The world's suffocating in plastic - Keith Roulston editorial
While the Canadian media, in months past, searched hard for scandals to embarrass the government, it paid scant attention to a real scandal – the 1,500 tonnes of Canadian garbage that has been rotting in Manila, Philippines since 2014.
Last week the federal government finally announced that the garbage would be coming home, to be incinerated in a plant near Vancouver that generates electricity from burning garbage.
After two Canadian governments failed to act, Philippines’ President Rodrigo finally got Canadians’ attention by suggesting he’d declare war on Canada if we didn’t take back the garbage and recalling his country’s ambassador.
The garbage was packed in 69 shipping containers marked as plastic for recycling in facilities near Manila, but when the containers were opened they were filled with raw garbage. The private company that shipped the garbage certainly wasn’t about to take the garbage back so the federal government was stuck with the problem.
Sadly both the Conservative government of Stephen Harper and the Liberals under Justin Trudeau didn’t make it a priority to clean up this Canadian mess.
This whole episode has typified the crisis we find ourselves in as a result of our modern consumer society. With our modern packaging and throw-away culture, we’re burying ourselves in garbage. We fill up landfills in what seems like a jiffy, then people fight when municipalities want to turn a neighbouring area into a new landfill.
To extend the life of garbage dumps, municipalities embraced recycling, but issues like the Philippines scandal resulted. We began shipping plastics to China and other Asian countries for recycling. At the beginning of 2018 China banned the importing of plastic because it had more than enough already there. Since then, plastic waste has flooded into Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, often through disreputable operators, leading to dumping and open burning, contaminating water supplies, killing crops and causing respiratory illnesses.
The plastic issue is an example of passing the buck. For manufacturers, plastic is often the most profitable solution. Take the situation with some food products, for example. Plastic jars are cheaper than glass jars so they use plastic. Once it leaves their plant, it’s not their problem.
We consumers get that jar and use the product that’s in it and want to dispose of the container. Consumers tend to think that plastic is plastic. I only discovered that isn’t so while doing a story years ago on a company that turned bale wrap into plastic lumber. Every plastic has a different chemical composition, they explained to me, and if you’re a company wanting to reuse it, you have to have plastic made up of the same polymer. That’s not so easy in household waste, which is why your municipality gives you a list of what is, and what is not, acceptable. (Then there’s the problem of convincing people to clean the container before its recycled so it’s usable.)
So we throw our plastic jar in the blue box and now it’s the municipality’s problem to deal with. But markets for different polymers change quickly and plastics that had value last week are sent to the landfill this week. And sometimes, the ultimate pass-along of the problem is to export our mess to other countries.
Canadians, according to a 2017 Canadian Geographic story, each produce 720 kilograms of garbage a year, more than any other industrialized country (seven per cent more than Americans). We are particularly addicted to plastic. We use 3 billion single-use plastic bags per year – the average length of use being 20 minutes. Scientists estimate it takes 500 to 1,000 years for that bag to break down.
Just in littering alone, Canadians create a 29,000-tonne problem. It’s also estimated that 10,000 tonnes of plastic enter the Great Lakes every year. If the world doesn’t clean up its act, some scientists estimate that by 2050 there will be more pounds of plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.
What can we do? We can stop pushing the problem off to the next guy. Manufacturers need to take responsibility and reduce plastic use by legislation if they won’t use their consciences. We need better ways to reuse plastic, creating plants here in Canada to do the job instead of sending waste to Asia. It’s been estimated this would create thousands of jobs. As well, if we could properly recycle materials here at home, it’s been estimated this could add $11 billion to the economy.
And finally, we consumers must reduce the plastic we use. We can choose products with the least wasted plastic. We can cut our own use of plastic bags. We can reuse containers. We can properly recycle. We each need to take responsibility for our share of this massive problem.