Here’s the truth: My kid wears disposable diapers, I still use Ziplocks (which I wash and reuse) and our dinner tonight had three different items that came packaged in plastic- tofu, udon noodles and green peas. I’m what I would call a conscious consumer but clearly no die-hard environmentalist. Until I started researching for this article.
The Canadian Federal government recently announced a plan to ban single-use plastics by 2021. Seen as good news by most, it’s still unclear what single-use plastics will be included on this list and just how far the Trudeau government plans to take it. The initial thinking seems to be that the ban will include straws, plastic cutlery and bags. Which is great. But- and my husband gave me shit for taking this angle- is it really enough? 2021 is one and half years away. Not long in terms of federal policy change but long in a very real and present danger of environmental and climate damage.
While it’s promising to finally see federal involvement in the plastic packaging pandemic it’s hopefully just the beginning of government intervention in a consumer-driven industry and not simply a campaign tactic. It’s hard not to view the announcement as a political play when it conveniently comes four months prior to an election and ahead of another big environmentally-related announcement: the federal green light for the trans mountain pipeline expansion project.
In this fantastic interactive piece by CBC, its dynamic charts illustrate that even if we go well beyond the suggested policy changes to increase carbon taxes, mandate electric vehicles and green-up the grid, we’re still falling short of our 2030 goal to reduce carbon emissions by 30%. Not the same as reducing our plastic footprint, but it would be ignorant to not build relationships between our environmental policies with the looming effects of climate change. Big policy changes are needed. Even if they’re hard to live with. With the longest coastline in the world, the biodiversity of our oceans and forest ecosystems depends on it- you’ve likely heard about some of the disturbing finds on microplastics in marine life.
I’ve long wondered about how much responsibility we can truly put on the consumer when asking people to reduce their plastic footprint. Shouldn’t municipal through to federal governments be putting the pressure on businesses to go to their distributors asking for environmentally friendly solutions? Even if that means we see the result in our pricing. Don’t leave it up to us. Because my opinion to increase costs for businesses would inevitably be felt by the consumer at the checkout, it might not be a popular one. But big change isn’t easy, it’s never comfortable, but it is necessary.
In Canada, there are simply not enough recycling plants to process our plastic waste. There are plenty of people who happily believe in the difference recycling makes without knowing that less than 10% of recycled plastic waste is actually finding a second life- the rest? Burned. Or left to pile up in other countries. One of my friends went as far to think that our best option at this point seems to be to carve out a mountain, fill it with our plastic waste and seal it back up. Seems dire no? And that’s the truth of it. The situation is dire. So a quick band-aid plan to ban a short list of single-use plastics, while a step in the right direction, doesn’t seem like enough. That said, we don’t have the full list yet; point is, if we’re going to enact a new policy let’s do it right. Let’s not stop at a short list, let’s ban as many single-use plastics as we can to really make a difference. Let’s do a better job of this plan than the one to reduce our emissions. It should include coffee cup lids, tampon applicators and food packaging like clamshells. In Alberta they no longer accept what are thought of as commonly accepted recyclable items like clamshells, glass containers, plastic cups and non-deposit tetra-pak containers, because it’s more expensive to recycle them than it is to have them pile up in landfill. Other provinces have had to pull back on recycling education programs in schools because, municipally, they can’t cope with the amount of recycling we go through. Reread that sentence and let that sink in a minute.
As a “conscious consumer”, it leaves me asking the question, “why are distributors and businesses allowed to sell me this shit?” The economics of recycling is in the red- so we need to put the pressure back on businesses to closet he loop or find alternative ways to package items and encourage consumers to really think about what plastic items they “need” in their lives.
In some European countries you can return your glass water, beer or milk containers at the grocers to be reused by the company again. That puts the cost of use and reuse on the consumer or business not on a third-party recycling plant. Much like the Avalon milk bottles I choose to stock my fridge with. If you’re familiar with the company, you know they mark their years in business on the front of the bottle. I recently noticed it by accident when I had two bottles with different years, three years apart – at first glance I thought it was a labelling mistake- then quickly realized it simply meant one of the bottles was three years older. Talk about a longer lifecycle. It’s imperative we support and create a closed loop system so those that profit from plastic packaging are responsible for recycling it safely and properly.
I keep coming back to the unfortunate reality that the onus can’t be on the consumer. We simply don’t know enough. The Globe and Mail published an op-ed suggesting it might be more detrimental to ban plastic bags then continuing to use them and then reuse them as trash bags, at least giving them a second life. According to the author, after California banned plastic bags, consumption of paper bags went up by more than double the weight of plastic bags which led to larger emissions of CO2. Another referenced Danish study found that you had to use a cotton reusable bag 20,000 times for it to have less environmental damage than one plastic bag! I’m not saying that we should keep ripping through plastic bags, I’m simply saying we, as the consumer, don’t know enough. So short of massive educational studies, programs and apps that need to be not only widespread, but persuasive, the consumer needs the government to make this call for them. Finally, it’s starting to show: Vancouver has a 2040 goal of being a zero-waste city and Tofino and Ucluelet were the first municipalities in B.C. to officially ban plastic straws a few weeks ago.
Here are a few ways to begin thinking about reducing your individual plastic footprint besides brining your reusable bag to the grocer’s.
Call me a cynic or a dreamer but, while I’m happy to have a ban to reduce plastics finding their ways to our ocean shores, I’d love an extensive and long-term plan that reduces wasteful plastics entirely- from our shores and other countries’. That clearly addresses the emissions issues we’re faced with on a global level and will make way for real climate change… for the better. It won’t be easy on us- but neither will life on this planet if we don’t jump on the wagon soon. Let’s embrace this challenge for our future generations. I can say this: I’ll be thinking long and hard before I buy triple-wrapped udon noodles for dinner again.