The Canadian government officially added plastic products to its list of "toxic" substances May 12, paving the way for nationwide bans on single-use products and drawing a sharp rebuke from industry groups.
Industry associations said the regulatory listing could harm investment in the country's plastics sector, while environmental groups praised it and urged the government to move quickly with its new authority to ban six types of single-use plastics.
The Chemistry Industry Association of Canada said it was disappointed in the decision, which officially lists "plastic manufactured items" as toxic substances on Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
The move was not entirely unexpected after the federal government first proposed it last year.
The Ottawa-based chemicals association suggested it wanted to see what specific new regulations would be coming.
"We will continue to work with the federal government to understand the scope of impacts on businesses stemming from regulations expected later this year," the group said. "CIAC is disappointed that safe inert plastic materials that play such an important role ... are being labeled as toxic substances."
As well, it said the decision could scare away investments needed to make Canada's plastics sector more circular.
"We remain concerned that today's decision sends the wrong message to global chemistry investors, namely that Canada is ambivalent about the enormous investment prospects for the circular economy," the association said.
But environmental groups welcomed the move and urged the government to enact a national ban on "non-essential single-use plastic" like checkout bags, takeout containers, straws, stirrers, six pack rings and cutlery by the end of the year.
In a joint statement, they noted a single-use plastics ban will be in force in the European Union this summer.
"The federal government needs to use every tool in the toolbox to end the growing plastics disaster, including a strong ban on single-use plastic items," said Ashley Wallis, plastics campaigner with Oceana Canada.
The groups said 91 percent of Canada's plastic waste ends up in landfills, incinerators or in the natural environment. They said the government's new CEPA authority could be used for other regulations to help reduce plastic pollution and support a low-carbon economy.
"We can't recycle our way out of this, we need to prevent plastic waste and shift to a truly circular economy built on reusables," said Emily Alfred, senior campaigner with the Toronto Environmental Alliance. "We're happy to see the federal government take this first key step."
But the Canadian industry said the listing would do little to keep plastics out of the environment, and pointed to the need for other steps, like development of recycling technologies and building end markets for recycled plastic.
CIAC said it would keep working toward extended producer responsibility systems in all provinces and advocate for better recycling access and stronger technology around mechanical and chemical, or advanced, recycling.
"By making plastics completely recyclable and transforming waste into new plastic items and other products, we can help Canada realize its goal of zero plastic waste," said Elena Mantagaris, vice president of CIAC's plastics division.
Canadian companies including Nova Chemicals Corp. filed formal objections with the government requesting that a review panel be convened to examine the CEPA listing.
Nova, which is Canada's largest plastics resin producer, said plastic products are not toxic with the meaning of CEPA and said the government's own scientific assessment says the problem is not with plastics as a material, but with improper waste management.
Industry groups in the United States also weighed in. Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics with the American Chemistry Council said in a statement that a CEPA listing will confuse consumers and could lead to substitutions of products with higher greenhouse gas impacts.
And the Plastics Industry Association filed its own formal objection with the Canadian government, arguing that the listing amounts to a technical barrier to trade that violates World Trade Organization rules.
It also said the listing violates the "spirit of cooperation" in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade.