Plastic Waste in Canada: A $7.8 Billion Lost Opportunity

My own personal mandate and that of my company is change through policy because I have been on a lifelong search to find the way to initiate a shift in attitude toward the environment and found concrete examples in this past century that illustrate how policy is the one common denominator that ignites global positive change. The banning of plastic straws and plastic bags are just a few environmental policies that went viral around the globe to address one of the worst sources of pollution, though the pandemic has paused some of this progress.

Meme: © Pinterest.

The greenwashing of environmentalism in education and media conjures fuzzy feelings for planting a tree or placing a pop can in the blue bin. Though well-intentioned, beach cleanups will not solve the issue of plastic pollution. The bottom line is we need to regulate chemical manufacturers if we are going to reach the source of the problem. It has proven ineffective to rely on the ethics of big corporate polluters to do the right thing to reduce harm to human health and the environment.

The dominant, widespread toxic contaminant, the man-made environmental terrorist must be removed from plant and animal habitats before we suffocate. It has infiltrated every aspect of modern living right beneath our noses and no one could fully predict how harmful it was going to be.

It is amazing how much plastic has been generated in such a short time. Since 1950, a colossal 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced, 6 billion of which has already been discarded. According to National Geographic, half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years.

The solutions to our plastic crisis lie in innovation and policy. There is a tremendous opportunity for innovators to develop new products made of waste plastic. We must force the manufacturing industry into social responsibility through legislation, but first, we must have the plastic pollution laws in place that ensure accountability. The banning of single-use plastics is a good start.

Plastic industry lobbyists argue that plastic is inert and thus not toxic, so a ban on single-use plastics is unwarranted. Plastic may be inert, but it is not naturally occurring or biodegradable, it is toxic when liquified or combusted, and is clogging our lands and waters in the current state of the linear plastic economy where plastic gets discarded after one use.

Photo: © Chris Jordan for Smithsonian.

There are, however, practical solutions to the environmental problems facing our world today, that does not place the brunt of the responsibility on consumers. Private industry must recover and reuse plastic waste, stop the manufacturing of single-use plastics and turn to earth-friendly renewable resources for the manufacturing of new products. Canada could be a global leader in a new plastic economy which keeps long-lasting carbon cycling through the market for a longer period of time.

Now for a little science lesson. Carbon is the building block of life, and the founding constituent of oils, fuels, and plastics. “Fossil” fuels are made of decayed living matter. They are extracted from the earth and considered “non-renewable” because we cannot replace them. Once extracted, these fuels are burned as energy, which creates carbon pollution, or they can also be turned into plastic through chemical processes. High-Density Poly Ethylene (HDPE) and Low-Density Poly Ethylene (LDPE) are the prevalent plastics which are created by polymerizing ethylene gas. The variation in fuels, oils, and plastics results from the number of bonded carbon molecules.

In A History of Plastic: The Invention of Throwaway Living, Bill McCool describes how the patenting of the first synthetic plastic in 1909 triggered the phenomenon of disposable living. The plastic invention was an indestructible marvel of ingenuity and science. Tossing out everything became stylish. The inventor of Bakelite plastic made the cover of Time back in 1924, which said, “From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray and falls back upon a Bakelite bed, all that he touches, sees, uses will be made of this material of a thousand purposes.” They were not wrong. How powerful the vision of one person to affect global change.

Plastic pollution is the most menacing sea monster discovered to date. If we do not halt the production of single-use plastics, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. Approximately 80 percent of plastic that ends up in the ocean comes from land-based sources. The remaining 20 percent of ocean plastic comes from at-sea sources, which includes both fishing and shipping litter. There are already 150 million tons of plastic in the seas.

Microplastics are also turning out to have a detrimental effect on our oceans. By 2022, the UN #CleanSeas campaign aims to achieve a global ban on microbeads in personal care and cosmetic products and a drastic reduction in the production and use of single-use plastic. “Humanity is only just waking up to the extent to which it is harming itself and the planetary environment through the plague proportions of plastic it is dumping into the ocean,” said Peter Thomson, President of the UN General Assembly.

Photo: © Shutterstock. Quote: © Dawn Gough.

Today, little plastic is recycled — most is landfilled. Plastic is a resilient product with longevity, which means it should never be discarded. Local businesses are finding inventive ways to re-manufacture plastic waste into useful products such as plastic lumber. We need to keep plastics in use for longer and out of the environment, which the Canadian ban on single-use plastics will help to accomplish, but the plastics industry may need more time to adapt to the changes and conform to the requirements of a circular economy, discussed further on.

