Q&A with Sarah King

Based in Vancouver, Sarah King is the head of Greenpeace Canada’s Oceans & Plastics campaign. From urging major seafood companies to clean up their supply chains to pushing for a plastic-free future by holding corporations accountable for the growing plastic production and pollution problem, King has been working to protect our oceans and ocean-dependent communities for more than a decade. She shared some insights from her work with 10,000 Changes.

On why more of Canada’s plastic isn’t recycled

Plastic recycling rates are low because of a whole host of challenges that are amplified by the fact that there is too much of it being produced. It can’t all be collected and processed, and the surplus has made recycling less profitable. You add the complexity of actually recycling plastic that comes in various forms, the fact that contamination of the plastic is quite easy, and that not all jurisdictions can recycle all the various types of plastic and packaging, and it’s little wonder rates are so abysmal. [Ed note: reports indicate just nine per cent of plastic is recycled in Canada.] Even the most commonly recycled plastics, such as PET bottles, for example, still regularly end up in landfill or the environment. Plastic recycling isn’t what most people would think when they learn about what it really means. Plastic production is set to increase, and we have a long way to go before we reach a recycling rate that matches the scale of our waste generation problem.

On the quality of recycling ending up in the ocean and the threat that poses

Of the more than 3 million tonnes of plastic waste that Canada generates each year, it’s estimated that about 1 per cent ends up in the environment. That’s around 30,000 tonnes of pollution and it’s likely a conservative estimate. We don’t know exactly how much makes its way into our oceans, but we do know that the equivalent of a garbage truck load worth of plastic enters our oceans every minute around the world. We’re all connected by our oceans, and plastic pollution spreads through wind, waterways and even in the air in the form of microplastics. We know both large and microscopic plastic pollution is found off all three of Canada’s coasts, and across terrestrial and other aquatic environments. We’re seeing more and more studies and news articles about the often-lethal impact of plastic on marine wildlife, and ocean life cannot escape the plastic soup that their habitat has become.

On what Canadian supermarket chains can do to reduce plastic packaging

Canada’s supermarket chains must commit to ditching single-use plastic and disposable packaging and shift to product delivery models where our groceries are unpackaged, offered in bulk or refill format, and in reusable and returnable packaging. We need the big supermarket chains in Canada to make it accessible for all people. That doesn’t mean putting it all on the customer to dodge plastic during their shopping, but it means working to incentivize and support customers in bringing and using reusables.

On the effectiveness of bans on single-use plastics 

Just like other toxic and polluting substances, single-use plastics need to go as part of an eventual phase-out of all non-essential plastics. We produce too much plastic, and even if we cut production or distribution in half, the volume is still unmanageable. The only way to tackle the epidemic is to stop it at the source. We’ve seen positive results from other jurisdictions that have banned certain types of plastics, but we won’t see the full benefit for a while because of the current accumulation of plastic in the environment. It’s clear we will never recycle or clean our way out of this. 

On the “reuse revolution”

The “reuse revolution” is a growing movement of people and progressive companies and governments who see that our take-make-waste linear system is broken and that we need to move to more truly circular, zero-waste models of product delivery based on the often forgotten “R” — reuse. It’s a solutions-oriented rallying cry directed to consumer goods companies and governments urging action and support for an innovative and proactive approach to acquiring our daily needs and other goods and services. 

On the disconnect between federal government plastic recycling policy and reality

The previous Trudeau government committed to a Zero Plastic Waste Strategy. They promised a single-use plastics ban by as early as 2021 and to create a plan to reduce waste generation, require extended producer responsibility programs across all provinces and territories in an attempt to boost recycling rates, and take other measures to tackle plastic pollution. Unfortunately, the government did not really address the need to cut production, acknowledge that the current linear, disposal-centric system is not working or invest in reuse innovation. Instead, it did things such as invest in plastic production and offload a chunk of our plastic waste on the global south. Greenpeace doesn’t believe that focusing on recycling is the solution, and while we need better collection and recycling rates, we’ll never get them unless production is cut immediately.