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Okanagan Eco-Noggin  

Jump off plastic ban wagon

Single-use plastic has become the government’s straw-man villain.

When a politician announces a ban on a product and promises science-based recommendations to follow, you can be fairly certain that the science will be a farce.

This appears to be the case with the federal government’s recently announced ban on single-use plastics.

To be sure, some products are rightfully banned on science-based environmental grounds. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act specifies criteria for chemicals that should be “virtually eliminated” due to their high risk to human and environmental health.

However, there is an important difference between banning these toxic chemicals versus the recently announced ban on plastics: For the former group, the ban followed the science, not the other way around.

In other words, scientists knew the chemicals were toxic, and the government took that advice and instituted a ban. In contrast, the government has now decided that single-use plastics need to be banned, and will produce the science to justify this politically motivated ban.

Perhaps that is a cynical view, but consider the statements made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Federal Environment Minister McKenna, who cite the ocean plastics crisis as the reason to ban plastic straws across Canada.

There is an ocean of difference between their justification and reality.

Also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or Ocean Plastic Gyre, there is abundant evidence that ocean plastic is accumulating at alarming rates, in both large visible garbage piles and microscopic particles.

However, there is also abundant evidence that most ocean plastic originates in Africa and Asia, not Canada. Do a Google search for “river of plastic” and you will see appalling images of rivers choked with garbage, most of it plastic.

But you will not find any such thing in Canada.

The problem with plastic is not that we are dumping it in the ocean – it is that we are not recycling enough of the already recyclable plastic that we use. Too much of it goes straight to the landfill, despite having readily available technology to recycle it.

Here is an inconvenient truth about plastic recycling. Noble intentions only get us so far in terms of motivating people to recycle their own waste.

The irony, as explained in the book Junkyard Planet, is that only market forces will ensure that nearly all recyclable waste from a given stream is sent to the appropriate facility.

Two requirements for this to happen, both of which are lacking in Canada, are:

  • a very cheap supply of labour to process the waste
  • a market for the waste materials.

In places like Shanghai, virtually all reusable or recyclable material is removed from a waste stream before it reaches its final resting place.

That is not because the Chinese are devout environmentalists, but because people there are willing or desperate enough to sort through other people’s garbage to recover a few cents worth of value from discarded materials, and because they have a viable re-use market for things that we consider junk.

We could achieve the same rates of recycling here, but it would be incredibly expensive. Even with modern sorting technology, the process is labour intensive and people don’t work for pennies in Canada.

One problem is that we often don’t sort our waste at the point of disposal. Take a look at the picture of the garbage bin, taken in a city park. Do you notice that much of the “garbage” is actually recyclable material?

If a seal is choking on a piece of plastic, the seal does not care whether that plastic was recyclable. None of the recyclable plastic in this picture would be affected by a ban on single-use plastic.

Another problem with the ban:

  • large categories of products will need to be exempted to avoid putting human health at risk.

For example, virtually all medical supplies are wrapped in single-use plastic, as are many food supplies. This is not simply convenient; it is safe and sterile.

If you care about reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the environment or landfill, there are things that we can all do to reduce our plastic footprint.

First, avoid using plastic bags whenever possible. Plastic bags are a problem for a few reasons.

They are difficult to process in recycling depots and have a poor resale market, so they often end up in a landfill, even if they are placed in the proper recycling bin.

Rather than recycling existing plastic bags, drop them off for re-use at grocery stores that accept them, or at dog parks. If they are going to end up in a landfill, they might as well serve a double duty by quarantining doggy’s doodie.

Second, pay close attention to the sorting requirements of recycle bins. Plastics that are not separated from other materials will end up in the landfill.

Even two materials that could be recycled individually, like plastic and cardboard, will be landfilled if they are not separated before being dropped in the bin.

Third, let producers know that you care about the amount of plastic packaging. Some products still come packaged in gratuitous amounts of plastic. Call or email the manufacturer and let them know you care.

And when the politicians come knocking for the 2019 election, ask them where they stand on this issue. Just be wary of the sort of rhetoric that seems to be driving this ban.

In coming articles, we’ll go inside the world of recycling, one waste stream at a time, to find out what else we can do as individuals to reduce our overall waste footprint.

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About the Author

Jerry Vandenberg is an environmental scientist and owner of Vandenberg Water Science. He lives in the Okanagan region where he is also a paid-on-call fire fighter.

He can be reached at (250) 491-7260; [email protected]; https://www.linkedin.com/in/jerry-vandenberg/

Website: www.vws.ltd

 



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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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