Mr. Speaker, it is truly an honour to rise and speak to this motion that is so important to the people whom I represent. On an island in the Pacific, we are increasingly inundated with microplastics. Microbeads are a problem that could be regulated if the government had any interest in showing the leadership available to it under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999.
I will talk about the legislative provisions that are available in a moment. I would first like to address why this is such an important issue.
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. I am grateful to be able to do so.
I want to speak first from the perspective of the Pacific Ocean. About a month ago on CBC News, there was a story that caused a lot of consternation in my part of the world. It said that new research showed tiny pieces of plastic could pose a major threat to the waters off the B.C. coast.
An article last year in a learned journal, Marine Pollution Bulletin, was written by a number of scientists, including Dr. Peter Ross. Dr. Ross is one of those people who no longer work for the federal government. He is one of the long list of scientists who no longer work there since this government came to power. Nevertheless, he managed to get an important position with the Vancouver Aquarium. He has collaborated with colleagues at the University of Victoria, like Jean-Pierre Desforges and Moira Galbraith, who works as well for the Institute of Ocean Sciences in DFO, and Neil Dangerfield. The article documents for the first time the problem of microplastics in the Pacific marine environment. It is very disturbing.
They found that microplastic contamination exists not just off the built environment but also up in Queen Charlotte Sound, in an area with little or no industry and very little population. That shows this problem is spreading. I will come back to their analysis in a moment.
Very simply, Dr. Ross has said:
[We've] seen these impact with photos of animals with their stomachs filled with plastics that are visible to the human eye. What we have not seen are pictures of the microscopic creatures at the bottom of the food chain and what plastics might be found in their bellies.
He says that microplastics are being ingested by a critical aquatic food source, namely plankton, and killing them. He goes on to say:
It fills up the stomach and they feel like they've got a belly full of food, but they have no nutrition associated with that. It's simply a bit of plastic.
This is obviously of great concern to the scientists in our part of the world and to people who worry about the future of our aquatic environment. We have always known there were harmful effects from large plastic debris, but what they have looked at are the effects on the biota of such things as ingestion, as pointed out by Dr. Ross, leaching of toxic additives, and desorption of persistent bioaccumulative and toxic substances. Small plastic fragments are available to organisms at the base of the food web, as they may be the same size range as natural food items.
The impact, in short, is completely unknown. It has spread up to Queen Charlotte Sound, based on, for example, wave actions that might have caused that, and there is only speculation as to what the ultimate impact may be. That is why scientists are blowing the whistle and saying the government has to act. We hear today that ministers may talk about it at a federal-provincial conference.
When people ask me what an NDP government would do, if ever it had the power to change the environmental legislation in the face of what this government has done, I answer very simply. We would simply restore the excellent legislation that this government has repealed, and unlike what the Liberals did, we would enforce that legislation. A good example is the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, which is what this motion wishes to trigger, if the House were to agree to deal with the microbead problem.
The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, makes pollution prevention the cornerstone of national efforts to reduce toxic substances in the environment. It is an amazing piece of legislation. It is very lengthy at 356 sections long, with 12 parts and 6 schedules, and it has a very ambitious agenda, including addressing toxic substances, such as the one at issue with microbeads.
Under section 64 of that act is the ability to deal with toxic substances. Toxic substances are defined by risk as follows:
...a substance is toxic if it is entering or may enter the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that (a) have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity; (b) constitute or may constitute a danger to the environment...
It is all there. All one has to do is work with the scientific committee and put it on the scheduled list of toxic substances, and we can deal with it. We can deal with it in an aggressive fashion. We think that is what is required. It is really quite simple. If it is a toxic substance, the government can regulate it, phase it out, or eliminate it.
It is so ironic that we have the industry wishing to take action, acknowledging that there is a problem and crying out for some federal leadership, and what we hear from the other side is that maybe we should have a conference to talk about it with the provinces. Why? They have already scheduled dozens of substances. Industry itself acknowledges that it is a problem. Scientists are saying that we have to deal with it, and the federal government sits around and talks about maybe having a chitchat with the provinces.
That is not leadership, and it is not using the tools that are available to the government under this legislation, which is excellent, would that there were people enforcing it, but that is another subject; would that they had not got rid of so many scientists, but that is another problem. Some of them still work. They could not get jobs in government. They were turfed out of the DFO but nevertheless found jobs elsewhere to continue their research, because they care about our natural environment, in sharp, contradistinction to the government of the day.
Putting it on the priority substances list, as has been done many times before, would allow these toxic substances, such as microbeads, to be regulated. It is not rocket science. The fact that it has been done so far in other contexts suggests that it can be done here as well.
Why is the government not acting? I have no idea. The Body Shop says that it should. Unilever says that it should. Johnson & Johnson started to phase out polyethylene microbeads, because they are not necessary. We used to use natural products to do what these microbeads do, but now they have been replaced with these other products, which are wreaking havoc, apparently, in the environment. There is Colgate-Palmolive. All of these industries understand the problem and are taking action.
South of the border, as was indicated earlier, Illinois has banned the production, manufacture, or sale of personal care products containing these plastic microbeads.
We are lucky in Canada. Unlike the United States, which seems to be doing this on a state-by-state basis, we have a statute. We have a great statute. We have a 21st-century statute called the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. It is alive and well, but forgotten, it seems, by the Conservative government.
Action is very simple. We have so many complicated issues involving the natural environment. Would that they all had such simple solutions as this.
The Minister of the Environment apparently wrote, in response to a number of mayors in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, that the government has concerns about microbeads. In a letter dated January 3, apparently she wrote that as part of the scientific review process, it would consider “proposing the issue of microplastics as a possible priority issue to be addressed”. Hooray. The Conservatives recognize that it can be done. That is a good step.
However, she then went on and said, rather strangely, that “this is a plastic waste management/disposal issue” and should be referred to the province. No, it should not. One wonders where the Conservatives get their legal advice. It is right there in the statute. She seems to get it, but then seems to suggest, as the government is today, that we should just give it to a little conference to talk about.
We have the tools. We have a need. We should just get on with the job and deal with the pressing problem of microbeads in our environment.