and  the global  Progress Report  provide other examples of  initiatives by Canadian businesses and the provincial government of British Columbia.

Plastic waste is a high-profile policy issue for Canadians, though nearly 90% of plastic waste in Canada is not recycled, according to the  Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Market and Waste,  commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada and released in June 2019.

plastic water bottles In October 2019, Greenpeace Canada conducted an audit of 13,822 pieces of plastic waste collected in volunteer shoreline clean-ups and  identified the top five plastic polluters  in Canada as Nestlé, Tim Hortons, Starbucks, McDonalds and Coca-Cola. CBC summarized the findings and the wider issue of plastic pollution in “Nestlé, Tim Hortons named Canada’s top plastic polluters again”.

Recent Actions on Plastic Waste:

On October 31, the government of Nova Scotia passed Bill 152, the Plastic Bags Reduction Act , which also addresses other single-use plastics.  This follows plastic bag bans by Prince Edward Island and some municipalities.

The government of British Columbia issued a  Plastics Action Plan Consultation Paper which discussed four options for regulatory amendments, including single-use bans and extended producer responsibility. The  consultation process was extended to September 30, with amendments to the regulations promised by the end of 2019.

In Ontario, where waste management has played an outsized role in the Conservative government’s Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan , an August 2019 government press release announced next steps for recycling and plastic waste management.  The government had appointed a Special Advisor on Recycling and Plastic Waste, who released recommendations in his report Renewing the Blue Box: Final report on the blue box mediation process . The report calls for a transfer of responsibility for the consumer stream Blue Box program to a new producer responsibility system across the province by December 31, 2025. These concluding remarks typify the business approach of the exercise:

 “Investment in research and innovation to create the jobs from the recycled materials should be an interministerial responsibility. Garbage and recycling are not just an environmental issue – they are also economic opportunities…. … More than 99 percent of the plastics collected by the city of Toronto are sold to recyclers right here in Ontario, going to facilities in Shelbourne, Sarnia, and Toronto. Steel and glass collected by Toronto’s recycling programs are processed in Hamilton and Guelph, respectively. This is a prime example of recycling creating jobs and adding value to Ontario’s economy.”

Earlier actions:

The federal-provincial body, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), approved the Phase 1 statement of  a Canada-Wide Action Plan on Zero Plastic Waste in June 2019.  Phase 1 focuses on product design, single-use plastics, collection systems, recycling capacity and domestic markets. The Council promises to release Phase 2 of the Action Plan in 2020, focusing on preventing plastic pollution in oceans, inland lakes and waterways, advancing science to monitor the impacts of plastics pollution within the environment, consumer awareness, clean-up and global action.

Also in June 2019,  the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development released The Last Straw: Turning the Tide on Plastic Pollution in Canada,  the result of a consultation  which received nine briefs and testimony from 41 witnesses (some of which were environmental groups, and none of which were labour unions). The Last Straw made  21 recommendations , calling on the federal government to take the lead on developing standards for plastic products made or sold in Canada, as well as on  a national model recycling system and an extended producer responsibility framework for plastics.  Other recommendations:  Canada should establish a more ambitious goal of reaching zero plastic waste by 2030;  commit to banning harmful single-use plastic products – specifically  straws, bags, cutlery, cups, cigarette filters and polystyrene packaging.

CUPE LOGOAt the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)  National Convention in Montreal in October, one of the environmental resolutions approved by delegates was a call for a ban on single-use plastics , according to Notes from the Floor . (Online access to the Resolutions is restricted to CUPE members) .

CUPW logos joint-statement_enIn April 2019, the Association of Postal Officials of Canada, the Canadian Postmasters and Assistants Association, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, and the Union of Postal Communications Employees  reached a formal agreement   with Canada Post to collaborate to reduce Canada Post’s environmental footprint. The initial focus of activities will be towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, waste and single-use disposable plastics from Canada Post operations. In early 2020, the parties will publish an action plan for 2020-2022 , with agreed- upon targets for 2020-2030.

Canada’s  Circular Economy Leadership Council published a Policy Brief in the winter 2019  – with recommendations for government action. The Council includes advocacy groups such as IISD and the National Zero Waste Council, as well as corporations including Unilever, Walmart, Canadian Tire, and IKEA.

vision for plasticsIn February 2019, the Sustainable Prosperity Institute released A Vision for a Circular Economy for Plastics in Canada: The Benefits of Plastics Without the Waste and How We Get it Right.

