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How does science assessment help with plastic pollution reduction?

To address the growing problem of plastic entering the environment, the Government of Canada is taking action to reduce plastic pollution, including banning harmful single-use plastics where warranted and based on science, as early as 2021.

Plastic is an affordable and durable material found in a wide range of products that Canadians encounter in daily life such as food packaging, textiles, and pharmaceuticals. However, plastic pollution has also become pervasive in the environment. Canadians produce around three million tonnes of plastic waste yearly, but less than 10% of that waste is recycled. Plastic can also become pollution when it is disposed, lost or abandoned in the environment. In 2016, approximately 29,000 tonnes, about 1% of total plastic waste in Canada, entered our environment as plastic pollution. There are concerns that plastic pollution will continue to increase, leading to adverse effects to the health of the environment, wildlife, and potentially humans.

Compiling what we know

The Government of Canada is taking a comprehensive approach to reduce plastic pollution and achieve its zero plastic waste vision. The Government’s actions to combat plastic pollution are evidence-based, considering environmental and socio-economic factors that reflect Canada’s needs. To support these actions, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada published the Draft Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution in January 2020. The assessment summarizes the current state of science on the potential impacts of plastic pollution on the environment and human health, and will be used to guide future federal policy on plastic pollution and determine where future research is needed.

The report found that plastic pollution comes from many sources and is throughout the environment –on land, in water, soil, air, drinking water, food, and affects the wildlife. It concluded that macroplastics (larger than 5 mm) harm animals who may ingest or find themselves entangled in the material. This also has a negative effect on their habitat. The evidence of potential effects of microplastic (5mm or less) pollution is less clear and requires further research. Some studies also indicate microplastics (5mm or less) can lead to developmental and reproductive issues in animals, however, the science is inconclusive. There currently is limited information on the effects of both microplastics and macroplastics on human health. While humans may be exposed to microplastics by ingesting food, water, and through inhaling indoor and outdoor air, future studies are needed to understand their potential effect on human health.

Overall, the assessment states that action is required to reduce macroplastics and microplastics in the environment.

What’s next?

The draft assessment published in the Canada Gazette, the official newspaper of the Government of Canada is open for a 60-day public comment period that will inform the final assessment. This report will guide future research and inform the Government’s decisions as we follow through on our commitment to ban harmful single use plastic as early as 2021 and take other actions to reduce plastic pollution.

To address the gaps outlined in the Science Assessment, the Government of Canada launched the Increasing Knowledge on Plastic Pollution (IKPP) initiative. The IKPP will provide funding to projects that improve the understanding of the effects of plastic on human health and on ecosystems.

This complements recent federal activities to mobilize solutions and advance innovation. The Government is supporting Canadians through the Zero Plastic Waste Initiative to develop and test solutions to capture and remove plastic pollution or prevent plastic waste from entering the environment. Canada has also recently announced six new plastics innovation challenges to support Canadian businesses to find solutions to specific plastic issues. More information on innovation challenges is available here.

The Government of Canada is continuing to work with provinces and territories to implement the Canada-wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste and Phase 1 Action Plan. This includes developing a roadmap to address single use plastics and developing national targets, standards and regulations to make companies that manufacture or sell plastic products responsible for their end-of-life management. The federal, provincial and territorial governments are also developing the phase 2 action plan for environment ministers’ consideration at their annual meeting later this year.

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