How serious is our world’s plastics crisis? Plastic use didn’t really take off until about 1950. Since then, about 8.3 billion metric tonnes of the stuff have accumulated. Of that, more than 6.2 billion metric tonnes have become waste. And of that waste, 5.7 billion tonnes never made it to a recycling bin. A recent study in the peer-reviewed Science Advances reports that 91 per cent of plastics in the world are not recycled.
Each year, about 10 per cent of plastics produced end up in the ocean. There, they break down through exposure to sun, wind and water, until they become microplastics which are consumed by living organisms.
How long will it take for that plastic to break down into its constituent molecules? Estimates range from 450 years to never.
The dramatic growth in plastic pollution has led some scientists to refer to the crisis as similar in scope and urgency to climate change.
Yes, it’s that serious. So it’s good to see more governments taking or at least considering measures to curb plastic pollution. But be honest, would you have expected the Ford Conservative government to be one of them? The same government that doesn’t appear to believe in the dangers posed by climate change?
It’s true, however. This week the government announced it is weighing a ban on single-use plastics as part of a broader strategy aimed at sending less waste to landfill. It is asking the public and stakeholders for input.
The broader landfill capacity problem is, in itself, a huge challenge. Ontarians produce a metric tonne of waste per person per year. And our waste diversion rate — the degree to which waste is being kept out of landfill through recycling and other efforts — is stuck at about 30 per cent.
But making a dent in the plastics crisis would go a long way in addressing that challenge.
Environment Minister Rod Phillips says: “We are essentially saying, ‘How would those work and how have they worked in other jurisdictions effectively?’ Plastics is a priority from our government’s point of view, particularly as we talk about plastics in our waterways.” It’s an especially timely observation since the government’s accompanying discussion paper points out about 10,000 metric tonnes of plastics end up in the Great Lakes every year.
What sort of things are we talking about? Plastic straws, cutlery, dishes, of course. And the big one — single-use plastic water bottles. The government probably won’t hesitate to tackle the first three, but it will take great fortitude to tackle the fourth one.
Ontario is in good company. Kenya is among a growing list of nations that have banned plastic bags, imposing steep fines and jail time on violators. France says it will ban plastic plates and cups by 2020.
Corporations are reacting to growing concern. Coca-Cola has a goal to collect and recycle the equivalent of 100 per cent of its packaging by 2030. Johnson & Johnson is switching from plastic stems on its cotton swabs to paper ones. Other multinationals have committed to converting 100 per cent to reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by 2025.
Fighting climate change continues to polarize and stymie us. This doesn’t have to be the same, and it’s smart for the Ford government to recognize that.