Oceans of Plastic

Canada’s looming waste management crisis

Joyce Nelson

Beach in Manila, Phillipines | Photo © Adam Cohn

When it comes to cracking down on the plastic garbage that is befouling our oceans, some countries are more serious than others.

Take Kenya, for example. As of September 2017, any Kenyan caught producing, selling or even carrying a plastic bag can face up to four years in prison or fines of $40,000.

Kenya’s environment minister, Judy Wakhungu, told the press that enforcement of the new law would initially be directed at manufacturers and suppliers of the bags, but such draconian penalties have spurred a rapid return to the cloth shopping bags of yesteryear in the African country.

Kenya is well aware of the problem: Every year, at least eight million tons of plastic waste (mainly shopping bags and bottles) ends up in the oceans, where it kills marine life.

Now Canada may be taking action.

At the January 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hosted a roundtable discussion (including executives from Coca-Cola and Unilever) where he said that this year’s G7 Summit would include a focus on ocean protection and the issue of “plastics and pollution.” Canada holds the G7 presidency this year, and G7 leaders will meet in Charlevoix, Québec in June. After Trudeau’s announcement, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna added that the G7 focus might involve a “no plastics pledge” or charter, or a “zero waste goal.”

Of course, without enforceable targets and penalties, such a pledge or charter would be little more than hot air, so Kenya has set the (very high) bar by which we can measure G7 outcomes.

“Act locally”

The day after Trudeau’s Davos statement, Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns told the House of Commons, “While it is gratifying that the Prime Minister seems to be answering the call of so many environmental groups and advocates to address this crisis internationally, the job has yet to be done on our own Canadian beaches and coastal waters,” he said. “The government’s so-called world-class Ocean Protection Plan does not mention plastics at all and, in particular, makes no mention of the response required when marine debris are spilled into the ocean and wash up on our precious coasts.”

Coastal First Nations, as well as volunteer community organizations like Clayoquot Clean Up, Living Oceans, and Surfrider Vancouver Island, continually do beach cleanup of the plastic waste and other debris that washes ashore constantly. They receive no federal funding and have to finance the clean-up and removal out of their own pockets.

“Many fossil fuel companies see plastics as ‘the backstop for their industry’s future, the product the world really can’t live without.’”

Clayoquot Clean Up’s Josh Temple told CBC News, “It was shocking to me that [Trudeau] would be up there posturing … and trying to put the pressure on other countries to do something about it when we’ve been trying over the last two, three years to pressure our own government here in Canada to do something about it.”

As Gord Johns put it, “Yes it is time to think globally, but we must first act locally on this critical issue.”

Similarly, after Trudeau’s Davos statement, Greenpeace Canada issued a press release noting that “Canada lags behind other leaders in Europe such as the UK who started the year by announcing and setting targets and timelines to counter the ocean plastics crisis.” France has already announced its goal of using 100%  recyclable plastic by 2025, and Germany is taking other strong measures.

As Greenpeace Canada’s Loujain Kurdi told me, “We’re lagging way behind, and Canada has sort of ‘just officially’ joined the global conversation on plastics.”

Greenpeace campaigner Laura Yates suggested, “Before the G7 takes place, the Trudeau government must also consider how our waste-management infrastructure will handle the new China ban on foreign plastics. Canada exports approximately one third of its diverted waste plastic to other countries including China and the Philippines and so is directly affected by the ban.”

The problem with our waste-management infrastructure became potently obvious last November, when Trudeau’s visit in Manila was interrupted by an embarrassing stench.

The “Canadian solution”

Since 2013, 103 shipping containers holding about 2,500 tons of Canadian household trash (including used diapers) have been sitting in the Port of Manila. Apparently, the shipments were allowed into the Philippines because they were allegedly disguised as recyclable plastics, and allegedly exported by one or more Canadian companies. But when Manila’s customs officers inspected, they found stinking trash and junk. They refused to let the garbage be unloaded, and the shipping containers have sat there ever since, reeking in the tropical heat.

During a visit to Manila in 2015, Trudeau was asked about the garbage by a local reporter. He replied that a “Canadian solution” would be found, and he promised to make legislative changes that would prevent such a situation happening again.

“As a result of China’s ban, used plastics and other recyclables are piling up and being warehoused in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Ontario, PEI, and other areas.”

