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The properties that make plastics ideal for human use such as being lightweight, strong and having a durable physical configuration also make plastics serious environmental hazards (Holland et al. 251-252). Canada only recycles less than 11 per cent of its plastic waste. The rest of Canada’s plastics end up in our landfills, lakes, parks and oceans, destroying ecosystems and leaching toxic chemicals. An estimated 10,000 metric tonnes of plastic end up in the Great Lakes every year (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018 explains, “we cannot keep making new products, using them once and throwing them away or burning them.” Canada currently has no national waste strategy and single-use plastics are a prominent issue. Stakeholders include wildlife, ecosystems, citizens, producers, businesses and the government. Plastic pollution is a local and global issue. An estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018).
Majority of plastics are being made, used, and then thrown away. One of the most admired features of plastic, its durability, is also one of the reasons it is so problematic when it enters the environment (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). Unlike natural materials, plastics never fully decompose; they break up into small pieces called micro-plastics. These micro-plastics can easily be consumed by fish and other animals, including people (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). Canada does not have a national framework for managing plastics. This means there is currently no national recycling target, no laws that require recycled materials be used in the manufacturing of new plastic goods, no incentives for producers that use recycled content and no national bans on hard to recycle or toxic plastics like PVC and styrene (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). Provinces set their individual waste legislations, and in every province except British Columbia, municipalities are required to collect and manage residential waste (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). This system is costing municipalities and taxpayers millions of dollars. According to Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018, “in all provinces except British Columbia, municipalities pay to collect and process plastic packaging, but they are not the ones manufacturing, importing or selling the products.” Further, new sorting or processing technologies cost money, and not all municipalities will be able to justify these expensive investments. As a result, different materials are recyclable in different municipalities (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018).
Environmental Health Issues
a) Impact of Plastics on Wildlife
Plastic debris in the marine environment has been identified by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as a critical emerging global environmental issue (Provencher et al. 1). Freshwater birds have been linked to plastic debris ingestion in Canada (Holland et al. 251). According to Holland et al., “plastic debris…has an affinity for certain non-essential trace elements and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT)” (252). Once plastics are discharged into aquatic environments, they can persist for up to 50 years, and their complete mineralization may take hundreds or thousands of years (Holland et al. 252). Studies found “entanglement and ingestion of marine anthropogenic debris negatively affects all known species of sea turtle (100%), about half of all species of marine mammals (45%), and one-fifth of all species of seabirds (21%); these numbers represent a 40% increase (from 247 to 663 affected species) from 1997. As of 2015, 56% of seabird species were affected by marine anthropogenic debris, with predictions that by 2050, 99% of all seabird species will be affected and the mass of plastics in the oceans will outweigh fish” (Holland et al. 252).
In the Great Lakes of North America, over 80% of anthropogenic shoreline debris is composed of plastics. Holland et al. explains, “debris fails to provide nutrition proportional to its mass or volume, and can lead to weakness, false feelings of satiation, irritation of the stomach lining, digestive tract blockage, internal bleeding, abrasion, ulcers, failure to put on fat stores necessary for migration and reproduction, absorption of toxins, and potential death through starvation” (252). Further, entanglement can cause distress in animals as well as fatalities of hundreds of individuals (Provencher et al. 2). Plastic pieces can also contain “hydrophobic compounds absorbed during their time in the marine environment that can desorb in the oily digestive system of fish and plankton eating marine birds and mammals, exposing wildlife to a range of contaminants” (Provencher et al. 2).
b) Impact of Plastics on Human Health
Keetley 2016 states, “micro-plastics are perfectly-sized to be eaten by fish, where it then enters the human food chain, along with a side serving of toxicity.” The extent of harm on humans consuming fish that have ingested plastics is still unknown due to limited research (Keetley 2016). However, some common plastic ingredients are well known to be harmful to human health, including vinyl chloride and styrene. PVC is one of the most widely used plastics worldwide and it is commonly found in micro-plastics recovered from marine environments (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). Vinyl chloride is listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as “carcinogenic to humans (Group 1)” (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). That is the same grade given to tobacco smoke, formaldehyde, and asbestos (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). Styrene is the building block for polystyrene, a plastic commonly used to make disposable cutlery and Styrofoam packaging. The IARC lists styrene as a “probable carcinogen to humans (Group 2A).” This is the same grade given to human papillomavirus (HPV) which has been linked to cervical cancer and nitrates (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018).
Xenoestrogen leaching from plastic bottles is another impact on human health. A 1993 study found that large plastic bottles used to hold drinking water contained the xenoestrogen called bisphenol A if they had been exposed to high temperatures or caustic cleaners (Hampton et al. 58). The quantity of the chemical was very small, in the parts-per-billion range. However, in laboratory studies with breast cancer cells, even this small quantity was enough to cause the breast cancer cells to increase in number (Hampton et al. 58)
Chemicals escape from plastic wrap and other very flexible plastics into foods, and the amount of the chemical contamination increases with time and temperature (Hampton et al. 58) The plastics industry does not recommend using plastic film when heating foods in the microwave and advises to use only plastic containers marked “microwave safe” (Hampton et al. 58). Another study found that different plastic chemicals did exist in a variety of plastic-wrapped foods including cheese, cooked meats, confectionary, meat pies, cake, and sandwiches from grocery stores (Hampton et al. 58).
