Looking Back in Despair (Part 5)

by Theresa Peluso

So far, in this series Looking Back in Despair, I have explained how, over the last 10 years, the environmental situation in Ontario has worsened in so many domains:  tree cover, air, water, and soil, all of which are part of nature and indispensable for the survival of life on our planet.  Plastic, an entirely artificial material, clearly does not belong to this category; yet plastic pollution needs to be discussed because of just how huge a problem it has become. In fact, plastic has become a part of our natural environment, permeating as it does our water, soil, and even the air.

How big is the problem?

A report titled Plastic Pollution in Our World in Data (https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution) published in 2018 by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, explains that global plastic production increased exponentially from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 381 million tonnes in 2015.  Researchers have estimated that by 2015, about 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic had been generated; of that, 6.3 billion tonnes was waste. (As we know, plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose.)  Only 9 percent of this waste was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and 79 percent ended up in landfills or in the natural environment.  Packaging was the main generator of plastic waste, accounting for almost 3 billion tonnes. The problem is steadily worsening.

About 3 percent of this plastic waste ends up in our oceans every year. The amount of marine plastic pollution was estimated to be 8 million tonnes in 2010.  It is predicted that the amount of plastic garbage entering the oceans will nearly triple by 2040 to 29 million tonnes.

A 2016 report titled The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, published by the World Economic Forum, puts it this way:

After a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80–120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. A staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems, generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean and clogging urban infrastructure. The cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, is conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually – exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool. (end of quote)

According to the Recycling Council of Ontario (https://rco.on.ca/plasticwaste/), Canada generates 3.25 million tonnes of plastic waste each year.  (With 38 percent of our country’s population, it can be assumed that Ontario is responsible for 1.24 million of these tonnes.)  The country’s recycling rate is a mere 11 percent. In 2010, about 8,000 tonnes of plastic waste ended up in Canadian waterways, and only a miniscule percentage of this was recoverable by volunteer efforts to clean our shorelines.

Microplastics

Then there’s the problem of air, water and soil pollution caused by microplastics, which are chunks of plastic less than 5 mm in diameter (some particles can be as small as 0.0001 mm).  Microplastics can originate from synthetic clothing fibres; from polymer-based protective coatings on vehicles, buildings and ships; from abrasions to objects such as vehicle tires and other synthetic objects, which cause tiny plastic shreds to be released into the environment; from the degradation of synthetic objects such as fishing nets, plastic bottles and bags; from plastic components (e.g., microbeads, glitter) used in personal-care products, greeting cards and children’s craft materials; and from plastic pellets used in manufacturing.

These microplastics can escape past sewage treatment and wastewater treatment plants, getting washed out into our rivers and other water bodies.  Microplastics released into the air can drift through the atmosphere across continents, or be carried back down to the ground in raindrops.  According to the 2020 World Economic Forum, microplastic pollution in the ocean is estimated at 14.4 million tonnes at the bottom of the sea, more than double what it is estimated to be on the ocean’s surface.

Our soil is also suffering the effects of microplastic pollution. In the April 3, 2018 issue of the UN Environment Programme journal (https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/plastic-planet-how-tiny-plastic-particles-are-polluting-our-soil), researchers report finding a significant amount of terrestrial microplastic pollution — four or more times higher than marine microplastic pollution.

In short, these particles, small enough to be inhaled and ingested at all levels of the food web, have been found everywhere: in the depths of our oceans, in the air of our cities, on Mt. Everest, in sea ice in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, in the stomachs of many animals, — and even in human feces.

Toxic effects

The destruction wreaked on our natural environment, including on humans, by plastic at all stages of its life-cycle, is well documented. The known toxins in plastic, including bisphenol A, phthalates, polyvinyl chloride, and styrene, can build up in human tissue and damage major organs, cause cancer, and lead to developmental abnormalities in children, among other problems. Chlorinated plastic (from PVC plastic) can release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil, which can then seep into groundwater and surrounding water sources.

In addition, new toxins (known as POPs – persistent organic pollutants) are created as the chemicals in plastic break down and combine with other chemicals in the environment.  These plastic-generated toxins then build up in the food web, and affect other species as well.  They have been shown to cause reproductive failure, skull deformations, poor immune function, and abnormal tissue growth and malignancies in seals.  A 2014 Australian study on the health of Shearwaters (a seabird) found that toxins from plastic caused liver damage, inhibited reproduction and even caused death. Plastic debris also killed many of these birds.  Other studies have calculated that over 1 million marine animals (including mammals, fish, sharks, turtles and birds) are killed each year as a result of plastic debris.

Although research on the effect of plastic pollution on land animals is difficult to find, a few studies have turned up data showing that microplastic pollution causes immense damage to the many soil-dwelling mites and other creatures that maintain the fertility of our land.  A 2020 study from Britain reported that dippers, birds that dive into rivers for food, were ingesting hundreds of pieces of plastic each day, even feeding them to their chicks.  There have also been accounts of deer, camels, monkeys and elephants dying as a result of eating plastic.  Other animals, such as deer, ducks and raccoons, have gotten entangled in or strangled by plastic.  It stands to reason that humans aren’t the only creatures whose health is compromised by plastic toxins.

