THE BLOG
01/15/2018 14:26 EST | Updated 01/15/2018 14:34 EST

We Can't Wait Any Longer To Redefine Our Relationship With Plastic

The only obstacles are political will and the plastic industry lobbies.

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A recent HuffPost Canada article reported that 83 per cent of the world's tap water is contaminated by plastic. Not surprising — we've consumed more plastic since the year 2000 than we have in all our previous years on this planet. Nearly half of human waste is plastic.

It is estimated that around 8 million metric tonnes of plastic enter the world's oceans every year, the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic dumped into the ocean every minute. Now 40 per cent of our oceans have billions of kilograms of swirling patches of plastic. There are more microplastics in the world's oceans than there are stars in the Milky Way, and 60 to 90 per cent of litter in the oceans is plastic-based. Several years ago, the United Nations Environmental Program estimated that there were 13,000 pieces of plastic for every square kilometre of ocean.

And consider that 32 per cent of plastic packaging does not enter our recycling systems, with over 90 per cent being "lost" after a single use. Yet, 53 per cent of plastic packaging can be recycled.

The result is such that each year, more than 1 million birds and 100,000 sea mammals and turtles die from eating or getting tangled in plastic. Plastics have been found in one-third of U.K. fish. Consequently, humans who consume seafood with regularity ingest 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic/year.

A shift to bioplastics is urgent!

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Bans on single-use plastic bags

California offers one of the more aggressive models for a ban on single-use plastic bags, since the ban is state-wide as of Nov. 8, 2016. Several California cities have had such bans prior to the state legislation.

Here in Canada, the City of Montreal has banned single-use plastic bags, effective January 2018 with enforcement to start on June 5, 2018. It's a good move since only 18 per cent of single-use bags are recycled. Other municipalities in the greater Montreal region have done, or plan to do, the same.

Elsewhere in Canada, the City of Toronto had approved a plastic bag ban before it was overturned by the administration of late Mayor Rob Ford. Vancouver is considering a ban on plastic bags and foam containers, but no action has been taken. In October 2017, Victoria approved a draft ban on plastic bags that has yet to be applied.

How effective is a ban on plastic bags? Seattle has had a ban on plastic bags since 2010 and saw its plastic bag waste from residential garbage decline from 262 tons to 136 tons by 2014, a 50 per cent drop.

An alternative to the ban approach is that of the England's charge of 5 pence — the equivalent of CA$0.08 — for a single-use plastic bag, without a ban per se. This measure resulted in an 85 per cent drop in use of single-use plastic bags.

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Plastic water bottles

On the global scale, 1 million plastic bottles are bought and sold every 60 seconds. The global population consumes 20,000 plastic bottles per second. In 2016, 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were consumed. Less than half were recycled and only seven per cent were used to make new bottles.

By 2021, the numbers of plastic bottles bought are expected to increase by 20 per cent to over half a trillion.

The majority of plastic water bottles are not biodegrade. Rather, one piece turns into two, four, eight and so on. And nearly half of these bottles are filled with tap water at 10,000 times the cost of tap water.

To produce new bottles, billions of barrels of oil are required, releasing carbon dioxide in the manufacturing process. If we continue the present path, plastics will represent 20 per cent of oil consumption and 15 per cent of the global annual carbon budget by 2050.

Due to the reduced costs of associated with natural gas liquids to manufacture plastic, shale gas is now the favoured fossil fuel to produce plastics. Natural gas fracking brings the cost of the raw material down by two thirds. Accordingly, since 2010, the petrochemical companies have committed $180 billion in new facilities to turn shale gas into plastic feedstocks. Some of these facilities have been completed while others are in the planning stages. The result is expected to be a 40 per cent rise in the consumption of plastics over the next 10 years. Regarding GHGs, due to methane leaks, shale gas can be as bad as coal.

Then there are the health issues since these bottles are typically laced with thousands of endocrine disruptors which permeate the water consumed from these bottles.

Germany provides one model for a solution. There, a deposit system exists, resulting in 98 per cent of plastic bottles being returned.

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Workers feed the conveyor belt of the bottle grinder at a recycling depot on May 30, 2013, in Laizhou, China. The resulting flakes will be sold to a factory that turns them into fibre suitable for the manufacture of clothes, carpets and other textiles.

Plastic recycling and disposal: the end of exporting the problem to China

Up until very recently, 50 per cent of the plastic disposed in recycling bins were exported, mainly to China. The export percentages for paper and carton were higher, at 60 per cent. This era has come to an end.

As of Jan. 1, 2018, China has imposed a ban on importing many types of recycled materials, including plastics, paper and carton. That Canada and other countries have not adequately invested in domestic recycling of plastic materials means that the Chinese ban has become an international problem. To this effect, plastic materials are piling up at U.K. recycling facilities. Two-thirds of the U.K.'s plastic waste had been going to China since 2012!

China, the world's largest recycler of recyclable materials, wants to develop its own recycled material manufacturing facilities and reduce imports of toxic materials.

Right now, what cannot be recycled domestically, goes to landfills or is incinerated.

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Time to act

The preceding information demonstrates that there is no shortage of models for adoption and/or adaptation for all levels of government. The only obstacles are political will and the plastic industry lobbies. Regarding the plastics industry and start-ups, incentives, standards and targets can be established for a migration to bioplastics.

The matter of China's ban on importing recyclable materials should be regarded as an opportunity.

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