The fight against single-use plastics has been sidelined by COVID-19 — but activists aren't giving up

Six months after the outbreak of COVID-19 in Canada, environmentalists say it's time to start thinking seriously about plastic waste again. 

Federal government’s single-use plastics ban has been delayed by the pandemic

Strictly Bulk co-owner Bruno Pejlak is one of many business owners who have suspended reusables programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

In the months leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, bulk store owner Bruno Pejlack noticed a change in his customers. 

After nearly 35 years of allowing people to bring their own bags and containers to his store with little uptake, "almost everybody" was starting to show up with their own bins to save plastic.   

Ashley Wallis, head of the plastics program for Environmental Defence, was also noticing big changes.

"There has been, over the last five or so years, a lot of momentum pushing people around the world toward wanting to eliminate plastics from their lives as much as possible or look for new systems," she said. 

Wallis says a critical moment came on a "really exciting" day last June, when the federal government announced it was working on a single-use plastics ban.  

Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson had pledged to eliminate single-use plastics — which could include straws, bags and cutlery — in Canada as early as 2021. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

That all changed this spring. 

As the government turned its focus to containing COVID-19, the single-use plastics ban was delayed, and Peljack — along with businesses like Bulk Barn, Starbucks and Tim Horton's — suspended their reusables programs over fears of spreading the virus.  

"It was very disappointing," he said. "Every week we always get a couple of people who will still bring a bag full of jars to reuse them. We have to say to them, 'Sorry.'" 

Plastic use skyrockets

Six months after the outbreak of COVID-19 in Canada, environmentalists say it's time to start thinking seriously about plastic waste again. 

"The International Solid Waste Association estimates that our single-use plastic use has increased by 250 to 300 per cent during the pandemic," said Wallis.  

Some of that waste is created by tossed personal protective equipment, an issue she says could be improved by a federal green procurement policy which compels PPE producers to invest in collection and recycling. 

Then there's the retreat from allowing reusable items over widespread fears that they could spread the virus — a risk some health professionals say has been misunderstood.

This spring, more than 100 scientists and medical professionals added their signatures to a public letter arguing that reusable containers and bags could be used safely as long as they are washed. 

Ashley Wallis, manager of the plastics program at Environmental Defence, says the setbacks created by the pandemic show 'that we need more than individual action.' (Submitted by Environmental Defence )

"I think we just need to recognize that washing our hands is much more important than not reusing things," Calgary emergency room physician Dr. Joe Vipond, one of the signatories, told CBC last month. 

Pejlack's been thinking along the same lines lately. 

"In the early stages, we didn't quite understand it. I think by now they know more or less it's not really a big health issue," he said. 

Is the public ready?

Even though reusables may be safer than originally thought, anti-waste activist Tina Soldovieri recognizes people may not be ready to embrace them yet. 

"The idea is not to make people do stuff they feel very reluctant to do," she told CBC Toronto. "The idea is to convince them that they want to do something."

Zach Fang, who owns a low-waste restaurant called Miss Bao's in Kingston, Ont., says customers have plenty of questions when he suggests waste-free options. 

To get around rules against reusable containers for take out, he's been encouraging customers to bring their own bins and then place their food inside themselves after he serves it to them on a plate. 

"We tell them, this is no different than serving on the patio," said Fang.

He's hopeful that as education around the dangers of plastic pollution continues, what generates a raised eyebrow now will be embraced in the future.  

Finding silver linings

Though many reusables programs remain suspended, activists say there's plenty to work on — and be hopeful about. 

Prior to the pandemic, Soldovieri worked with businesses to improve their waste footprints with the group she co-founded, Roncy Reduces.

Tina Soldovieri co-founded Roncy Reduces, which encourages businesses and consumers in her area to ditch the plastic and think green. (Haweya Fadal/CBC)

Now, after a quiet few months, she and some other environmental groups and low-waste businesses in Toronto are planning a meeting this month to regroup amid the challenges posed by COVID-19. 

"The idea with this meeting coming up is that we think of ways to engage people in thinking about their waste again," she said.   

Wallis says she's heartened by the commitment she sees from the federal government to move forward on the single-use plastics ban, delay or no. 

"From what I hear we're still likely to hear the ban list early this fall," she said. 

She and Soldovieri both see the recovery from the pandemic as a chance to zoom out and engage with issues like recycling and mitigating microplastics at a policy level:

"Recognizing that there is only so much that you can do as an individual, and then taking that and using it to advocate for these system level changes," said Wallis.