Amnesty International campaign calls for better mining, manufacture, and disposal of electric vehicle batteries

golf electricWhile the Nordic EV Summit   in March 2019 showcased progress on the adoption of electric vehicles, Amnesty International used that backdrop to  issue a challenge to leaders in the electric vehicle industry –  to produce the world’s first completely ethical battery, free of human rights abuses within its supply chain, within five years.

It is not news that the mining of  cobalt and lithium, the two key minerals in batteries, has been linked to human rights abuses, environmental pollution, ecosystem destruction and indigenous rights violations.   Amnesty was amongst the first to document the child labour and human rights abuses with a report This is what we die for   in 2016,  updated in  2017 by an article,  “The Dark Side of Electric Cars: Exploitative Labor Practices”.  More recently, “Indigenous people’s livelihoods at risk in scramble for lithium, the new white goldappeared in The Ethical Corporation  (April 9), describing the human rights situation in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, which hold 60% of the world’s lithium reserves. The environmental impacts of deep-sea mining are also of concern.

In addition to the mining of raw materials, battery manufacturing has a high carbon footprint, with most of the current manufacturing concentrated in China, South Korea and Japan, where electricity generation remains dependent on coal and other polluting sources of power.

Finally, the issue of electronic waste, including batteries, has been the subject of several  reports:  From  the International Labour Organization :  in 2012,  Global Impact of E-waste: Addressing the Challenge and more recently,  Decent work in the management of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) , an Issues paper produced for a Global Dialogue Forum on Decent Work in the Management of Electrical and Electronic Waste in April 2019.  The 2019  report provides estimates of the workforce involved in some countries – led by China, with an estimated 690,000 workers in 2007, followed by up to 100,000 in Nigeria , followed by 60,000 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  The report deals mainly with occupational health and safety issues and includes an overview of international  e-waste regulation, as well as case studies of  the U.S., Argentina, China, India, Japan, Nigeria.  Similar discussions appear in  A New Circular Vision for Electronics Time for a Global Reboot , released by the E-waste Coalition at the 2019 World Economic Forum, and in a blog, Dead Batteries deserve a Second Life published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development on April 9.evcobalt-lithium-V2_1-supply-chain

Clearly, there are labour and environmental problems related to lithium-ion batteries and the green vehicles and electronic devices they power.  Recognizing  all these concerns, the new Amnesty International campaign is calling for:  improvement in human rights practices in mining, and  a prohibition on commercial deep-sea mining; disclosure and accounting for carbon in manufacturing, and for legal protection and enforcement of workplace rights such as health, equality and non-discrimination; finally for products to be designed and regulated to encourage re-use and penalize waste, with prevention of  illegal or dangerous export and dumping of batteries.

Business looks at climate change: Davos publications include auto manufacturing, electronic waste

The overall theme of the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos Switzerland in 2019 was the 4th Industrial Revolution. Climate change issues were top of mind in discussions, as the annual  Global Risks Report for 2019  had ranked the top global risks to the world as  extreme weather and climate-change policy failures.  Discussions, speeches, blogs and reports are compiled on the themes of The Future of the Environment and Natural Resource Security and Climate Change   .  Highlights include : “6 things we learned about the Environment at Davos” , an overview which highlights Japan’s pledge to  use its G20 Presidency to reduce plastic ocean pollution; the launch of a new organization called Voice for the Planet  to showcase the youth climate activist movement: and  a pledge by 10 global companies have to take back the electronic waste from their products.  Also of interest, the speech by Greta Thunberg, who is at the centre of the new youth climate activism – “Our House is on Fire” ; and “Why income inequality is bad for the climate”,  a blog by the President of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation.

WEF Reports of interest: Improving Traceability in Food Value Chains through Technology Innovations, which offers technology as a means to make the current industrial food system safer (and possibly more sustainable).   Shaping the Sustainability of Production Systems: Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies for competitiveness and sustainable growth  discusses the coming world of manufacturing, focussing on the electronics and automotive industries of  Andhra Pradesh, India and the automotive industry in Michigan U.S.A., including a discussion of Cobotics 2.0 (collaborative robots) , Metal 3D printing, and “augmented workforce”.

