Let’s talk about the environmental impact of single-use plastics and how we can avoid using them.
Whether we like it or not, plastics are a part of our daily lives. From our dinnerware, water bottles and food wrappings to our clothes, shoes and furniture, the convenience of plastic products is obvious. But they’re also a big problem—starting right from when they’re made to when they’re discarded.
“It’s important to remember that nearly all plastics are made from oil and gas. The actual building blocks of plastic come from petrochemicals that are creating climate change. So the number one thing for people to think about is that plastics are part of the climate change problem, and part of a global crisis,” says Karen Wirsig, senior program manager for plastics at Environmental Defence Canada. “Plastics are made up of a complicated chemical soup that includes chemicals harmful to the environment and human health at every phase.”
And at the end of the life cycle of a plastic, it doesn’t just disappear, either. In Canada, every year we throw away more than 3 million tonnes of plastic waste, and only nine percent of that is actually recycled. The rest finds its way into landfills, waste-to-energy facilities or the environment.
“We know that plastics are showing up in our waterways, they’re showing up in human breast milk, fetuses, blood. Microplastics in our waterways are upcycled into the fish that we eat, and eventually into our bodies,” says Rita Farkas, senior policy advisor with the National Zero Waste Council and Metro Vancouver. “Plastics clearly play an important role, but we really need to pay attention to how pervasive they’ve become in every aspect of our lives. We need to consider what is actually necessary and what we’ve just accepted as normal because it’s convenient and cheap.”
One of the most convenient and cheap plastics is the single-use kind, including items like straws, coffee pods, takeout containers, grocery bags—and the list goes on.
Photography, No Revisions, Unsplash.com
In December 2022, the first phase of the Government of Canada’s single-use plastics ban came into effect, which is part of an overall plan to meet Canada’s target of zero plastic waste by 2030. The first phase included prohibiting the manufacture and import for sale in Canada of plastic checkout bags, cutlery, foodservice ware, stir sticks and straws. Future phases of the ban will include items like plastic ring carriers and flexible straws packaged with beverage containers, such as juice boxes.
Wirsig notes that tackling single-use plastics is essential because they make up such a large percentage of the overall plastic problem.
“About 50 percent of all plastic used every year in Canada is single-use packaging,” she says. “Packaging is collected for recycling, but plastic packaging is generally not actually recycled. The reason is that plastics are complicated materials made out of a variety of chemical ingredients, as well as being available in all kinds of shapes and sizes. They’re not easy to recycle, and it’s not easy to identify the different types of plastics when they’re running through a recycling plant.”
Think of a soft, flexible plastic pouch that may contain a beverage, for example, which also has a rigid nozzle on the top. The rigid plastic nozzle and the soft plastic pouch are two different pieces that cannot be recycled together. As a result, these types of single-use plastic items are rarely reprocessed.
“Recycling alone is not going to come close to achieving the zero plastic pollution solution we need,” says Farkas. “The regulatory steps we’re seeing from the Government of Canada are tools in the tool kit we need to build on. Regulations such as the single-use plastic prohibition are important measures to move up the waste reduction hierarchy beyond recycling and toward reuse. It may not be perfect, but we have to get serious about tackling plastics. It’s complex, but it’s also really doable. We’ve existed as a species without plastics for lon- ger than we’ve existed with them. I think the neces- sary solution is a sort of a triangle—we need government regulation, we need leadership from industry and we need consumers to take action.”
When it comes to taking personal action, Wirsig notes that there are things you can do at home to help. Ensuring your local political representatives know that you want to see better plastic solutions is important, and from there, you can also try to reduce the plastics you use every day.
“Know this is not your fault; we’re living with a system that has pushed more and more single-use plastics on us for several generations,” says Wirsig. “So just think consciously about it and avoid single- use plastics where you can.”
Farkas echoes that sentiment, noting it can be overwhelming to think about, so it’s important to tackle one thing at a time.
“We’ve become reliant on synthetic materials for so many products that were made with other, longer-lasting, materials not so long ago,” she says. “I think the really important key message is to think about the amount of energy that we’re putting into something that we plan to use for a very short period of time.”