Two years later, Trudeau was back in Manila in November 2017 and local activists again raised the issue, with the international press on hand to cover the embarrassing moment. An unnamed Canadian official told the Canadian Press (Nov. 13, 2017), “Canada now stands ready to work with local authorities to transport the trash back to Canada, if necessary.”

As of February 2018, however, those 103 stinking shipping containers are still sitting in the Port of Manila – a smelly testament to the “Canadian solution” (do nothing and hope the problem goes away) and an indication of the serious flaws in our waste-management infrastructure.

For its part, China decided in 2014 that it no longer wanted to be the recipient of the world’s “recyclable” garbage, much of it contaminated. Giving plenty of advance notice, China has imposed purity standards on the recycled materials it accepts from around the world, and it has strictly limited the kinds and amount of used plastic it takes in as of January 1, 2018.

Until that date, China had been taking more than half the world’s used plastic (about 7.3 million tonnes in 2016), and turning it into cheap “down-cycled” products for export.

As a result of China’s ban, wastedive.com and others are reporting that used plastics and other recyclables are piling up and being warehoused in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Ontario, PEI and other areas – which seem to have adopted the “Canadian solution” to the impending ban when it was announced four years ago. (Only BC seems to have been prepared for the situation because of its very effective Recycle BC program instituted in 2014). Worryingly, landfill and incineration are once again being discussed as viable alternatives for plastic waste across the world.

The Inconvenience of Convenience Culture

China’s decision has starkly revealed the problem in most countries’ waste-management infrastructure: Of the 4 Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse – Canada (like many others) has focused primarily on a single R – recycle – a focus cleverly instigated in the 1970s by Coca-Cola and other bottlers. During that decade, the petrochemicals industry introduced plastic shopping bags, while the big beverage companies (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, etc) turned to plastic bottles. In an effort to fend off a returnable bottles program complete with deposit laws, Big Cola organized a successful campaign that convinced governments across North America (and then the world) to adopt municipal curbside recycling instead. Of course, this cleverly shifted the responsibility (and the costs) for collecting and dealing with the used plastic onto the consumer and the municipalities. And until now, recyclers have been able to sell and send much of that material out of the country.

“In the 1970s, in an effort to fend off a returnables program complete with deposit laws, Big Cola convinced governments across North America to adopt municipal curbside recycling, cleverly shifting the responsibility (and costs) for collecting and dealing with the used plastic onto consumers and municipalities.”

This arrangement also allowed Big Cola and the petrochemicals industry to keep using virgin feedstock for plastics production. According to the 5 Gyres Institute, currently more than 300 million tons of new plastic is produced annually and less than 10% is recycled. Others report that nearly 40% of total plastic production is for throw-away plastic items.

As Greenpeace’s Loujain Kurdi told me, “reuse is the key.” Industry needs to “take on more of the responsibility for capturing the plastics waste created by their products, but also that collected material must be reused. We are now at the opportune time to keep pushing for more oversight and responsibility of the industry to end indiscriminate use of plastics for single-use applications.”

Not only is the time opportune, it is urgent, especially given the second step in China’s ban.

“Unprecedented” investment

Instead of accepting 51% of the world’s plastic waste, China has decided to “modernize” its plastics industry by importing vast amounts of virgin polyethylene and other resins. In December 2017, Bloomberg reported that “U.S. exports of polyethylene plastic to Asia will reach about 5 million tons by 2020, a five-fold increase from [2016], with most of it headed to the Chinese market.”

Calling this “great news” for U.S. chemical makers such DowDuPont Inc, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. and others, Bloomberg noted that “the fracking boom” and the glut of natural gas (a feedstock for plastics resins) has prompted the petrochemicals industry to invest “unprecedented” amounts of money in plastics production.

In December, Alberta announced royalties breaks for two propane-to-plastics petrochemical plants. As The Energy Mix reported, many fossil fuel companies see petrochemicals and plastics “as the backstop for their industry’s future, the product the world really can’t live without.”

That will be the challenge when Canada and the G7 contemplate a “no plastics pledge” in June, a summit coinciding with Canada’s ban on plastic microbeads. If we can live without microbeads, what else can we live without?

Joyce Nelson’s latest book is Beyond Banksters: Resisting the New Feudalism. The sequel, Bypassing Dystopia, will be published by Watershed Sentinel Books in Spring of 2018.

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