Unilateral ban on single-use plastics ignores spirit of new NAFTA, some critics, experts say

Canada’s proposed ban on single-use plastics may not run afoul of its trade deal with the United States and Mexico, but experts suggest it disregards the “pause-and-check” spirit of the agreement.

The Washington-based Plastics Industry Association added its voice this week to a chorus of complaints about the proposal, which would classify certain manufactured plastic items, including straws and carry-out bags, as “toxic substances” under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

“By designating plastics as ‘toxic,’ the Canadian government is recklessly making policy that could have significant negative impacts on human health,” association president Tony Radoszewski said in a statement.

“Simply put, the single-use plastic items we use every day are not toxic, but in fact are life-saving.”

The association echoed concerns raised last month by the U.S.-based Vinyl Institute that the proposal could “undermine” the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which took effect in July.

Trade lawyers and Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson were quick to disagree Wednesday when the proposal was unveiled.

“I think those concerns that are being expressed are simply wrong,” Wilkinson said.

“This proposal is really focused on ensuring that all products, whether they’re manufactured here or elsewhere, are treated in the same way. I do not see a trade concern.”

Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has waved away concerns that the proposal could go against the spirit of the trade agreement. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

‘Pause-and-check’ spirit of revised NAFTA 

The agreement that replaced NAFTA, known as the USMCA in the the United States and the CUSMA in Canada, includes standard exceptions for “environmental measures necessary to protect human, animal, or plant life or health,” and “measures relating to the conservation of living and non-living exhaustible natural resources.”

However, it also reflects a spirit of mutual co-operation that argues for consulting one’s partners before imposing new restrictions, said Dan Ujczo, a trade lawyer in Ohio who specializes in Canada-U.S. matters.

“This is a tough case to make under USMCA because [of] the health, safety and environmental exceptions,” Ujczo said.

But Chapter 12 of the deal includes commitments, “at least in spirit,” that oblige the three partners to “pause and check with the other” when planning measures affecting a range of materials, including chemicals and plastics, he said.

It’s reflective of the efforts Canada and the U.S. began in 2011 under the Regulatory Co-operation Council, which was aimed at aligning rules and safety standards for identical products on opposite sides of the border.

“What we’re trying to get to in Canada-U.S. is what every two-parent household learns very early on in their child’s life,” Ujczo said.

“Before you say ‘Yes,’ you check with the other parent to see, because usually the kids know how to play one off the other.”

The federal government has unveiled which single-use plastics will be covered by a national ban coming into effect in 2021. (CBC Graphics)

Canada takes its obligations under the USMCA “very seriously,” said Youmy Han, press secretary for International Trade Minister Mary Ng.

“Our work to ban single-use plastics will respect all our commitments in the new NAFTA,” Han said in a statement.

“As per our government’s approach to trade, the new NAFTA in no way prevents Canada from taking strong action to protect the environment.”

The Vinyl Institute’s complaint, which predated Wednesday’s announcement by several weeks and was based on Liberal government campaign promises, was also included in a Sept. 11 letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

A spokesperson for the Plastics Industry Association would not say whether Radoszewski raised the matter with Lighthizer. The USTR did not respond to media queries.

Alignment between industry, Trump’s electoral interests

In the Donald Trump era, the political landscape always plays a role. With less than a month to go before the U.S. presidential election, there is a striking alignment between the plastics industry and the president’s electoral interests.

Outside of solidly Democratic California, the list of states with the largest number of Americans who work in plastics reads like turn-by-turn directions to the White House: Ohio, Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

That said, Ujczo — describing the Great Lakes region as a global hub for polymers, plastics and chemicals — said there’s not likely much traction in places like Ohio for any action before voters head to in-person polls next month.

“The concern is not the measure itself. It’s the timing and tempo of it,” he said.

“As much as it’s true that this is an issue here, it’s not going to resonate. There’s no oxygen for an issue like this leading up to Nov. 3.”

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Sudan blasts ‘unilateral’ move as Ethiopia dam fills

The dam’s construction, seen here in December 2019, began in 2011

Sudan says River Nile water levels have dropped as a reservoir behind Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance dam has filled up, hitting out at “any unilateral actions taken by any party”.

