Plastic. It’s made our lives more affordable, convenient and energy efficient—and we’ve come to depend on it. Today, almost everything we touch is made of, or contains, plastic—our toothbrush, the keys and screen of our laptop, the handle of our kettle, the little sticker we peel off an apple before we eat it, and even much of our clothing.
Hailed as a wonder material for its versatility, waterproofness and malleability (you can make just about anything out of it), plastic catapulted into households in a major way beginning in the 1950s and has revolutionized the way we live. Plastic has transformed modern medicine and communications technology (think incubators, disposable syringes, cellphones and even the coatings on most electrical wires). It’s made local and international travel safer, faster and more efficient. And it has helped us extend the life of fresh produce, baked goods and other foods.
But this amazing innovation has come at a cost.
Globally, we produce an estimated 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year.
The trouble with plastic
We’re only now beginning to understand the full impact of plastic on our environment and health. While it may seem harmless, its durability (some plastics may never fully break down), combined with its physical and chemical properties, pose serious threats for our planet.
Plastic clogs our landfills and litters our parks, beaches, forests and streets. But the problem doesn’t stop there. While plastic itself seems inert, common chemical additives including bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates may leach out into our food and environment. What’s more is that plastics attract other pollutants such as pesticides and fuel emissions.
When marine life, birds and other animals accidentally or intentionally consume these plastics, they often face intestinal blockages, illness, reproductive issues, and even death. This also means that when we eat fish, shellfish and other foods, we run the risk of consuming tiny particles of—you guessed it—plastic.
While scientists don’t yet know the long-term effects these micro and nano plastics may have on human health, it’s safe to say that doing our part to reduce unnecessary plastics on land and in our waterways is more important now than ever.
The challenge with recycling
You put your plastics in, you take your blue bin out….
Every day, Canadians place their plastics in recycling bins to help reduce their impact on our planet. After all, recycling seems like such an easy way to reduce the plastic problem. You put your empty margarine tub in the blue bin and it gets picked up by your municipal recycling program. From there, it’s chopped up into pellets or flakes and used as raw material to create a new plastic item, be it a margarine container or something else entirely. Simple, right? Well, maybe not as simple as it seems.
Only nine per cent of plastic in Canada is recycled.
While recycling programs across the country reduce the amount of plastic sent to the landfill, the reality is that only about nine per cent of plastics in Canada are recycled. The vast majority of plastic packaging ends up at the dump, or worse, scattered across fields and forests or floating in our waterways.
Why isn’t more of our plastic recycled?
To start, the types of plastic that can be processed varies from municipality to municipality based on resources and equipment. So, what’s recyclable in Montreal or Medicine Hat may not be recyclable in Toronto or Tofino.
In addition, many plastics that could be recycled at local facilities are not. In some instances, there is no market for resale—as is the case today for many of plastics previously shipped overseas. In other cases, the plastic may be too dirty or simply not suitable for a second life as, say, a weather resistant Muskoka chair.
And while we can and must get better at recycling, it will take more than recycling to tackle the enormous volume of plastic and plastic waste we’re producing every year.
Kicking our plastic habit
Even a small change can make a big difference for our planet.
Plastic has undoubtedly become the ultimate convenience material of our times, which can makes it feel hard, if not impossible, to kick our plastic habit. And while some countries and regions have banned certain single-use plastics (in Kenya you can go to prison for distributing plastic bags) or introduced new taxes as a deterrent, there’s an enormous amount of changes that can be made by businesses and individuals.
For example, home furnishing giant IKEA has phased out expanded polystyrene packaging in favour of recyclable natural fibre-based options, and is committing to removing all single use plastic items from its stores by 2020.
Participate in 10,000 Changes and reduce Canada’s plastic footprint. Even a small change can have a big impact.