Photos of seabird carcasses stuffed with disposable cigarette lighters and plastic bottle caps are losing their shock value. Images of sea turtles eating polyethylene bags could become cliché. Everyone now knows our planet is choking on plastic waste.
As one scientific paper puts it, “Plastic waste is now so ubiquitous in the environment that it has been suggested as a geological indicator of the proposed Anthropocene era.”
In response, some countries have gotten serious about plastic waste. The EU voted for a complete ban on many single use plastics last October. The UK is legislating minimum recycled content on plastic packaging, and plans to make producers pay the full cost of recycling their wares. In India, disposable plastic bags are unlawful. In Kenya, getting caught with a disposable plastic bag can earn jail time.
In contrast, Canada’s approach to the plastics crisis has been long on rhetoric, short on legislation, and heavily invested in plastics production. As Gord Johns, MP for Courtenay-Alberni sees it, “We are a huge laggard on this issue. What we need instead of platitudes and forecasts of commitments that are years out … is legislation and regulations implemented now.” Currently, he says, the federal government is making “historic investments” in the plastics industry. “They want to be global leaders in plastic production. They’re saying, ‘Well we care, and we’re going to recycle more plastic – because we’re going to produce more plastic.’”
Vito Buonsante, plastics program manager for the NGO Environmental Defence Canada, shares Johns’ frustration. “[The federal government] is saying ‘let’s cut plastic,’ but the reality is there’s nothing really being done…. Industry keeps pushing this narrative that recycling needs to be improved and people need to be educated to recycle more, but that’s not really the problem.”
“The evidence overwhelmingly shows that recycling cannot be a solution for the plastic waste issue,” says Buonsante. “It can be used in limited situations. If you think about single-use plastics, one of the examples where recycling kind of works is (#1 PET) plastic bottles when there is a deposit return scheme. You manage to reach high levels of collection and then it’s okay.”
Hydraulic fracturing has made natural gas a cheap and common feedstock for plastic production, spurring huge investments in plastics infrastructure.
Environmental Defence believes increased recycling would be effective if integrated within a national strategy on plastics that would see a ban on difficult-to-recycle plastics, legislation to eliminate throwaway plastics, and a recycled content standard of 75% for new products.
Right now, a dismal 9% of plastic waste is recycled globally. In Canada, that number crawls to 11%. Roughly 40% of plastic is produced for packaging and single-use items. Some numbered plastics aren’t even recyclable, and Buonsante says the recycling symbol on these is “totally meaningless.”
Nor can plastics be recycled repeatedly, unlike steel or glass. After one or two passes through the “circular economy,” plastic is degraded and contaminated, and headed for the landfill or incinerator.
Pay with plastic
Michelle MacEwen is the general manager of the Gabriola Island Recycling Organization. She says polyethylene terephthalate (#1 PET – water bottles, ketchup bottles, mayo jars) generally makes money for their recycling depot. So does high density polyethylene (#2 HDPE – milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles). Low-value plastics, such as polyvinyl chloride (#3 PVC – softer plastic containers), low density polyethylene (#4 LDPE – plastic films and shopping bags), and polypropylene (#5 – yogurt cups, take-out cups) currently cost the organization up to $180 per ton to be hauled away.
MacEwen says that until producers are taxed, and regulations are in place, “we’re going to be chasing our tails on this. Just scrambling with recycling and having massive amounts of plastic in the ocean or in the marketplace and no end market to send it to.”
The problem is set to get much worse.
Plastic production is expected to triple by 2050. Hydraulic fracturing has made natural gas a cheap and common feedstock for plastic production, spurring huge investments in plastics infrastructure.
So, too, will emissions grow. The production of plastic is estimated to consume 20% of annual oil consumption globally by 2050.
Update May 28, 2019: It’s been brought to the author’s attention that while the sentence above is accurate, context is missing. The current carbon footprint of plastic is 0.5 Gigatons of CO2 per year, or about 1/80th (1.25%) of total emissions, according to Jonathan Foley, an environmental scientist and Executive Director of Project Drawdown, a group which researches and ranks climate solutions.
“All this fracking that is happening in BC, a lot of that gas, or the byproducts of that gas, are going to go into the production of plastics,” says Buonsante. “Right now the federal government is saying they want to reduce plastic waste … but the reality is that at the same time, provinces and the federal government are subsidizing new production of plastic.”
A clear example of subsidized infrastructure is a $3.5 billion plastics facility under construction northeast of Edmonton, that according to reporting by the CBC, was attracted by a provincial program offering $500 million in royalty relief incentives to the plastics industry. In Ontario, the provincial government chipped in $100 million to a project that will double the capacity of a polyethylene feedstock operation in the Sarnia-Lambton area, a production increase of 450 kilotonnes per year.