Our country has a goal to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. To achieve this goal, the cradle to grave concept needs to be implemented in all manufacturing facilities. We should also mine plastics and re-manufacture them, the same way that we mine other products, cycling carbon through the market. An example of how waste can be mined to extract useful materials is an operation in Buchans, NL which began mining barite (used in drilling mud) from its decades-old tailings ponds. Plastic waste is the next big non-renewable resource to be mined and developed.

Photo: © Canva. Quote: © Dawn Gough.

The rush of modern society to manufacture goods that provide us with convenience has created humankind’s devolution into the throwaway culture of today. Convenience is not sustainable. A good local initiative that should be a global one is Memorial University’s ban on plastic water bottles where plastic bottles are not sold; instead, filtered water fountain refilling stations have been installed throughout campus. After all, St. John’s has the best drinking water in North America.

Global campaigns by the United Nations and EarthDay.org urge governments to pass plastic reduction policies, target industries to minimize and redesign packaging, and urges consumers to change their habits. So, what motivates the government, corporations and consumers to do the right thing for the planet? It is a symbiotic relationship: consumers influence government and corporations with their purchasing power; corporations influence consumers and government through marketing and lobbying; the government influences corporations and consumers with regulation and public policy.

“Far too often the responsibility to ‘do the right thing’ falls to the consumer. Earth Day Network supports the passage of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act 2020, a bill that would push plastic back to whence it came, to large corporate manufacturers. No amount of recycling will tackle the issue of plastic pollution at its core. With this bill, plastic pollution will be the producer’s problem before and after it hits the shelves. Plastic is in our food, our water and our air, all while the producers of those plastic items escape responsibility. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act 2020 would help to reverse this trend and set a precedent for other plastic pollution policies to come.” — EarthDay.org’s End Plastic Pollution campaign

The linear economy supporting our throwaway culture is outdated and is the root cause of the most challenging economic, social, and environmental problems. In “Why our Throwaway Culture has to end,” Dame Ellen MacArthur writes for National Geographic how “products are designed with planned obsolescence; they are purposefully designed to go out of style and/or to break so that the consumer simply buys more stuff.” The plastic waste crisis is a symptom of our single-use approach to products and to solve it we need the circular economy. A circular economy keeps resources in use for as long as possible, extracts the maximum value from them while they are in use, then recovers and regenerates products and materials at the end of their service life instead of disposing of them. In a circular economy, reduction of waste is a top solution, with recycling or discard being a last resort. Public policy on plastic pollution would have a ripple effect on supply chain management as we force companies to produce and sell sustainable products.

Reports of where our recycling actually ends up — at landfills or getting burned in poor countries — has been disturbing to us who were convinced we were “doing our part” for the environment by recycling. Canada ships about 12 percent of its plastic waste to be processed for “recycling”, which far too often results in pollution around the world rather than being properly recycled. We cannot be satisfied with a ban on straws and plastic bags — a small fraction of the plastic being produced. Chemical companies are simultaneously producing millions of tons more plastic with no plan to recover and re-manufacture.

According to a report for the Government of Canada, An Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste, 87 percent of plastics waste ends up in landfills or littering the environment. The Canadian plastics economy is mostly linear, with only about nine percent of plastic waste recycled, four percent incinerated with energy recovery, 86 percent landfilled, and one percent is leaked into the environment as litter. Plastics material not recovered represents a lost opportunity of 7.8 billion in revenue for the Canadian economy.

Even if every person picked up a bag of plastic garbage each day, it would be futile if chemical manufacturers are simultaneously producing more and more plastics and assuming zero responsibility for the waste. We must hold corporations to the fire with our wallets and with public policy. Why should the individual eco-friendly consumer be the only one holding all the responsibility for the sustainability of the planet?

The covid19 pandemic may have caused a pause for thought on single use plastics, but not necessarily in the way that you would imagine. In a piece for the Financial Times, Arundhati Roy coined the pandemic “a gateway portal between one world and the next,” bringing the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt, giving us a chance to examine its parts, make an assessment, and decide whether we want to help fix it or look for a better engine.

Dawn is an environmental entrepreneur, writer, and keynote speaker based in Newfoundland and Labrador.