Egypt has also demanded “quick official clarification” from Ethiopia.

Both Sudan and Egypt are downstream, and fear the large dam will greatly reduce their access to water.

Ethiopia sees the hydroelectric project as crucial for its economic growth and improving electricity supplies.

“If Ethiopia doesn’t fill the dam, it means Ethiopia has agreed to demolish the dam,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told parliament earlier this month.

But state media have backtracked after reports on Wednesday that suggested the dam was being filled deliberately, though without making it clear whether the dam’s gates had been closed.

On Thursday Sudan’s foreign ministry quoted an Ethiopian official as saying Ethiopia was not filling the dam and had not closed its gates.

Earlier this week, talks between the three nations over the $4bn (£3.2bn) Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd) ended without agreement, Ethiopian officials said, blaming “unchanged and additional and excessive demands of Egypt.”

Dialogue and a fair solution were needed, Sudan’s Information Minister Faisal Saleh was quoted as saying on Monday by Reuters.

Sudan said water levels are dropping by 90 million cubic metres (mcm) per day – equivalent to about 36,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools – at the al-Deim water station which borders Ethiopia.

Years of fraught negotiations have failed to reach a consensus on how and when to fill the reservoir, and how much water it should release.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has previously warned that filling and operating the dam without an agreement “that protects the downstream communities… would heighten tensions and could provoke crises and conflicts that further destabilise an already troubled region”.

A conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, which are both US allies, would put millions of civilians at risk.

What did Ethiopia say?

On Wednesday its Water Minister Seleshi Bekele appeared to confirm the satellite images showing dam water levels rising, with state broadcaster EBC quoting him as saying it was “in line with the dam’s natural construction process”.

But hours later EBC backtracked, saying it apologised for “erroneous” reporting that incorrectly quoted the water minister as saying the process of filling the dam had started.

“[Mr Bekele] said negotiations on the Gerd would continue in a manner that would ensure the interests of Ethiopia”, EBC clarified.

Satellite images taken between 27 June and 12 July show a steady increase in the amount of water being held back by the dam.

Two unnamed Ethiopian officials who spoke to AFP news agency have respectively blamed this on heavy rains outpacing the dam’s ability to push water downstream, and it being a normal part of construction that has not stopped flow altogether.

When fully operational, the dam will become the largest hydro-electric plant in Africa, providing power to some 65 million Ethiopians, who currently lack a regular electricity supply. However, Egypt gets almost all of its water from the Nile and fears the dam will reduce supplies.

How long will it take to fill?

Ethiopia says it will take between five to seven years to fill up the dam to its maximum flood season capacity of 74 billion cubic metres (bcm). At that point, the lake that will be created could stretch back some 250km (155 miles) upstream.

Between each subsequent flood season the reservoir will be lowered to 49.3bcm.

Egypt, which almost entirely relies on the Nile for its water needs, is concerned that in most years of the filling it is not guaranteed a specific volume of water.

And once the filling stage is over, Ethiopia is reluctant to be tied to a figure of how much water to release.

In years of normal or above average rainfall that should not be a problem, but Egypt is nervous about what might happen during prolonged drought.

Explore the Nile with 360 video

Join Alastair Leithead and his team, travelling in 2018 from the Blue Nile’s source to the sea – through Ethiopia and Sudan into Egypt.

What is happening with the talks?

Negotiations over the mega dam have failed to reach agreement after nearly a decade of talks between Egypt and Ethiopia, with Sudan caught in between.

Last year, Egypt sought the intervention of the US on the impasse.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi requested that US President Donald Trump mediate the conflict, which Ethiopia was initially reluctant to accept.

The US and the World Bank got involved but failed to get Ethiopia to sign up to a document agreed with Egypt in February.

When the US then said that the dam should not be completed without an agreement, Ethiopia accused the superpower of overstepping its role as a neutral observer.

The African Union (AU) has now said it will try to find a solution.

Ethiopia dam map
Ethiopia dam map

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