The waste bin of the developed world
Until the beginning of 2018, China accepted 45% of global plastic waste. For the First World, it was a tidy solution for much of the 380 million tons of plastic waste produced annually. In China, it was not so tidy. The flood of waste fuelled a cottage industry where peasants scratch a subsistence income from primitive recycling, surrounded by plastic garbage; children live in toxic slums; and vast amounts of un-recyclable plastic are haphazardly dumped or burned, much of it to end up in waterways, and ultimately the ocean.
Research published in 2017 estimates that 90% of all marine plastic waste enters the oceans from only 10 rivers, and eight of them are in Asia. “The narrative is that these countries are the biggest responsible for polluting our oceans,” says Buonsante, “and that is often because we send them our plastic. They don’t have the infrastructure to deal with that plastic, and then it ends up in the ocean. Not only are we causing the problem, we’re also blaming [developing countries].”
According to Buonsante, about a third of plastic waste collected for recycling in Canada is exported.
If Canada tries to scuttle the proposal, “They’ll use ambiguous language. They’ll say ‘we need to do further work, let’s have a working group,’ and it’ll drag on for four years or something.”
Last year, exporting countries got a wake-up call when China announced an import ban on all but the purest waste plastic. Recyclers have scrambled to find markets for the estimated 111 million tons of plastic that will be displaced because of the ban by 2030. With nowhere to go, plastic waste is piling up. Some municipalities in Canada, the US, and elsewhere, have resorted to landfilling plastic after it has been collected from recycling programs.
The market for poorly regulated or illegal plastic waste processing is now quickly shifting to other countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Thailand has seen imports of polyethylene terephthalate waste skyrocket 876%, prompting an emergency embargo. One town in Malaysia was reported “smothered” by 17,000 tonnes of plastic waste that was burned or dumped by illegal plastic recycling operations.
Thankfully, Canada will soon have a chance to support a groundbreaking proposal to end passing the buck on plastic waste to poorer nations.
Update: May 10, 2019. After long negotiations, and against the urging of the United States and industry lobby groups, the Norwegian Proposal has been adopted by the Basel Convention.
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal is a longstanding international agreement used to control the global trade flow of toxic materials such as asbestos, lead, and e-waste. It is unique, and could be harnessed to curtail the plastic crisis.
Norway, a leader in plastic waste management, has put forth a proposal to classify plastic waste as “waste requiring special consideration” under the Basel Convention. This would force exporters to get the consent of countries they export plastic waste to, and ensure receiving countries have the means to properly process plastic waste. Polluted or contaminated waste could be refused, ratcheting up pressure on importing countries to improve their own plastic waste management domestically.
Some municipalities in Canada, the US, and elsewhere, have resorted to landfilling plastic after it has been collected from recycling programs.
“I am very much in favour of Norway’s proposal,” says Buonsante. “What that amendment would do is basically increase transparency, and also require previous informed consent from the receiving country.”
A 2018 analysis by researchers at the University of Georgia argues such a proposal could also provide a “framework for knowledge sharing and promoting the proper management of waste, including harmonization of technical standards and practices, which could help build capacity to properly manage plastic waste around the world”.
Jim Puckett is the executive director of the Basel Action Network, an NGO with observer status in the Basel Convention. He believes the EU – a power bloc in the Basel Convention – will agree to back the proposal. A legion of nations including China, Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan, has voiced support or filed documents in support of the proposal. Puckett says Canadian officials were “not on board at all” with the proposal at a public meeting in 2018.
If Puckett’s prediction is borne out and the EU backs the proposal, Canada could find itself the lone holdout among the world’s top 10 plastic waste exporters who are parties to the Basel Convention.
Plastics trade associations have opposed the proposal, citing “administrative burdens” and, paradoxically, fears of illegal dumping.
The US, which is not a member of the Basel Convention, has filed comments as an observer against the idea. Because Basel Convention members cannot trade Basel-controlled materials with non-members (with some exceptions) the US would lose easy access to the global plastic waste market, thereby gaining incentive to process and reduce their own plastic waste.
A decision is scheduled for April, at the next Conference of the Parties of the Basel Convention, in Geneva.
So far, Canada is still fence-sitting. In response to a request for comment, a federal Ministry of Environment and Climate Change spokesperson wrote in February that Canada’s position on the proposal is “under development” and “subject to upcoming international negotiations,” so “the Government of Canada is not in a position to provide further information at this time.”
If Canada tries to scuttle the proposal, Puckett says, “They’ll use ambiguous language. They’ll say ‘we need to do further work, let’s have a working group,’ and it’ll drag on for four years or something.”
For Buonsante, political action is key to tackling the plastics crisis. “We need regulations that guide behaviors,” he says. “Just like climate change is not going to be solved by turning down the heat and wearing a sweater and consuming a bit less, it is the same with plastic, because in many cases people have no choice but to buy plastic products. Only laws can drive change.”
Gavin MacRae is a staff reporter and editorial assistant at the Watershed Sentinel. He lives in Comox, BC