When we found tiny pieces of plastic in water under the North Pole sea ice in a 2021 study, it became eminently clear to us that the world has a plastic problem. Our research has also discovered alarming levels of plastic particles in zooplankton in the North Pacific, shellfish in coastal British Columbia, and beluga whales in Canada’s Arctic.
Amid difficult negotiations at the UN Global Plastics Treaty talks in Nairobi, Canada’s Federal Court recently sided with the Responsible Plastic Use Coalition — an industrial lobby group — in ruling that the cabinet order to label plastic as “toxic” was too vague and that there was insufficient evidence that “all plastics” were harmful.
Do we need more evidence that plastic pollution is harmful?
Plastic litter has been killing wildlife for decades around the world, and represents a serious conservation threat to populations of albatross, turtles and seals. More than 817 species in the world’s oceans have been documented as being impacted by plastic. Research suggests that humans routinely ingest and inhale plastic pieces.
One startling truth about plastic explains much about why we find it everywhere: it is highly persistent and doesn’t break down chemically. It breaks up into smaller and smaller bits, slowly, and incompletely, incrementally becoming food for smaller and smaller creatures over time as it spreads across the planet.
Plastic is coming from everywhere, from all of us. Global plastic production is doubling every 10 to 15 years. Environment and Climate Change Canada estimated in 2016 that 4.7 million tonnes of plastics were sold in 2016, of which 70 per cent was thrown away, and one per cent — or 29,000 tonnes — was lost to the environment. A mere nine per cent of the remaining plastic waste was recycled. As a result, Canada stands among the top for per capita waste generation.
And it isn’t just about the visible mountains of waste. Our research, for instance, has shown that around 900 tonnes of textile fibres per year are released to rivers, lakes and oceans in the U.S and Canada from home laundry. In addition, the use of harmful chemicals in plastic material production means that people and wildlife are exposed to flame retardants, phthalates, bisphenols and “forever chemicals” embedded in the plastic.
The much-touted circular economy that would close the loop on plastics is looking increasingly unattainable. Plastics cannot be recycled in perpetuity, leaving “dead end” products like carpeting or park benches as the solitary next generation of plastic items. Food and beverage retailers prefer virgin plastics from the petrochemical sector, thereby avoiding the potential for contamination by the dyes, hardening agents, softening agents or flame retardants that are part of the original formulation in packaging, toys and cars.
When Canada listed plastics as toxic in 2021, it built its case on scientific evidence in its report “Canada Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution” in 2020, and signalled its intent to crack down on the products most likely to be found on our beaches, in our waters, and obstructing the stomachs and airways of our wildlife. Death by plastic is no pretty matter: entanglement, drowning, asphyxiation, intestinal blockage, and fatal internal lacerations.
The federal government undertook a decidedly measured first step in identifying its modest list of six items that it would regulate (single-use plastic straws, grocery bags, takeout food containers, cups and six-pack rings), and its decision was backed by strong public support.
A comprehensive approach to preventing plastic pollution is our best hope against the 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste projected to be released to the world’s environment by 2040. We must overcome the reality of the global plastics economy; we need governments, industry and the public to push the dial on responsible design, management and use.
The scale of the pollution problem and the diversity of plastic products used, in Canada and globally, underscore the need for a robust framework to protect the health of Canadians and our environment. Rather than stand in the way of federal leadership, we need industry to work together with Canadians to stem the flow of plastic items into our waters, into our wildlife, and into our food and bodies.
The government needs strong tools to reduce the scourge of plastic pollution. Innovation and teamwork are already showing us the way forward on a more sustainable path, with alternative materials and approaches opening up exciting new economic sectors.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, Canada. We need all hands on deck to tackle plastic pollution.
This op-ed by Peter S. Ross, Health Waters Program Director at Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Anna Posacka, Chief Scientific Officer at Ocean Diagnostics was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen.
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