Plastic Waste Management
Incineration promotes waste generation by creating demand for more waste to feed power generators (Environmental Defence Canada 2018). Energy-from-waste (EfW) requires expensive purpose-built power generators, creating a requirement for steady supplies of plastic and dis-incentivises waste reduction (Environmental Defence Canada 2018). When plastics are burned, the polymers from which they were created are no longer available to make new plastic products, creating the need for new materials (Environmental Defence Canada 2018). Incineration is expensive, and displaces investments in permanent solutions directed towards reducing, reusing and recycling plastic waste (Environmental Defence Canada 2018). If we burn plastics, those materials are lost, and can no longer be used to manufacture new plastic goods (Environmental Defence Canada 2018).
b) Biodegradable Plastics
A wide range of oil-based polymers are currently being used in packaging applications. Song et al. explain, “these are virtually all non-biodegradable, and some are difficult to recycle or reuse due to being complex composites having varying levels of contamination” (2127).
Biodegradable polymers (BDPs) or biodegradable plastics refer to polymeric materials that are “capable of undergoing decomposition into carbon dioxide, methane, water, inorganic compounds, or biomass in which the predominant mechanism is the enzymatic action of microorganisms” (Song et al. 2127). BDPs can be made with renewable bio-based and non-renewable petrochemical-based resources, but many commercial BDP formulations combine materials from both classes to reduce cost and/or enhance performance (Song et al. 2127). Use has been found in many short service life applications where biodegradability is a key beneficial feature including consumer packaging such as trays, pots, films and bottles in food packaging, convenience food disposables such as cutlery and tableware, bags for shopping, garden or domestic waste, agriculture mulch films, personal-care disposals and even golf tees (Song et al. 2129). Unlike conventional petrochemical-based polymers, biodegradable and compostable bioplastic polymers can be composted. This can be via aerobic waste management systems such as composting to generate carbon- and nutrient-rich compost for additional to soil (Song et al. 2130).
Implementation Strategies and Considerations
a) The case to ban Styrofoam
Despite regulations across Canada encouraging the collection and recycling of Expanded polystyrene (EPS), commonly known as Styrofoam, 80 per cent of it ended up in Canada’s landfills and environment in 2012 (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). That equates to 208 Olympic-sized swimming pools of Styrofoam waste every year (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). According to Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018, part of the problem is that Styrofoam is only practically recyclable if it is clean, un-dyed and uncontaminated, and when you consider that it often holds food, it rarely meets those conditions. Another problem with EPS is that it is commonly contaminated with flame-retardant chemicals such as hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). These chemicals can leach into the environment and potentially impact human health (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). Due to contamination, and the fact that it is made from the “probable carcinogen” styrene, it is easy to see why even if we could recycle all the Styrofoam effectively, it may be favourable to eliminate it as an option (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018).
b) Producing plastics from renewable biological sources
The Fredonia Group, a Cleveland, Ohio consulting firm, predicts that the demand for biodegradable plastics will expand by more than 75 percent per year for the next several years (Kozak 6). One solution is to produce plastics from renewable biological sources. Plastic made from renewable biological sources behaves like polyethylene, yet it biodegrades like computer paper (Kozak 6). Commercial degradable plastic products already include grocery sacks, trash bags, disposable diaper liners, and packaging items. Over 2 million pounds per year of conventional packaging material can be replaced with degradable starch plastic (Kozak 6).
c) Holding producers responsible
Right now, making new plastic from fossil resources is cheap, the cost of collecting and recycling plastic is high, and dumping plastic into the environment is essentially free (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). This leaves little to no incentive for businesses to change their packaging or invest in innovative recycling systems and infrastructures (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). Producers make the products, profit from them, but then at their end-of-life, municipalities and taxpayers are left covering the costs (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018 suggests, “federal or provincial governments could make producers responsible for collecting and recycling the materials they put on the market by implementing Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR legislation.” Governments can set and enforce high collection and diversion targets. Businesses in turn would be incentivized to either create packaging that is more easily recyclable, develop new recycling technologies, improve collection programs or find other ways to meet their goals (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018).
It is time for Canada to deal with the prominent issues of plastic production, waste, and pollution. Strong waste policies need to be implemented to tackle these issues on a national level. These policies must hold producers responsible, eliminate the use of problematic plastics and dramatically increase the reuse and recycling process of plastics by emphasizing their importance. The proposed policy options are as follows:
- Completely ban plastics and additives that are harmful and challenging to recycle, such as Styrofoam;
- Create a common ground across provinces, territories and municipalities in regards to waste management and managing plastics;
- Target existing plastic waste and take immediate action in recycling and reducing;
- Set a national standard target to capture all single-use plastics and a deadline to recycle them, such as ensuring at least 75% of waste is recycled by 2025.
