A shopper leaves a grocery store carrying his groceries in plastic bags Tuesday, August 30, 2016 in Brossard, Que. In mid January the British Columbia government announced it was looking at a province-wide ban on single-use plastic grocery bags to put an end to a piece-meal, city-by-city approach to the problem of plastic pollution. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

A shopper leaves a grocery store carrying his groceries in plastic bags Tuesday, August 30, 2016 in Brossard, Que. In mid January the British Columbia government announced it was looking at a province-wide ban on single-use plastic grocery bags to put an end to a piece-meal, city-by-city approach to the problem of plastic pollution. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Plastics bans, environmental monitoring get short shrift during pandemic

More single-use items are being used over fears of spreading COVID-19

In mid January the British Columbia government announced it was looking at a wide ban on single-use plastic grocery bags to put an end to a piecemeal, city-by-city approach to the problem of plastic pollution.

Ten weeks later, the province’s chief public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, issued guidance saying the exact opposite. Stores were to provide clean carry-out bags, she told retailers on March 30, as the province was closing in on 1,000 positive cases of COVID-19.

“Customers should not use their own containers, reusable bags or boxes,” reads the written instruction.

It was but one sign that environmental policies were to be among the first things cast aside or suspended as the COVID-19 pandemic descended on Canada.

Fear of contamination from reused packaging and the need to operate with reduced staff and with fewer interactions between people, prompted retailers to bar reusable packaging, from bags to coffee cups. Restaurants were forced to go to a take-out only model, pushing the need for plastic and Styrofoam containers through the roof.

And as the use of plastic containers went up, some cities were forced to cut back, or even cancel outright, municipal recycling programs.

Last week Calgary suspended blue-bin operations entirely because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the city’s recycling plant. Edmonton has said about one-quarter of what it collects from blue bins is going to the landfill now because it don’t have the staff to handle all the material. In eastern Ontario, Quinte Waste Solutions, which provides recycling to nine municipalities, suspended collection of most hazardous and electronic waste for proper disposal. In Nova Scotia, several recycling depots were closed.

Alberta’s Energy Regulator has suspended almost all environmental monitoring requirements for the energy sector, including soil, water and air pollution. Initially just applicable to some oilsands operations, on Wednesday the regulator expanded the exemption for the entire energy sector, saying it was no longer safe to do so with the threat of COVID-19.

In early April, Ontario passed a regulation under its Environment Bill of Rights that suspends the requirement for a 30-day consultation with the public on any policy that affects water, air, land or wildlife. The government cited the need to be able to respond quickly to COVID-19 as the reason, although the requirement was not lifted only for any COVID-19 policies, but for anything.

Environmental Defence executive director Tim Gray said governments that were already less inclined to care much about the environment are abandoning policies the fastest, but there are also delays to promised protections because of COVID-19 that could become a longer-term problem.

Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said last week the government remains committed to its climate-change and plastics ban plans, but that some policies are being delayed a bit because of the virus.

“My concern is that this will go on for so long it will push it so far down the road it can’t get done before another election,” said Gray.

He said decisions to suspend plastic-bag bans are a “panicked response” that may cool as more information and science is understood about the virus. Just this week, the Centers for Disease Control in the United States changed its wording about how the virus is transmitted to say it does not spread easily from touching contaminated surfaces.

Canada’s deputy public health chief Dr. Howard Njoo said Friday rigorous and frequent hand washing and not touching your face without washing your hands will prevent any virus you may have picked up on your hands from making you sick.

READ MORE: Pandemic could bring benefits to B.C.’s environment

The plastics industry has seen an uptick in demand in the midst of the virus, said Bob Masterson, the president of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada.

“What I would say has changed is people, as a result of COVID, have a much better appreciation of the benefit of plastic as a sanitary material for the food industry,” he said.

Stores across the country rushed to wrap their checkout counters with plastic shields and equip their employees with plastic gloves and face shields. Demand for hand sanitizer — mostly bottled in plastic — soared.

John Thayer, a senior vice-president at petrochemical manufacturer Nova Chemicals, said while some orders were cancelled because of COVID-19, demand has increased for plastics used to make food packaging, e-commerce packaging and shipping requirements and medical packaging and protective equipment. Everything from face masks to surgical gowns to ventilators, test tubes and COVID-19 testing kits, use plastic.

“Polyethylene and other polymers are helping prevent COVID-19 transmission and treat those impacted by the virus,” said Thayer.

Sarah King, head of the oceans and plastics program at Greenpeace Canada, disputes that plastics are safer as a means to protect consumers. She said plastics have a place in the medical world but studies have shown the virus actually lives longer on plastic than any other material.

A cloth bag that is washed regularly is less likely to be contaminated than a plastic one, she said.

“There is a lot of misinformation about plastics as a healthy alternative,” said King.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusEnvironment

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Interior Health reports 65 new cases of COVID-19

Province-wide, there are 887 new cases of the virus

The Stuart Park ice rink in January 2020. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)
Kelowna’s Stuart Park outdoor ice rink opening delayed

Recent provincial health orders have again shifted the city’s strategy regarding the popular rink

The Rutland IGA is located in Willow Park Shopping Centre at 590 BC-33. (Michael Rodriguez - Kelowna Capital News)
Customer asked to mask up, throws hot coffee at Rutland IGA employee

The woman grabbed cat food on her way out when she refused to wear a mask

Police service dog Fitz helped track and rescue a lost hiker and his dog in Kelowna. (Kelowna RCMP)
Kelowna police dog Fitz dies of cancer

Fitz recently helped locate a lost hiker in the Central Okanagan

Photo of the suspect wanted for breaking and entering into a building in the 800 block of Saucier Avenue in Kelowna on Nov. 10, 2020. (Contributed)
Woman wanted for stealing mail from Kelowna apartment

If you recognize this person of interest call Crime Stoppers or the RCMP

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry update the COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Nov. 23, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. sets another COVID-19 record with 887 new cases

Another 13 deaths, ties the highest three days ago

The baby boy born to Gillian and Dave McIntosh of Abbotsford was released from hospital on Wednesday (Nov. 25) while Gillian continues to fight for her life after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
Abbotsford mom with COVID-19 still fighting for life while newborn baby comes home

Son was delivered Nov. 10 while Gillian McIntosh was in an induced coma

City of Armstrong Public Works Yard. (Google Maps)
Armstrong city staffer threatened in snow removal complaint

Community services manager says ‘veiled threat’ is believed to have been flippant, but is being taken seriously

B.C. Premier John Horgan, a Star Trek fan, can’t resist a Vulcan salute as he takes the oath of office for a second term in Victoria, Nov. 26, 2020. (B.C. government)
Horgan names 20-member cabinet with same pandemic team

New faces in education, finance, economic recovery

The Okanagan Quality Life Society which usually gives tours of Okanagan Lake to seniors and shut-ins on its boat Heaven Can Wait has created a virtual tour video in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic which shut down the tours in 2020. (Morning Star - file photo)
Okanagan Lake virtual boat tours launched

Okanagan Quality Life Society normally gives tours on Okanagan Lake on its boat Heaven Can Wait

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The Allan Brooks Nature Centre is kicking off a Light The Night fundraising campaign online to help with Christmas shopping for the public and fundraising for the popular Vernon attraction. (ABNC Photo)
Light the Night campaign boosts North Okanagan nature centre

Allan Brooks Society hosting online auction of 12 items; donations can also be made to help centre

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Resident wants City of Salmon Arm to take action to eradicate rat population in town. (File photo)
Salmon Arm resident demands action to eradicate rats

City posts more information on social media, will consider more action at budget time

Most Read