Water, water everywhere? Or Plastic, plastic everywhere?


Part 1:  the big picture

by Theresa Peluso

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

This stanza is taken from a poem titled The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written over 200 years ago.  The poem, part of the Grade 11 syllabus when I was in school, relates the experiences of a sailor who has returned from a long voyage in the Southern Ocean; in particular, the calamities that were visited upon him and the rest of the ship’s crew after he shot and killed an albatross. I remember being mesmerized by the story and its imagery and rhythm, but, as a teenager in the 1960s, the concepts of water scarcity, global warming and pollution were unheard of.  Back then, when I thought of Canada, which stretches from sea to sea to sea, I thought of plentiful water and clean lakes, rivers and ocean shorelines.  And back then it was true. Unlike today.

Michael Valpy, senior fellow at Massey College and a fellow at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto, has this to say in the Opinion section of the June 29, 2017 edition of The Globe and Mail, titled Ottawa’s inaction on water flows against Canadians’ will (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/ottawas-inaction-on-water-flows-against-canadians-will/article35499457/):

In its 2017 poll on public attitudes toward water, the Royal Bank of Canada said Canadians, for the 10th year in a row, view fresh water as Canada’s most important natural resource “by far” and that 91 per cent see fresh water as part of their national identity….

In a study published in mid-June – the first national assessment of Canada’s freshwater ecosystems in decades – the World Wildlife Fund of Canada reported that each of the country’s 25 major watersheds is facing multiple environmental threats, while the data needed to track changes and guide policy makers are either inaccessible or simply non-existent….In fact, while the WWF-Canada report was being researched and prepared, the previous and present national governments tiptoed smartly backward from monitoring and protection. In 2012, the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA), one of the oldest pieces of statutory protection enacted by Parliament (in 1882), was defenestrated – tossed out the window – by the Conservative administration….

The 2015 election comes along and the Liberals promised to “review these changes, restore lost protections, and incorporate more modern safeguards.” The Globe and Mail reported that within months of their electoral victory, they were feeling pressure from industry to reconsider their pledge. This spring, the Liberal-dominated House of Commons transport committee made recommendations to do virtually nothing with the revised Navigation Protection Act – leaving the tiny number of protected waters unchanged, basically eliminating the pro-active responsibility of the state and proposing only that the government put in place a more streamlined way of adding waterways to the protected schedule and work more collaboratively with Indigenous communities. (end of quote)

Essentially, the Liberals have sanctioned the Conservatives’ gutting of the NWPA by their inaction.  It appears that the Liberals won’t even go so far as to set up a central registry of Canada’s water resources, or establish a process whereby individuals or organizations can challenge any projects that jeopardize these water resources.  There isn’t even a process in place to trigger assessments for proposals that could harm species at risk.

So Canada, with the largest water area in the world (891,163 km2), does almost nothing to protect it.  And the belief held by most Canadians that our abundant lakes and rivers are pristine and healthy… is just plain wrong.

The Great Lakes we share with the United States are responsible for a significant portion of our fresh water, and are sometimes considered to form Canada’s fourth coastline.  Because the Ontario government felt pressure to protect the Great Lakes owing to persistent problems such as water pollution, wetland loss and algal blooms, in 2015 they passed the Great Lakes Protection Act, which allows the province to set science-based targets to address the major threats to these lakes, and to support local groups in their water-protection efforts. However, the province’s budget for Great Lakes protection is only about $15 million (0.01 percent of the total provincial budget) per year, which is insufficient to provide the needed support. Similar meagre support is given by the federal government.

Amplifying Canada’s quasi-inaction regarding protection of the Great Lakes is the recent appointment of a climate-change denier and anti-environmentalist as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Since Scott Pruitt’s appointment, cutbacks of almost 50 percent have been made to the EPA budget, which bodes very ill for the Great Lakes.  There’s no hope for adequate protection unless BOTH countries do their part.

