In a series of blogs on the Sustainable Hamilton website, we will explore the root causes behind the failure of the recycling industry and some actions being taken by small businesses to reduce the impact of this menace of rising plastic dumps. After all, every drop in the ocean counts. For the series, please welcome SHB volunteer and guest blogger Vani Manocha Lalit, who combines a knowledge of the environmental field with a unique perspective on Canada’s recycling culture.
Canada’s Plastic Problem Part 2: A life wrapped in plastic
When plastics first began to be made from waste gases generated during processing of petroleum more than 100 years ago, they opened up a world of possibilities. Soon, anything and everything was made of plastic because it was cheap, durable and light in weight.
Today, plastics have replaced higher cost materials like steel, wood and glass in consumer products and they have become a symbol of consumer life. Most food packaging – including frozen food, juices, ready-to-eat lunch boxes, bottles and bottle caps; as well as straws, stirrers and grocery bags are made of plastic. Things have become so absurd that nearly 3 billion plastic bags are used in Canada each year. The beverages that keep us warm are costing the environment dearly as more than a billion used coffee pods make their way into the country’s landfills annually. Every week Vancouver alone sends 2.6 million single-use beverage containers to landfills.
When you walk through the aisles of a grocery store, it is easy to spot a single pack of crisps with five layers of plastic and hard to buy produce without using the narrow profile produce bags. Our milk bags come in packaging within packaging and fruits and vegetables are packed in Styrofoam trays because “it looks nicer”. It’s almost plastic on everything. According to a report by National Geographic, roughly 40 percent of the more than 448 million tons of plastic produced every year is disposable. Much of it is packaging intended to be discarded within minutes after purchase.
Our lifestyles are so dominated by throwaway culture that it has led to the spread of disposable waste worldwide. We love disposables for parties and everyday meals as it is convenient to throw them out after use. It is as if an affluent consumer lifestyle has given us a licence to trash the planet.
With our lives almost drowning in plastic, where is the trash destined to go? Many of the recycling plants are not capable of processing the amount of waste collected through curbside and drop-off programs, so most of the otherwise recyclable items end up either in landfills or are dumped and burned overseas, as exposed by the latest undercover Marketplace investigation in Malaysia.
While looking at the City of Toronto’s list of items accepted for recycling, I realized that many of the items in the list were a consequence of our fast, opulent consumerism. Some examples include: clamshell containers and plastic food containers, single-use plastic plates, plastic grocery and retail bags, polystyrene plastic cups, beverage bottles and lids and so on. But, as mentioned in the earlier blog, these items are likely to be recycled only when they are not contaminated. For example, the City of Toronto says “most recycling processors can tolerate a small amount of contamination in the recycling loads that they buy from the City, but too much contamination can cause these recycling processors to reject whole loads of otherwise readily recyclable material.” Today, up to a quarter of all plastics in North America are contaminated, which means they can’t be recycled.
Is all plastic bad plastic?
When talking about lives immersed in plastic, we need to ask: “is all plastic bad?” There are some places where plastic is needed – used in medical equipment plastic helps to save lives. So how do we “good” plastic from “bad plastic”? Since plastic cannot decompose, the possible answer lies in its capacity to affect health or to be recycled. While there are plastics like PET (commonly used in water or soft drink bottles) that can be easily recycled and do not leach, others such as soft PVC used in cling wraps, children’s toys and spray bottles are found to leach toxic chemicals. Then come the ones used in takeout food containers, egg containers and plastic cutlery. These can emit neurotoxins. But the common thread here is management and awareness – treated properly even dangerous plastic can be used and stored safely. By the same token, when over-produced, used irresponsibly and sent to landfill through neglect or ignorance, even “good” plastics cause horrible problems. It is the poor management and awareness that is a grave threat to the environment.
In dealing with the overall crisis, more and more governments are now advocating for the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program where producers, importers and brands have to pay 100 per cent of the cost of recycling as in Quebec and British Columbia. In Ontario, producers are currently required to pay 50 per cent. Total accountability would mean that municipalities would no longer need to figure out how to capture and process the waste and there will also be a standard of acceptable items for recycling and processing. Having said that, consumers will always have a big role in supporting the trash management by reducing, reusing and shunning plastic – and all three are not easy options.
Vani Manocha Lalit is a certified ESL teacher who works for language development of newcomers and refugees and supports the career transition team of a private company. Her passion for writing about environment-related issues comes from her work as a communications specialist and a copy editor with science, environment and sustainability organizations in India and Canada. She is always on the lookout for ways to bring education and environment together in her work.