Let’s not make it easy for businesses to burn plastic waste

The Ontario government has a new solution to Canada’s plastic crisis: slash-and-burn farming. The Department of the Environment is proposing to reduce environmental regulations to make it easier for businesses to incinerate plastic. And he wants to call it recycling.

The government wants to exempt companies that propose experimental projects that transform waste into fuel or chemicals from environmental assessment.

And it looks like two of the biggest plastics producers in the country are behind it all.

Both Dow Chemical and Imperial Oil have registered lobbyists at Queen’s Park to talk about the “Environmental Assessment Act” (Imperial) and plastic recovery for “Waste-to-Energy/Waste-to-Polymer” programs (Dow).

These companies promise a miracle cure for plastic waste. But in reality, such projects are more likely to burn waste, releasing a host of toxic pollutants while generating climate-warming greenhouse gases. And by removing the requirement for an environmental assessment, the public wouldn’t know about a new project until it was too late to do anything about it.

Companies may have a good reason for wanting to avoid public scrutiny. Just last month in Newfoundland, the government rejected an application for a massive waste-to-energy project in the coastal town of Lewisporte. The publicly available proposal involved using unproven technology to turn 250,000 tonnes of plastic waste imported from Europe into fuel.

The community mobilized and sent some 200 letters of opposition to the project. And they arrested him.

Ontarians also have a history of opposing garbage-burning plants in our backyards. Burning garbage, especially plastic waste, releases pollutants into the air that can cause respiratory illnesses, headaches, hormonal disorders and cancer. It also leaves toxic solid waste, including ash, which must be buried, where it releases pollutants into soil and water.

And experience across North America shows that low-income people and communities of color or Indigenous communities tend to bear the brunt of pollution from the manufacture and disposal of plastics, including incineration.

Letting the public in can make it harder for companies to get the approval they’re hoping for. But it’s outrageous that the Ontario government wants to help them avoid scrutiny.

Under proposed changes in Ontario, a new facility expected to burn up to 365,000 tonnes of waste each year could be approved in your community without anyone except officials from the Ministry of the Environment having eyes on the details.

The real answer to the global plastic waste and pollution crisis is to produce – and use – less. But Dow and Imperial Oil, which between them make more than 1.7 million tonnes of plastic each year, seem uninterested in reducing plastic use.

Dow also started a Hefty Bag greenwashing program in Boise, Idaho, where residents were encouraged to sort their plastic waste that was supposed to be collected for recycling. But an investigative report revealed that the carefully sorted bags had been shipped to another state and burned as fuel in a cement kiln.

Using plastic waste to produce energy or fuel is incineration – a dirty and expensive process, whatever you call it. This is not the solution to the problem of plastic pollution.

Instead of promoting the plastic industry’s “miracle cure” for waste, the Ontario government should tighten regulations to reduce the creation of unnecessary plastics in the first place. The government should further encourage the creation of environmentally friendly packaging and products that can be safely reused, repaired and recycled.

Karen Wirsig is the Plastics Program Manager at Environmental Defense and Emily Alfred is the Waste Activist at the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

Bryce K. Locke