Part 3: What we can do
by Theresa Peluso
In Part 1 of this topic on how plastic is polluting our rivers, lakes and oceans, I gave an overview of just how huge a problem plastic is. It’s happening everywhere, including Canada. But we can’t give up hope! We must take ownership of the problem, and tackle it to the best of our abilities. But how to begin?
There are some simple solutions, and some not so simple ones. For a start, you can sign the petition, started a few months ago on September 16, by Environmental Defence Canada (EDC), supporting their request that Ontario, as one of the only provinces without a deposit return program for plastic beverage containers, pass the necessary legislation to create one. As it stands now, less than half the plastic bottles used in Ontario are recycled. The rest, roughly 1 billion bottles, are not. Canadian provinces and territories with a deposit-return program recycle over three quarters of their bottles. In some of these provinces, the deposit program also generates money that goes into an environmental fund. Here’s the link:
To put this in context, here is some background on the waste diversion policies in Ontario. Our province has been attempting to actively deal with the issue of garbage for over 15 years. In 2002 the Waste Free Ontario Act was passed, which led to the implementation of the Blue Box program in most municipalities, and required businesses to contribute to the cost of recycling waste. Since it was managed by business-appointed committees, the rules were adapted to minimize any inconveniences for the businesses involved, often leading to inadequate implementation of the Blue Box program. The result is that Ontario’s overall diversion rate during all this time has been stuck at a measly 25 percent.
So last year Ontario passed new legislation titled the New Waste Free Ontario Act with the aim of encouraging businesses to design reusable, recyclable products and to take on the financial burden (previously largely borne by municipalities) of the Blue Box program, as well as to find ways to boost recycling in the business and institutional sectors. While this is a noteworthy initiative, it remains to be seen whether industry will again find a way to circumvent it by minimizing the impact on their behaviour at the expense of their customers and the environment.
See the following website for more information on the NWFOA: https://news.ontario.ca/ene/en/2016/06/ontario-passes-new-waste-free-ontario-act.html
Perhaps, instead of passing legislation, which like tax rules, are just opportunities to creatively interpret them, the province could implement EDC’s request to apply a deposit fee on plastic bottles. Also, the province could ban outright the use of coffee pods, as was done last year in Hamburg, Germany. While they’re at it, the province could also ban single-use items like plastic bags and the cleaning pads for mops and dusters. Last but not least, the province could invest in extensive education on the need to reduce plastic consumption and keep our roads, waterways and natural areas free of litter by disposing of plastic (and other waste) correctly. Perhaps money could be spent to actually enforce the anti-litter laws that are currently in effect! Why not send your provincial representatives an email advocating measures like these? The federal government also needs prodding. As the country with the longest coastline in the world by far (202,080 km), why haven’t we signed on to the United Nations Clean Seas Campaign to end marine litter? And why are improvements to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, gutted by the previous government, moving at such a glacial pace under the Liberals?
You can also encourage your child or grandchild’s school to promote litterless lunches. Apparently it’s standard policy for many Ottawa schools. Here’s a link to the Upper Canada District School Board’s website for suggestions for litterless lunches:
You can also join one of the many groups who have adopted a road, and help them to pick up litter on a regular basis, or even just take a bag with you when you’re out for a walk, and do it on your own. Local groups that would appreciate your help are the Almonte Civitan, the Pakenham Civitan, the Almonte Bicycle Club, the Rotary Club of Carleton Place and Mississippi Mills, and St. Paul’s Anglican Church. Mississippi Mills organizes Pitch-In month every year in April, which is also a good reminder and opportunity to keep our community litter-free.
How about lobbying the head offices of the stores you patronize, requesting that they reduce the packaging of their products, and implement a tax on single-use plastic bags? It’s true that several of them, like Your Independent Grocer and Walmart, charge a five-cent fee, but perhaps they can raise that fee to further dissuade their customers from requesting a bag. If this was made a requirement at the provincial level for all major retailers, it would remove the concern about potential lost business for interested retailers. Customers need to realize how serious the problem of plastic pollution is, and change their behaviour, but sometimes a disincentive is needed for this to happen. The money from this tax can then be targeted to reducing plastic litter.
If you’re writing to your provincial member of parliament, you can also stress your concern about Ontario’s lax water-taking policies as they apply to corporations, and request that water-taking be banned or subject to sizeable fees – not the ridiculously low fee of $503.71 for every million litres of groundwater (increased earlier this year from the preposterously low fee of $3.71!). This would put a significant dent in the number of plastic bottles currently being produced.
You can join one of the many Canadian environmental organizations that include plastic pollution as one of their issues. In addition to the above-mentioned Environmental Defence Canada, some other groups are:
Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (local group)
David Suzuki Foundation
Sierra Club Canada
Green Party of Canada
Ontario Nature (umbrella organization for field naturalist groups in Ontario)
Council of Canadians (CoC, which has a chapter based in Almonte, has as one of its projects the elimination of bottled water.)
Trying to change the world as an individual can be very daunting, but by joining the efforts of like-minded groups you can be more effective, and gain a feeling of camaraderie and purpose. People with a dramatic or adventurous flair – plentiful in our community — can organize a media event to draw attention to the issue of plastic proliferation and pollution.
You can vote with your wallet, and save money in the bargain, by taking the following steps to reduce plastic in your life:
Reduce your use of everyday items that have easy, re-usable replacements, like bags, bottles, cups, plates, utensils, razors, gloves, cameras, coffee pods, food containers, tablecloths, drink bottles, lunch bags, bibs, cleaning cloths, dust-mop covers, batteries, cosmetic wipes, dryer sheets, dusters, toilet brushes, or shower caps. If you do end up with a disposable plastic item such as a tablecloth or bottle, wash it and re-use it as many times as possible before you throw it out.
If you do need to buy a single-use plastic product, try to ensure it is certified compostable. (It needs to have the BPI (U.S. standard) or BNQ (Quebec standard) label.) Although certified compostable bags don’t tend to decompose in backyard composters, they will do so in a commercial composting facility. Unlike most other bags, these break down into natural materials that are not toxic to the environment.)
If you need to buy a durable plastic product, please lean towards products that contain recycled plastic. This supports businesses that buy the recyclable plastic from our Blue Box program. There are lots of possibilities: carpets, plastic lumber, furniture, containers, twine, brooms, upholstery, and more. Although clothing too, can be made from recyclable plastic, there is some concern that fibres from this clothing, as with all clothing not made from organic sources, can contribute the microplastic problem when these clothes are washed, because water treatment plants are unable to remove these fibres before releasing the “cleaned” water into our waterways. To learn more about the microfibre problem, you can watch the videoclip The Story of Stuff: The Story of Microfibers, narrated by Annie Leonard, who created the original Story of Stuff video. Here’s the link: http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-microfibers/
Last but not least, you can add suggestions and ask questions in the Comment section for this article, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org . Let’s start building momentum to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of plastic pollution, and reduce the amount of plastic that ends up as landfill and litter in the ditches, waterways and fields. I would welcome any and all people who are interested in meeting to find ways to publicize this issue, and work to make positive changes in our community.
Yes, this is a huge, daunting problem – some would say impossible. But in the words of the famous marine researcher and conservationist Jacques-Yves Cousteau: “The impossible missions are the only ones which succeed.” By engaging as a community and reaching out to others, and persevering in our efforts, we can – we need to – heal our planet, for all our sakes.