Can’t live with it, can’t live without it

There is no question that plastic has become an essential material for our society today.  It is an essential component of all the electronics we use today and for electrical insulation.  Plastic prevents the corrosion of aluminum cans, and is a key ingredient in glues and other adhesives, paint, medical implants, waterproof clothing, non-rusting pipes – the list goes on. In addition, plastic eliminates the pressure on species that were killed for their hides and horns, by being made to imitate ivory, tortoiseshell, fur and leather.  It can also substitute for other resources, such as trees (including rubber) and metal ores.

Having said that, plastic poses distinct environmental and health risks at every stage of its lifecycle because of all the carcinogenc and highly toxic substances involved: when the fossil fuels, the primary material of plastics, are extracted and transported; when the plastic resins are refined and produced; when the plastic is handled by consumers; and finally when it is discarded and disposed of, whether through incineration, left to degrade in the open, or landfilled.

Incineration is NOT an option

Incineration seems like an easy solution to the problem of plastic waste, and proponents of incineration point out that the energy generated from burning plastic can be used to power homes and industries, but it comes with its own set of problems.  Like recycling, it deflects from the root of the problem; namely, all the plastic waste being produced in the first place. And as with recycling, there’s the problem of plastic waste escaping into the natural environment, and adding to the existing garbage.

Not only that, but incineration is an extremely expensive way to get rid of plastic and generate energy.  The cost of building, managing and operating an incinerator, including the necessary expensive power generators, runs into millions of dollars, footed by taxpayers.  When Canada was forced to take back the waste it had shipped to the Philippines in 2019, all 1,500 tonnes of it, and had the waste incinerated in British Columbia, the total cost came to $375,000 – that’s $250 per tonne, paid with our taxes.

Furthermore, these incinerators require a continuous supply of fuel, which could theoretically, at least, result in companies generating waste just to feed them. Incineration also exacerbates the problem of air pollution by releasing toxins from plastic such as dioxins and heavy metals.

Recycling – a band-aid on a broken leg

As previously mentioned, only 9 percent of plastic is recycled in Canada, out of the 4.5 million tonnes introduced to Canadian consumers.  About 29,000 tonnes of plastic per year escapes into our countryside and waterways.

To put it bluntly, recycling has been used as a cure-all since the 1960s, to assuage people’s concerns about plastic pollution by making them responsible for disposing of this waste.

To quote Matt Wilkins comment in his 2018 article in Scientific American (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/more-recycling-wont-solve-plastic-pollution/):  “Encouraging individuals to recycle more will never solve the problem of a massive production of single-use plastic that should have been avoided in the first place.”

Wilkins, a postdoctoral university researcher, goes on to explain that back in the 1950s, consumers concerned about the proliferation of garbage ended up being duped by big beverage companies and packaging industries (I’m sure we can guess who they are). These oh-so-devious manufacturers formed a non-profit organization in the U.S. called Keep America Beautiful, with the goal of encouraging environmental stewardship in the public; this placed the onus on the public to reduce litter instead of on the generators of all this litter, the manufacturers themselves.

In Ontario, in terms of actually trying to reduce plastic waste, both government and industry have been dragging their collective feet, in some cases imposing a paltry five-cent charge on plastic bags, ignoring appeals to charge a deposit fee for plastic drinking bottles, or side-stepping pleas to ban styrofoam.

Back in 2003, the Province launched a new industry-funded-and-governed, not-for-profit organization called Stewardship Ontario, to manage recycling programs for paper and packaging and the safe disposal of hazardous or special waste.  The concept was good:  Compelling manufacturers to fund this program would, in theory, motivate them to reduce excess packaging to lessen their disposal costs. Unfortunately, in the course of implementing this program, municipalities were also roped in to cover a significant part of the cost.

It can also be assumed that any industry funding for Stewardship Ontario was buried in the retail price of the goods produced by these industries. In addition, consumers were being charged additional eco-fees by retail outlets to pay for recycling costs.  The end result of this fine initiative is that Ontario households have been generating more, not less plastic waste.

A 2020 report by The Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) posted by John Mullinder and titled Almost 80,000 more tonnes of plastic in Ontario homes than 10 years ago (https://www.ppec-paper.com/almost-80000-more-tonnes-of-plastic-in-ontario-homes-than-10-years-ago/) has this to say: “An analysis of the last 10 years of data on Blue Box-type materials generated by Ontario households shows a 34% increase in the amount of plastic packaging ending up in the home. And most of it (70%) did not get sent on for recycling.” The article goes on to say that the major increase is in the general category of “other” plastics, such as margarine tubs and lids, blister packaging, egg cartons and yogurt containers.  In addition, the tonnages of PET drink bottles increased by 54 percent, plastic laminants increased 46 percent.