Although there are many, many threats to water, the focus of this column will be limited to plastic pollution. Both Canadians and Americans are responsible for 22 million pounds of plastic (10 million kilograms) entering the Great Lakes each year.  Although most of this plastic washes up on the shores, accounting for 80 percent of the litter found there, much of the plastic that remains in the lakes consists of microplastics (smaller than a grain of rice), which usually result from larger plastic pieces photodegrading into very small particles.  Some plastic entering our waterways originates as small particles in the form of fibres from synthetic clothing, microbeads, and plastic glitter in cosmetics and crafts.

These microplastics are eaten by organisms at the bottom of the food chain, which are then eaten by fish, and so on, up to the top of the food chain (which includes larger animals, like us humans).  To illustrate the extent of this problem, estimates of surface microplastics entering the lakes each year show 9,722 pounds (4,400 kg) in Lake Erie, 3,174 pounds (1,440 kg) in Lake Huron and less than 50 pounds (23 kg) in Lake Superior.  (Data taken from https://www.ecowatch.com/plastic-great-lakes-2157466316.html)

Moreover, any chemicals added to the plastic during its original manufacture (flame retardants, antimicrobials, plasticizers) are also released into the water. The plastic used in food containers often contains Bisphenol A, a synthetic compound that mimics estrogen and is linked to developmental and other health disorders.  (See Wired at https://www.wired.com/2010/03/ocean-bpa/, which describes an oceanic survey presented March 23, 2009 at an American Chemical Society meeting, which also found BPA in ocean water and sand at concentrations ranging from .01 to .50 parts per million.)   So the fish and seafood that ends up on our dinner plates could very well contain traces of that coffee lid or plastic bag, “seasoned” with chemicals, which was once thrown into a roadside ditch.

There are also larger pieces of plastic floating in our rivers, lakes and oceans, which disable and kill our wildlife by choking, strangling and crippling them, and accumulating in their digestive tracts, when these animals get caught in this plastic or ingest it.

A lot of plastic pollution starts locally, here (specifically, Mississippi Mills, over 130 km away from the Great Lakes) and elsewhere, in the ditches, wetlands, lakes and rivers.  The plastic bottles, bags, product packaging, and pieces of broken furniture, fishing line, toys, etc., that don’t get lodged in soil, tree roots and rocks at the local level, get carried off to larger bodies of water.

What about plastic pollution in the three oceans that border Canada, forming the longest coastline in the world (202,080 km)?  Indonesia, which ranks second in the world with 54,716 km of coastline, is also one of the 10 countries that have signed on to the United Nations Clean Seas Campaign to end marine litter, by enacting laws to help reduce the more than 8 million tonnes of plastic that leak into the ocean each year. Canada is NOT on that list.

Here are some stark numbers from the World Economic Forum (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/10/every-minute-one-garbage-truck-of-plastic-is-dumped-into-our-oceans/):

…a study undertaken by the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey and Company showed the scale of the breakdown in the global plastic system. A full 32% of the 78 million tons (71 million tonnes) of plastic packaging produced annually is left to flow into our oceans; the equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.

If we carry on as usual, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050. By 2050, this could mean there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. At the moment, only 14% of global plastic packaging is collected for recycling and only 2% is reused as packaging. In total, $80-$120 billion of value is lost annually.  (end of quote)

Like the debris in the Great Lakes, the plastic breaks down into a practically infinite number of small pieces that are virtually impossible to remove from the water.  Unlike debris in the Great Lakes, the ocean currents cause the plastic to accumulate in gyres (also known as patches).  There are five major ocean gyres in the world, located in the North Pacific, the South Pacific, the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean.

The North Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, located between the west coast of North America and Japan, is the most infamous of the five garbage patches, or gyres. It consists of a thick, diffuse soup of small plastic particles floating at or near the surface (up to 2 metres deep), estimated to cover an area more than twice the size of Alberta.  About 80 percent of the plastic is estimated to originate from land, and the remainder from oil platforms and ships.  About 5 to 10 percent of the fish there contain small pieces of plastic.

The lesser known North Atlantic garbage patch, between the east coast of North America and southern Europe/northern Africa, is estimated to be hundreds of kilometres across in size, with a density of over 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometre.

