Plastic surrounds much of the food we eat, water we drink, household products we buy, and cars we drive. It also accounts for 3.2 million tonnes of waste in Canada each year.
Only nine per cent of the 3.2 million tonnes of plastic waste Canadians produce each year is recycled. The rest is discarded, often after just one use, overwhelming our landfills and littering our streets, parks and lakes. It shows up on our coastlines in shocking numbers and clogs our pipes and sewers causing backups requiring millions of dollars in repairs.
With nearly half all plastics manufactured made in the last 15 years, the barrage of plastic waste has only been growing. Single-use “convenience” plastics like food wrappers, beverage bottles, straws, stir sticks and grocery bags are just a few of the top offenders.
Plastic in our water
By 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
It’s a frightening statistic: At least eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans each year. About 80 per cent of this plastic waste comes from land-based sources, and that amount is only growing. In fact, the volume of plastic waste in our waterways is so vast that the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight.
89% of plastic waste found on the ocean floor is single-use plastics.
Items made from plastic that are most commonly found in our oceans include cigarette butts; bottles and jerry cans; fishing lines, nets and ropes; and infinite other disposable plastics like cutlery and grocery bags. Over time, many of these items get drawn into giant garbage patches buoyed by the planet’s five major ocean currents or “gyres.” Some of this debris washes up on shorelines, while the rest stays in the gyres or sinks to the ocean floor.
Plastic waste has even made its way into ultra-deep areas of the sea like Marianas Trench—10,000 metres below surface.
Impact on marine life
No matter where it ends up, plastic can have lethal consequences for marine life. Sea turtles, for instance, often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and algae—an error that is often fatal.
Seabirds and marine mammals like whales and sea lions can become entangled in plastic debris. Or, they may mistake plastic for food, which can lead to starvation and ultimately, death. In fact, it’s estimated that 90 per cent of seabird species have plastic in their bellies, and several recent necropsies of beached whales have revealed stomachs full of plastic bags.
Invasion of the microplastics
Over time, as plastic waste is exposed to the elements, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually resulting in tiny microplastics (some of which can only be seen under a microscope). These microplastics come from packaging, tires and brake pads, and even our clothes.
In fact, when synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon and rayon are washed, tiny plastic microfibres break off and go down the drain. Forty per cent make their way into our rivers, lakes and oceans. Unlike cotton and wool, synthetic fabrics don’t biodegrade. What’s more is they attract other pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from flame retardants and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from gasoline.
Microplastics are particularly problematic in oceans, where plankton, oysters and shellfish are surrounded by trillions of microplastics, often mistaking them for food.
From plankton to plate
When fish eat plankton that have consumed microplastics, it’s not just the plastic that’s harmful. It’s also the chemicals and pollutants that decide to hitch a ride, accumulating in higher concentrations as they move up the food chain.
While the extent to which microplastics might affect us over time is not yet known, what we do know is that microplastics are only increasing.
It’s time to make a change
If we’re going to be good ancestors to our grandchildren, great grandchildren and future generations, we must reduce the amount of plastic in our waterways, landfills and environment. Get started by exploring the many small changes you can make to reduce your dependence on plastic.