The countless, everyday benefits that plastics and plastic products provide aren’t always well understood, which is why it’s important to separate the misconceptions from reality.
There is a lot of misinformation circulating around about plastics and recycling, which isn’t always science-based or properly characterized. Unfortunately, discussions about the benefits of plastic and reducing plastic waste are often hampered by misconceptions or even myths regarding plastics, recycling, new technologies, and the millions of everyday uses that plastics bring to our modern lives.
Alternate narratives about plastics and the products created from plastic, both in Canada and around the world, can hurt consumer access and are detrimental to solutions-oriented thinking. Accurate information about plastics and the recycling industry is key to delivering on climate goals and creating a waste free future for Canada.
Here are a few of the most common misperceptions and truths:
Misconception: “The plastics industry doesn’t want government regulation”
The plastics industry supports smart regulations, not blanket bans. Canada already has a plan that we need to implement—the CCME Action Plan for Zero Plastic Waste. This comprehensive plan was created in collaboration with the plastics industry, government and other stakeholders. Among its provisions and regulations are Extended Producer Responsibility, a roadmap to strengthen management of single-use plastics, national performance requirements and standards, incentives for a circular economy, infrastructure and innovation investments, and guidelines for provinces to update their sustainable procurement practices.
Misconception: “Single-use plastics aren’t necessary”
In reality, single-use plastics are used by nearly all of our most vital industries, including electronics, hospitality, food and restaurant, infrastructure, and auto and aviation. Single-use plastics provide access to safe and fresh food products, and keep health professionals and patients safe. Without plastics, our modern way of life would not be possible.
Misconception: “Alternative materials for single-use products are better than plastic”
In fact, plastic is actually a better option than other materials because of its lower environmental impact, including reduced emissions according to a life cycle assessment (LCA) by Michigan Technological University. LCAs map the environmental impact of a product from its sourcing to end-of-life processes and are vital to understanding how we can reduce emissions and meet sustainability goals.
Misconception: “We can’t solve plastic waste through recycling”
To the contrary, provinces like British Columbia that have harmonized recycling systems that are designed, managed and paid for by industry have seen tremendous increases in recycling. That’s why other provinces across the country are looking to adopt a similar system, which includes clear recycling targets that increase in planned phases. This will be achieved with investments in modern sortation and mechanical recycling technologies that use improved optical sensors, artificial intelligence and even robotics as well as the development of new advanced recycling technologies, which make it possible to perpetually recycle all plastic materials into new products.
Misconception: “Not all plastic is recyclable”
All plastic is in fact recyclable, some types are just more complicated to recycle than others. Advanced recycling technologies (ARTs) and mechanical recycling ensure that all plastics can be more easily recycled and provide feedstock for new products. Innovative and sustainable product designs from industry are also making it easier to recycle plastic packaging.
Misconception: “Recycled plastic isn’t as sturdy as virgin plastic”
Actually, with some new advanced recycling technologies, recycled plastics are identical to virgin plastic resin, making it durable and infinitely reusable. Technologies like this contribute to Canada’s circular economy initiatives
Misconception: “Bans will reduce plastic waste”
In practice, bans don’t reduce waste. Instead bans shift demand to more energy-intensive alternative materials and have a higher life cycle environmental footprint.
Misconception: “Plastics are toxic”
In fact, plastics are a safe and inert material that are used in tens of thousands of consumer products from healthcare products to toys to automobiles to food packaging. The Canadian government has world-leading and robust health and safety regulations to assess and manage products.
Misconception: “Bans will prevent plastic from entering the environment”
To the contrary, bans will only disrupt supply chains and push demand elsewhere, oftentimes to more environmentally detrimental alternatives. Instead, investment in recycling infrastructure and increased education are vital to ensuring that plastic products are properly disposed of and will prevent plastic from entering the environment.
Misconception: “Plastic packaging has greater environmental impacts than alternatives”
In actuality, plastic packaging uses less water, less energy, and fewer resources to produce. This is helping Canada reach climate goals. By using more plastics, not less, Canada can continue to reduce emissions and efficiently use the resources it has.
Misconception: “Alternative materials, like glass, are better for the environment”
As a matter of fact and science, plastics outperform alternatives, like glass, on a life cycle assessment basis. Alternatives are actually more energy intensive to produce and are heavier to transport both onsite and between locations, which makes them more fuel intensive with resulting higher GHG emissions. Not only are plastics lighter, but they are stronger and more durable than alternatives making them last longer and protect the products they hold.
Misconception: “Only the government can solve plastic waste issues”
While the government must play a role in solving plastic waste issues, the plastics industry and consumers are also a huge part of the puzzle and are vital to ending plastic waste. Industry is leading numerous initiatives to eliminate plastics from landfills and ensure that plastics stay in the economy. Canadians want greater collaboration between governments and industry because they know that together we can build real, holistic solutions.
Misconception: “The plastics industry has done nothing to reduce plastic waste”
In truth, Canada’s plastic industry is leading a number of initiatives to boost recycling rates and design more sustainable and streamlined products. British Columbia-based RecycleBC has boosted recovery rates to 52%. Meanwhile, Manitoba-based Winpak is supporting a new, sustainable line of packaging that is designed to be more easily recycled. More examples of industry solutions are found here.