Canadian Packaging

Why Hammer Policies to Reduce Plastic Waste May Be a Waste of Time

George Guidoni   

With demonization of all things plastic seemingly becoming a full-time occupation for public figures in government and activist circles, saying anything in defence of the one-time miracle material runs the risk of being branded a heretic or a climate-change denier. That does not seem to bother Martin Gooch, chief executive officer of the Value Chain Management International (VCMI) think tank in Oakville, Ont.

Well-known in industry circles for producing several authoritative reports on the economic and social impact of global food waste, VCMI’s fundamental position on the need for a cautious and largely voluntary approach to reducing plastic packaging may not be on trend with the prevailing public opinion, but it does not mean that it should be ignored on principle outright.

Published in response to the latest consultation paper released by the Environment and Climate Change Canada Environment (ECCC) on Aug. 1, 2023, as a starting point for a concerted reduction in the use or plastics for primary food packaging, VCMI’s long list of objections to the government’s appetite for heavy-handed regulation suggests that the journey to the Circular Economy for plastics in Canada will be anything but a stroll in the park.

In fact, the subtitle of VCMI’s Benefiting the Environment and Ecologies by Reducing Plastics Pollution position paper sternly proclaims that, “Plastic packaging hammer policies are not the answer.”

As the VCMI report argues from the outset, “One of the greatest risks facing industry today is well-intended though poorly conceived policies.

“Poorly conceived policies and the mechanisms required for their execution have the potential to worsen the issue(s) that they seek to address,” VCMI states.

While VCMI agrees with the overall aims outlined in the ECCC document, the devil is always in the details.

“In our opinion, detailed objectives published by ECCC in April and Aug. 2023, particularly the latter, are unachievable and will lead to widespread unintended consequences,” VCMI proclaims, warning about the dangers of exploiting the public’s newfound environmental awareness as a political ploy to boost the federal Liberal government’s sagging popularity.

“The challenge facing industry and consumers is that activists find hammer policies and regulations appealing because they create a false sense of effective action, for which they claim credit,” VCMI states.

“Due to the true cost of implementation and enforcement, and the expected benefits of implementing hammer policies and legislation rarely materializing, hammer policies and their regulatory mechanisms become a deadweight loss on the national economy.”

To tone down the expected wrangling and strong-arming, VCMI calls for a more compromising discussion that takes into account some key principles:

  • Policies must recognize the scale of the conflated relationships that exist between plastic pollution and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.
  • ECCC urgently needs to establish constructive dialogue with industry on addressing plastic pollution, or else risk losing its credibility as an authoritative government body.
  • The topic of plastic pollution cannot be viewed in isolation. Doing so will lead to widespread unintended consequences.
  • The need for negotiated agreements is particularly critical in Canada’s federated system, where provinces and municipal governments can impede change initiatives by having implemented conflicting regulations and misaligned systems.
  • Industry must be the driving force for change, with visionary leaders committing to achieve and be accountable for bold targets, and investing in the creation of harmonious pre-competitive solutions to address plastic pollution.
  • Government-implemented policies, regulations and programs need to incentivize and assist industry to address barriers that have historically inhibited formation of circular packaging economies.

Your move, Ottawa, let’s hear it.

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