Moving from a Linear to a Circular Economy

The root cause of this colossal amount of plastic waste is our current linear, consumption-focused approach to this material:  The bulk of our plastic is manufactured from raw materials, bought, used briefly, then thrown away.

The good news – for a change – is that in 2016 the province of Ontario passed the Resource Recovery and the Circular Economy Act, 2016 (RRCEA). This Act makes large food retailers and consumer packaged-goods companies fully responsible for covering recycling costs, a system known as extended producer responsibility. Tires, single-use batteries, telecommunications and audio-visual equipment have already transitioned to Individual Producer Responsibility (IPR), and will be followed by hazardous or special waste in July of this year.  (See this link to the Resource Productivity & Recovery Authority website: https://rpra.ca/about-us/the-circular-economy/.)

The RRCEA also requires a circular approach to plastic, which means that producers need to take complete responsibility for all the plastic packaging they sell. This can be done by producers reducing the amount of plastic packaging in their products, and designing the packaging so that each and every bit of plastic can be reused, recycled or composted.  In addition, producers need to commit to making their inputs include at least 50 percent of recycled plastic.  The end goal should be for producers to collect and process more plastic packaging than they sell.

To ensure that all this plastic packaging is reused, recycled or composted, people need to be educated on this approach and provided with easily accessible plastic collection sites. So, as part of the RRCEA, it is planned to expand the blue box services to include certain municipal parks and playgrounds in municipalities in Ontario. The full cost of these services is to be borne by the producer.  In other words, the producers of products and packaging will be made fully responsible for the waste they create. (See this link to the Mondaq website: https://www.mondaq.com/canada/education/810670/ontario-government-continues-roll-out-of-the-resource-recovery-and-circular-economy-act-2016.) Given that it has been at least four years since the RRCEA was announced, implementation seems to be happening at a glacial pace.

For real change to happen, sufficient money and resources need to be dedicated to collect data on the amounts and types of plastic packaging being sold.  Investment in processes, infrastructures and technologies that promote re-using plastic and producing goods made with recycled plastic need to be encouraged.  Appropriate financial incentives and disincentives need to be put in place for producers, retailers and consumers.  Producers also need to form partnerships with companies further along in the cycle that collect, sort and reprocess the plastic packaging.  Strict deadlines for each stage of implementation need to be set to ensure this change happens in a timely manner.  It remains to be seen whether all these requirements will be met – so we need to support these efforts – and hold our elected officials to account.

More good news: Last year the Canadian government joined with the provinces and territories to reduce plastic waste using the circular-economy approach, with a deadline to finalize regulations by the end of this year based on input collected from Canadians and stakeholders.  The Canadian government states that it intends to work with lower-tier jurisdictions to implement waste-reduction programs and targets, and will contribute roughly $2 million for 14 such initiatives.  Ontario will receive $555,000 of this investment to support the following three new Zero Plastic Waste Initiatives, according to this news update (https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/plastic-pollution-reduction-initiatives-in-ontario-get-a-boost-from-the-federal-government-868472846.html):

  • Carleton University will identify and pilot solutions to detect and remove microplastics from wastewater systems;
  • Georgian Bay Forever will trial innovative technologies to capture plastics from entering our water from various point sources and expand citizen awareness of plastic pollution; and
  • University of Windsor will evaluate sustainable mechanisms to remove microplastics from biosolids and promote the uptake of effective methods with key stakeholders.

The federal government has also proposed to completely ban the following plastic products: check-out bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and hard-to-recycle foodware.

The bad news is that some major chemical companies are doing their utmost to undermine this effort (See the 2020 Changing Markets Foundation report: Talking Trash: The Corporate Playbook of False Solutions to the Plastic Crisis (https://changingmarkets.org/portfolio/talking-trash/).)  These tactics include, but are not limited to, companies lobbying against legislation they don’t want, seeking exemptions, delaying concrete actions, misrepresenting data in a way that supports the status quo, generating positive publicity over purely cosmetic actions on their part to reduce plastic, and diverting public attention to plastic reduction initiatives in other domains that don’t force them to reduce their own plastic output.

Apart from the scourge of plastic packaging, the problem of planned obsolescence needs to be addressed. Let’s put an end to appliances, toys, tools and clothing, much of them made with plastic, that need replacing every year or so. Producers should be made to guarantee generous warranties for all their products at no extra cost to the buyer.

A Happy Ending?

It seems that, in theory anyway, we have learned the error of our ways, and we now have government-mandated programs to curtail the amount of plastic being dumped into our natural environment.  But actually ensuring that powerful corporations will really and truly stop their polluting ways will take a huge amount of resolve and public pressure.  We need to all monitor developments, and work with others, whether neighbours, organizations, retail establishments, or political entities, to make sure that these initiatives stay on track. The survival of the world we love depends on all of us.