Significant amounts of microplastics have even been identified in oceans far from human habitation; namely the Southern Ocean near Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean. In the Marine Pollution Bulletin, published January 15, 2017, by Science Direct (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X16307755), a recent study found that the density of microplastics in the Southern Ocean (measured at several points between Tasmania directly south to Antarctica) was greatest near Antarctica.

Science Advances (http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/4/e1600582.full) provides a link to a study titled The Arctic Ocean as a dead end for floating plastics in the North Atlantic branch of the Thermohaline Circulation, by A. Cozar, E. Marti, C.M. Duarte et al, which contains the following startling information:

The total load of floating plastic for the ice-free waters of the Arctic Ocean was estimated to range from around 100 to 1200 tons, with 400 tons composed of an estimated 300 billion (1011) plastic items as a midrange estimate. (end of quote) (1 ton = approximately 0.907 tonnes)

And further on:

The present data demonstrate that high concentrations of plastic debris extend up to remote Arctic waters, emphasizing the global scale of marine plastic pollution and the role that global oceanic circulation patterns play in the redistribution of these persistent pollutants. The uniqueness of the Arctic ecosystem makes the potential ecological implications of exposure to plastic debris of special concern. Plastic ingestion by northern fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) (a fulmar is a seabird of the petrel family)… has already been reported to exceed the recommendations for an acceptable ecological status. (end of quote)

Imagine: Even in the remotest oceans, scientists have found plastic bits.

According to the CBC news item Humans have produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic, researchers say, by Nicole Mortillaro (July 19, 2017) (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/humans-produce-billions-tonnes-plastic-1.4210279):

Plastic is in almost everything we use. Now researchers have calculated the staggering amount of the synthetic material humans have produced since large-scale production began in the 1950s: 8.3 billion tonnes.

More disturbing, the researchers say, is the amount of plastic waste that humans have produced. Of the 8.3 billion tonnes we’ve made since 1950, 6.3 billion of that has already become waste.

… Roland Geyer, lead author of the study and associate professor in environmental science and management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told CBC News….The number that shocks him the most, however, is the rapid increase in production.

“Of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes of virgin plastics ever made, half was made just in the last 13 years,” Geyer said. “Between 2004 and 2015 we made as much plastic as we made between 1950 and 2004.”

…”Our estimate of eight million metric tonnes going into the oceans in 2010 is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” said Jenna Jambeck, co-author of both studies, in a statement at the time. “This annual input increases each year, so our estimate for 2015 is about 9.1 million metric tons,” she said….

“We have to be really mindful of plastics,” Geyer said. “… You come home from the supermarket and you’re just amazed at how much packaging there is together with the produce and the food.”

…While we may be more aware of plastic packaging, the use of plastic fibres in clothing like nylons and fleece has also grown. Between 1950 and 2015, it accounted for one billion tonnes of plastic.

The key, Geyer said, is to ask yourself if you need to buy a product with so much plastic…. Being mindful in your purchasing habits is key.

“It’s something as a society we collectively have to have a good think about,” Geyer said. “There’s a way to reduce and still have the same services and quality of life. And that would definitely be a simple way to address plastic waste generation; if we just make less in the first place.” (end of quote)

These, and other studies and reports, have helped to show the size and extent of ocean pollution, specifically with regard to plastic.  Much more research by our Canadian scientists needs to be supported and funded to gain a better understanding of the threats to the health of our own inland waterways, as well as the lakes and oceans that border our country, and to find ways to mitigate or remove those threats.

Although there appears to be no practical way to remove all the garbage in our oceans and waterways right now, some experiments are being done along those lines.  But we can’t rely on this.  We MUST pressure our elected municipal, provincial and federal politicians to enact legislation to reduce the amount of plastic we’re buying, improve our waste diversion practices, and educate people about the harm caused by littering, and about how to reduce, reduce and recycle more diligently.

You can also help by reducing the amount of plastic you use, and by doing your bit to pick up litter.  That plastic bag blowing across the parking lot in Almonte could very well end up in fragments in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  Picking it up and disposing of it properly is a gesture that you care about our planet and the living creatures we share it with.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ends thus:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.