Drowning in plastic
By Jim Poling
Published Dec. 14, 2017
Sometimes I worry about the strangest things. Like yesterday I worried whether the plastic drink cup I saw tossed from a car window will end up in the ocean.
It’s entirely possible. The wind blows it into a creek that flows into a lake drained by a river that goes to Lake Ontario, into the St. Lawrence River and eventually out to the Atlantic Ocean. Plastic never decomposes completely, so that cup has plenty of time to make the journey.
If it does, it will join the estimated10 million tons of plastic entering the oceans every year. The scientific journal PLOS ONE has published a study that estimates there now are 270,000 tons of plastic floating on the oceans. Some of these floating carpets are dense enough to block sunlight from entering the water.
All that plastic has an impact on wildlife. A University of British Columbia study found that 93 per cent of beached northern fulmars had plastic in their bellies. Fulmars are migratory seabirds related to the albatross.
Ocean plastic pollution is estimated to kill or injure more than 260 species around the world.
A good chunk of ocean plastic debris is plastic bags. We Canadians use nine to 15 billion plastic bags a year, says the environmental group Greener Footprints. That is enough plastic bags to encircle the earth 55 times. (Folks in the U.S. use an estimated 100 billion plastic bags every year.)
Plastics are a helpful and important part of life today. They are in almost everything that we use but the problem is that, like many other things, we overuse them.
Plastic bags are an example. Various sources estimate the world uses up to one trillion plastic bags a year, or roughly one million every minute. Only one in every 200 of those bags gets recycled.
There is so much concern about plastic bags damaging the environment that user fees, restrictive laws and outright bans are being put in place. A variety of Canadian cities have, or are considering, measures to control plastic bag use.
Some African nations have placed controls or outright bans on plastic bags. Kenya has passed laws under which anyone selling or importing plastic bags can get up to four years in prison.
Rwanda has declared plastic bags contraband. It is illegal to produce, import, use or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging except within specific industries like health care. Rwandan border guards say women have been caught smuggling plastic bags – tucking them into their bras and underpants.
Plastics are only one part, albeit a large part, of the world’s waste pollution problem. Even all the admirable efforts being made to recycle are hitting snags. Too often there is too much recyclable waste to recycle.
China, the world’s largest importer of waste for recycling, has announced that it will restrict the type of waste it imports for recycling. The Chinese import huge amounts of waste, which they recycle for producing goods they export for sale, or use for themselves.
The U.S. shipped $56 billion worth of scrap to China last year, mainly plastic, metal and paper. European Union countries send 87 per cent of all their plastic waste to China.
The problem is that recyclable waste often contains contaminants that must be sorted and removed before recycling. Sorting and removing contaminants costs time and money. China will no longer will take waste containing more than 0.5 per cent contaminants.
Experts say it will be nearly impossible to meet the 0.5 per cent target. So the U.S. and other major waste exporters to China will be stuck with huge amounts of waste.
The real answer to stopping waste pollution, plastic and otherwise, will not be found only in recycling. We all need to use less; stop our incredible overuse of almost everything. And, focus and educate ourselves about what is happening to our environment.
Some will argue that using more is good for the economy. More products rolling off conveyor belts mean more jobs and more money.
Yes, but we all should pause and consider a quote from Edward Abbey, the American writer and environmentalist:
“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”