- Incentivize reusing plastics to reduce waste and eliminate the need for creating additional materials;
- Hold producers responsible and implement Extended Producer Responsibility, making them participate in collecting and recycling the products they sell—taking responsibilities and costs off of municipalities;
- Hold producers responsible in ensuring product packaging contains reused and recycled materials by setting a percentage requirement—60% must be recycled content, the rest must be materials that are biodegradable or reusable to ensure a cycle and ensure producers are monitoring the packaging;
- Ensure single-use plastics are being replaced by producers through incentivizing the use of alternatives such as: reusable bags, encouraging consumers to bring their own containers and utensils by providing a discount, providing utensils and straws made from more eco-friendly materials such as paper straws and offering reusable products for sale to encourage reusable products to consumers;
- Create and establish new product material standards in which all plastic materials used in the product must be either recyclable, reusable or compostable;
- Take preventative actions to educate and inform businesses and consumers of the environmental and human health risks involved with single-use plastics;
- Establish a tax on landfills and incinerators to promote diversion; use the money generate from these taxes to fund new technologies that will ease the transition of reusing plastics
- Encouraging the implementation of renewable biological sources and pairing it with appropriate waste management to ensure maximum environmental benefits;
- Consumers and producers are addicted to the convenience of single-use plastic (Keetley 2016). Consumers will have to pre-plan the places they visit in a day depending on the items they are carrying with them; such as straws, utensils and reusable bags.
- By eliminating single-use plastics, consumers will be required to regularly clean and maintain their reusable products which takes more time out of their days.
- Recycling biodegradable plastics that enter the municipal waste stream may result in some complications for existing plastic recycling systems (Song et al. 2129).For example, the addition of starch or natural fibres to traditional polymers can complicate recycling processes (Song et al. 2129-2130). By complicating recycling processes, this may deter producers from wanting to introduce other materials as it will impose a bigger inconvenience in the recycling process.
- The costs of bioplastic polymers are generally still much higher than that of their traditional plastic counterpart, therefore producers will be required to spend more when generating their plastic products (Song et al. 2128).
- The lack of continuous and reliable supplies of bioplastic polymer waste in large quantities currently makes recycling less economically attractive than conventional plastics (Song et al. 2130).
- Clean-up of marine pollution is extremely costly, reaching millions of dollars a year, making plastic pollution a major cost for local and regional governments (Provencher et al. 1). By making it mandatory for producers to participate in the clean-up, they will be facing high costs which may harm their profits.
- Consumers will have to invest in purchasing more expensive reusable items in order to participate in the elimination of single-use plastics.
Business owners will lose profits by offering discounts to consumers using reusable items
- The recycling rates of packaging materials has increased but the recycling rates for most plastic packaging remain low (Song et al. 2127). Participation is required from all stakeholders in order to achieve successful waste management
- Resistance to change. Producers and consumers will be required to make immense changes which may impose great difficulty in ensuring participation.
- Awareness and education will enhance participation. However, the challenge will be to effectively spread the word and emphasize the importance to the point in which it encourages willingness to change.
According to Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018, now is the time for a national plastic waste reduction strategy. As all stakeholders are affected by the impacts of single-use plastics, their priorities need to be shifted towards waste prevention, reusing, composting, and recycling. The solutions to plastic pollution begin with awareness (Keetley 2016). By emphasizing the issues and environmental health risks associated with the current management of plastics, producers and consumers will hold greater understanding of their responsibility in the matter. These solutions will be enforced by policies that will provide specific requirements from both producers and consumers, as well as the participation of the government. For businesses, a national law will bring clarity and structure in regard to what is expected of them in terms of production and participation (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). For consumers, it will bring peace of mind that the products they purchase will no longer contribute to further damaging their environment (Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem 2018). Keetley 2016 urges, “we cannot escape the consequences of throwing away vast quantities of a material that takes hundreds of years to break down.” Therefore, the time to change is now and this can only be done with the implementation of a national plastic waste reduction strategy for Canada.
- Hampton, Elaine et al., “Plastics in our environment: A jigsaw learning activity.” Science Scope, Vol. 32, No. 7, Data Collection, Display, and Analysis (2009), pg. 56-61.
- Holland, Erika R. et al., “Plastics and other anthropogenic debris in freshwater birds from Canada.” Department of Biology, Acadia University. Wolfville, NS, Canada (2016), pg.251-258.
- “Incineration is not recycling: Burning plastic waste won’t solve our pollution problems.” (2018). Environmental Defence Canada.
- Keetley, Amanda. “9 Reasons to Refuse Single-Use Plastic.” (2016). Less Plastic. www.lessplastic.co.uk
- Kozak, Michael R. “Environmental Impacts: The Role of Plastics.” The Journal of Epsilon Pi Tau, Vol. 17 No. 2 (1991), pg. 4-11.
- Provencher, Jennifer F. et al., “Marine birds and plastic debris in Canada: a national synthesis and a way forward.” NRC Research Press (2014), pg. 1-13.
- Song, J.H. et al., “Biodegradable and Compostable Alternatives to Conventional Plastics.” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 364, No. 1526, Plastics, the Environment and Human Health (2009), pg. 2127-2129.
- “Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem.” (2018). Environmental Defence Canada.
- “Towards a Zero Plastic Waste Canada.” (2018). Environmental Defence Canada.
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