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

It’s sad, said Raiza Uera, who plays Ariel, that the students don’t get to experience all the little things that happen back stage in live theatre. But the bonus is, they all stay safe “so this virus can go away,” added performer Katelyn Smyrski. (Special to Langley Advance Times)
Langley students present Disney, pandemic-style

Musical theatre lovers can watch Walnut Grove Secondary’s take of The Little Mermaid later this month

A fundraiser gets underway May 10 to raise $10,000 towards purchasing new pianos for Langley schools. (Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Fundraiser buying new pianos for Langley schools

A 15-day music practice-a-thon aims to buy 15 instruments; it starts Monday

Have an opinion you’d like to share? Submit letters to the editor through our website, via email or the postal service. (Heather Colpitts/Black Press Media)
LETTER: Constituent does not consider MP’s ‘unclean’ use a slur

Local letter writer said the biblical quote was not an insult to gay MP

A Worksafe BC temporary closure order posted on the front entrance of the Langley Canadian Tire on Thursday, April 29. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)
First Langley business in several days hit by COVID-19 closure order

A plumbing company is the latest to have to shut down temporarily

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O���Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

A black bear made a visit to downtown Vancouver Tuesday, May 4. The animal was spotted on train tracks in Gastown shortly after at 2:30 p.m. (Twitter/Craig Minielly)
VIDEO: Black bear spotted meandering around downtown Vancouver

The bear was reportedly tranquilized by conservation officers Tuesday afternoon

Flow Academy is located at 1511 Sutherland Avenue in Kelowna. (Michael Rodriguez/Capital News)
Interior Health locks out Kelowna martial arts gym following COVID violations

Actions were taken after all other steps to gain compliance were exhausted, says health authority

FILE – A plexiglass barrier is pictured creating a barrier to protect a cashier at a grocery store in North Vancouver, B.C. Sunday, March 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Grocery store workers now eligible for COVID vaccines in Fraser Health, Vancouver Coastal

Workers will be fast-tracked through the system, which is otherwise booking for people in their 50s

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

A man who allegedly spat at and yelled racial slurs at an Asian family was arrested for hate-motivated assault Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
Arrest made after man spits, yells anti-Asian racial slurs at Victoria mom and kids

The man was arrested for hate-motivated assault near Quadra Elementary School Tuesday

A lady wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada may find it challenging to reach herd immunity from COVID-19, experts say

Level of immunity among the population changes with the variants, especially the more transmissible strains

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Ripy Jubbal of Abbotsford has received a 30-month jail sentence for the fraudulent use of credit cards and credit card data. (Facebook photo)
Abbotsford woman sentenced for $80K in fraudulent credit card purchases

Ripy Jubbal and spouse used identities of 19 different victims, court hears

Most Read