Plastics Pollution in Ottawa: Lessons from the UNEP Conference

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Municipal governments, with their responsibility to waste management and strong connection to local people and businesses, are in a powerful position to enact real change in reducing plastic waste. 

This was the message of a seminar titled Unleashing Local Power: Dynamic Municipal Solutions to Prevent Plastic Waste held on April 24th at the National Arts Centre. 

One of a series of events hosted by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), the goal of the convention was to provide a forum for partners, stakeholders, and the public to disseminate and discuss research and solutions relating to plastic pollution. This occurred adjacent to the fourth session of the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) for a global plastics treaty, held in Ottawa from April 23rd to 29th

Image: Flows of plastic in the global plastic life cycle, and losses to and accumulated stocks in the
environment (Source: United Nations Environment Programme, Item 4).

Municipal representatives from various cities and townships across Canada spoke on the various initiatives, challenges, and successes they’ve had with reducing the use of single-use plastics in their respective municipalities. While details varied according to local constraints and funding, action mainly involved four strategies:

  1. Perform audits to establish current plastic waste composition: e.g., The City of Toronto performs annual audits of local parks – counting the amount and type of litter and waste.
  2. Campaign to increase awareness and education, focused on both individuals and businesses: e.g., Superhabits campaign in Metro Vancouver focused on a simple message: get people to use reusable items (shopping bags, coffee mugs, food containers)
  3. Support Voluntary Programs: e.g., Banff Borrows, program that allows users to borrow a reusable cup from participating locations for up to 30 days at no cost. 
  4. Enforce Mandatory Measures: e.g., Toronto Plastics Bylaw requires that businesses comply with:
    1. Ask-First/By-Request only for plastic items 
    2. Accepting the use of reusable items
    3. Compatibility of paper shopping bags with City’s waste diversion program 

How does Ottawa compare?

In June 2021, the City of Ottawa committed to a Zero Waste vision as part of the Solid Waste Master Plan (SWMP) Phase 2 (moving to Council for approval this June; see Ecology Ottawa's recommendations). A document about Plastics and their Management lays out possible ideas that will be incorporated into the SWMP, including:

  • bans and levies to reduce the amount of single-use plastics used in government facilities and businesses; 
  • procurement strategies to increase recycled content in products and packaging; and 
  • education and promotional programs to encourage responsible purchasing and increase recycling rates of these products.

In Fall 2022, the City passed a motion to “review all avenues within municipal jurisdiction to eliminate plastic waste in city facilities, immediately cease the purchase of single-use plastics such as straws and stir sticks whenever possible, and to strive to reduce the impact of plastic waste on the natural environment by encouraging ways to prevent its use and mitigate the secondary effects from polluting the natural environment.” No updates have been provided since, however the motion indicated that staff report back on their efforts by Q1 2025 to the appropriate standing committee.


Image: A sculpture titled "Giant Plastic Tap" by Canadian artist Benjamin Von Wong displayed outside the conference (Source: Canadian Press via CBC).

Ottawa also recently agreed to participate as the inaugural city in a national reuse pilot program, in partnership with the Circular Innovation Council. This initiative will allow consumers to purchase select products at participating grocery retailers (Metro, Sobeys, Walmart) in reusable containers free of charge with no deposit. The consumer will only be charged for the container if it is not returned within a specified timeframe and return bins will be provided at convenient drop off locations.  

Ultimately, there is no need to reinvent the wheel to reduce the city’s plastics consumption and waste. Other municipalities across Canada have already cleared the path; all Ottawa must do is pull up their socks and start walking.

Mel Dodd-Moher volunteers with Ecology Ottawa's Council Watch.

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