Canada Moves to Classify Manufactured Plastics as Toxic Substance

Materials evaluation [PSMC]

July 14, 2021

Enables government to propose risk management measures to address potential ecological risks of plastic pollution

On May 12, 2021, Canada amended their 1999 Canadian Environmental Protection Act to add "plastic manufactured items" (PMI) to Schedule 1, a list of noted toxic substances that includes entries for asbestos, PCBs, and mercury. The Ministers of Health and the Environment decided to add PMI to Schedule 1 following their assessment of the Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets, and Waste (2019); a Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution (2020); and a range of stakeholder engagement activities. The Science Assessment concluded, in part, that:

"Given the increasing amounts of plastic pollution in the environment and the demonstrated ability of macroplastics to harm biota, it is anticipated that the frequency of occurrence of physical effects on individual environmental receptors will continue to increase if current trends continue without mitigation measures.

In accordance with the precautionary principle, action is needed to reduce macroplastics and microplastics that end up in the environment."

Adding an item to Schedule 1 does not immediately establish any limitations or regulatory requirements, nor does it restrict the use of manufactured plastic items. Rather, it allows the Ministers of Health and Environment to develop risk management measures. As noted in the Order, the measures would be developed with stakeholders to ensure that they are "appropriate, fit for purpose, and avoid unintended consequences."

As an example, ≤5-mm microplastic beads were separately added to Schedule 1 on June 29, 2016. On November 5 of that year, proposed regulations on their uses were put forth for public comment; on June 14, 2017, final regulations were published; and on July 1, 2018, the manufacture and import of all toiletries that contain plastic microbeads were prohibited. This example shows the pace at which these regulations can be developed and promulgated. While it is unclear how or when the Ministers will move forward with risk management measures for manufactured plastic items, and what, if any, pushback will be seen throughout the process, given the breadth of this category of items and the scope of the issue of plastic pollution, any actions could have wide-reaching implications for stakeholders.

How Exponent Can Help

The state of the science on the effects of plastics in the environment is rapidly evolving, and policy makers and the regulated community must take this into account when developing risk management measures. Exponent has prepared expert reviews for clients on the fate and effects of macro- and microplastics in the environment, including a review of literature used in the development of Canada's microbead regulations. Our team understands the evolving regulatory landscape of plastics in the environment, both national and international, and offers the integrated expertise of ecologists, toxicologists, polymer scientists, material chemists, and chemical regulation professionals to help clients prepare for, and respond to, changes in environmental policy.