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Want to cut down on plastic waste? Here's what the experts recommend

The small changes that can have a big impact.

The small changes that can have a big impact.

Less than 11% of plastics are recycled in Canada, and we collectively create about 3.25 million tonnes of plastic waste each year—it's estimated that Canadians toss out 57 million single-use plastic straws every day.

Municipalities are working on addressing parts of the problem—for example, Vancouver has banned plastic straws, and single-use plastic bags are banned in Montreal—but there are also easy changes that each of us can make to reduce the amount of plastic waste we generate.

For a primer on the main issues, and expert advice on the actions that stand to have the most impact, we talked to Dr. Chelsea Rochman, an aquatic and marine ecologist (and Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto) who's studied plastic pollution for more than a decade, and Linh Truong, founder of The Soap Dispensary + Kitchen Staples, a pioneering refill and zero-waste grocery shop in Vancouver.

Here's what we learned about plastic waste:

Recycling is great, but it's not a panacea.

It turns out that, even with the best of intentions, collectively speaking Canadians aren't great at recycling. What is recyclable differs significantly from city to city, and many plastics simply cannot be recycled. "In Canada, we only recycle 11% of our waste, and that's a really small number," says Rochman. "Part of that is because we don't have a market for all of the plastic materials we recycle, and part of it is that the infrastructure doesn't exist to recycle some of these materials. And often, people don't understand what can go in the bins in their own city."

"People just have been using recycling as a crutch, and [thinking] that it's ok to keep [using] plastic because it's taken care of somewhere, somehow," says Truong. "And I think it's really good for people to wake up to the reality that it is not being taken care of, and it is actually ending up where they didn't want it to be." She recommends thinking back to the order of three R's—first reduce, then reuse and finally, recycle.  

Every city has different recycling guidelines, and it's worth taking the time to learn them.

Municipality recycling rules can be complicated and confusing, and Rochman recommends putting a poster or printout of the guidelines on your fridge door, for convenient referencing. "I think one of the most important things that a person can do is to understand the waste management strategy in their city," says Rochman. "It's worse to put things in the recycle bin that aren't recyclable, than to not recycle at all."

"There are certain plastics that are more recyclable than others. If you're going to have to buy something in plastic, perhaps you can select a plastic that is more recyclable in your city," says Truong. She adds that, unfortunately, if your city doesn't have a market or buyer for certain plastics, they'll still end up in a landfill, even if they're recyclable.

Cutting down on single-use plastics can make a big difference

"When I think of what waste people mostly generate on a daily basis, it's coffee cups and food packaging, take out," says Truong. "There's this misconception that coffee cups are okay because they're paper, but they're actually lined with plastic. And they're really, really hard to recycle."

Rochman echoes this sentiment. "We have a bit of a love affair with plastic, particularly with single-use convenience items like straws, coffee cups and water bottles. Not all plastics are recyclable, not all of these items that we get can be recycled." When she participates in beach cleanups such as The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, the most common items found are straws, plastic water bottles, bottle caps, take-out containers, and cutlery.

Use laundry filters to keep microfibres out of our waterways.

Microfibres are a rising concern in our waterways, and Rochman's team often finds them in fish, sediment and water from Lake Ontario when conducting research. "We wear a lot of clothing that's made out of plastics such as polyester and acrylic, and when we wash our clothes—just like you have laundry lint that gathers in your lint trap—little bits of fibres also come off in the washing machine when you're washing your clothes," says Rochman. "They go out with the wastewater to the wastewater treatment plant, where some of it is treated, but some of it goes straight into the lake." She recommends buying a filter online to put on the back of your machine, which can reduce the amount of microfibre in the wash by about 90%.

At The Soap Dispensary, Truong has recently started offering the GUPPYFRIEND Washing Bag to address this microplastic issue, too — it can be used in shared-laundry situations and without any installation.

Shop with plastic waste in mind, and reuse where you can.

"Instead of calling it waste management, let's think about it as materials management, and see all these materials that we interact with on a day-to-day basis as value," says Rochman. "Instead of being a throwaway society, we want to try to use materials that can stay in the loop, meaning that they can be recycled or reused."

Truong was inspired to open her refill store in 2011 after years of refilling bottles at The Soap Exchange in Victoria, BC. "The concept just resonated so well with me; yes, those bottles are durable, and they could be reusable," says Truong. She also recommends choosing plastic-free, compostable alternatives for common consumables such as dental floss and toothbrushes wherever possible.

Advocate for bigger changes.

According to Rochman, waste strategy is a hot topic these days, and cities and provinces are motivated to explore new options and better strategies. For example, according to the Waste-Free Ontario Act, 30% of the province's waste is supposed to be diverted from landfill by next year, and 80% by 2050.

"The time is now to write letters to your city councillor, your MP, your MPP, or [Minister of Environment and Climate Change] McKenna and basically ask them to do something about this issue," says Rochman. "Because it's one thing to just refuse a straw, but it's another thing to be able to put all your waste in the recycle bin, and not have all of these options to collect all these things that you can't put in a sustainable place."


Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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