new circular vision for electronics - 2019 reportThe circular economy was also discussed, with a spotlight on electronic waste, which is estimated at 50 million tonnes of produced each year currently.   A New Circular Vision for Electronics Time for a Global Reboot  was released by the E-waste Coalition, which includes  the International Telecommunication Union (a UN organization), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and others.  The report, summarized here,  is an overview of  e-waste production and recycling, and includes a brief discussion of labour conditions, calling for upgrading and formalization of the recycling industry as a “major opportunity”. It states:  “the total number of people working informally in the global e-waste sector is unknown. However, as an indication, according to the ILO in Nigeria up 100,000 people are thought to be working in the informal e-waste sector, while in China that number is thought to be 690,000.” As for the dangers… “using basic recycling techniques to burn the plastic from electronic goods leaving the valuable metals (melting down lead in open pots, or dissolving circuit boards in acid) lead to adult and child workers, as well as their families, exposed to many toxic substances. In many countries, women and children make up to 30% of the workforce in informal, crude e-waste processing and are therefore particularly vulnerable.”  According to the report, the International Labour Organization is scheduled to release a new report in March 2019, to be titled  Decent work in the management of electrical and electronic waste.

Canadian Circular Economy coalition launched at G7 meetings

Circular economy group shot 2018The Circular Economy Leadership Council  (CELC) of Canada was launched at the Halifax meetings of G7 Environment, Energy and Ocean ministers on September 20, when the focus was on plastic pollution of our oceans.  The CELC is a Canada-wide, non- profit coalition which includes corporate and NGO leaders, think tanks, and academics,  with a dual goal “to eliminate waste and accelerate the reduction of carbon emissions from the Canadian economy.”  Their immediate objective is to develop and publish a Circular Economy Roadmap which will serve as a national strategy document. More details appear in their  bilingual brochure .

Co-chairs of the coalition are David Hughes, President and CEO of Natural Step Canada, and John D. Coyne, Vice-President and General Counsel of Unilever Canada.  Founding members are listed as: Unilever Canada • IKEA Canada • Loblaw Companies Limited • Walmart Canada • NEI Investments LP • International Institute for Sustainable Development • National Zero Waste Council     • Smart Prosperity Institute • The Natural Step Canada, and  • Institut EDDEC – Environment, sustainable development and the circular economy  in Quebec.  The CELC also declares strong working relationships with two well-established  Circular Economy organizations –  the Ellen MacArthur Foundation  based  in the U.K., and Sitra in Finland, which organized the first World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki in June 2017,  with 1,600 participants from  100 countries.  The 2nd World Circular Economy Forum will take place in Yokohama, Japan on 22-24 October 2018.

Circular economy contributes to clean growth – but what are the implications for jobs?

Circular economy coverGetting to a Circular Economy: A primer for Canadian policymakers was released by Smart Prosperity (formerly Sustainable Prosperity) on January 24, the first in a planned series of policy briefs and blogs on the topic. This introductory Primer starts from the widely-held premise that current global production and consumption models are unsustainable,  and states that “Canadian discussion on the circular economy has been overshadowed by the national emphasis on climate change and clean growth. In fact, the two approaches have significant goals in common: a focus on a low-carbon economy and on economic growth, innovation and new technologies.”

The Primer uses  a broad  definition developed by Canada’s Circular Economy Lab (CEL):  circular economy is “an approach to maximize value and eliminate waste by improving (and in some cases transforming) how goods and services are designed, manufactured and used. It touches on everything from material to business strategy to the configuration of regulatory frameworks, incentives and markets.” The Policy Brief provides a catalogue and description of the major circular economy policies and initiatives from around the world, especially Europe; from Canada, these include the National Zero Waste Council,  the Circular Economy Lab , L’Institut d’environnement, du développement durable et de l’économie circulaire (EDDEC)  in Quebec, and BioFuelNet , through which Warren Mabee of the ACW conducts research on advanced biofuels.   The Brief concludes by proposing  “Top 6 Tools for Accelerating the Circular Economy in Canada” , including  extended producer responsibility programs and policies; green procurement;  and public investments in circular economy related research, development, innovation and pilots.”  The Brief identifies one of the research gaps as the need to understand the social and employment impacts of the circular economy, and how to manage them.

In related news, on January 22 at the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) was launched , with an agreement between the United Nations Environment Program and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the prominent U.K. charity whose mission is to accelerate the shift to a circular economy. To kick off the project,  eleven global corporations pledged that all their packaging will be reused, recycled or composted by the year 2025.