British Columbia

Canada's single-use plastics ban 'long overdue' but more is needed to keep oceans clean, expert says

Canada's plan to ban single use plastics is a positive step but a drop in the ocean when it comes to what is required to clean them up, one expert says. 

'At the end of the day, it means just a little bit less plastic will leak into the ocean'

Canada's planned ban on single use plastics like grocery bags and cutlery could go into effect as early as next year. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Canada's plan to ban single use plastics is a positive step but a drop in the ocean when it comes to what is required to clean them up, one expert says. 

The ban on items like plastic grocery bags and cutlery is expected to go into effect next year. It will likely have an impact of less than one per cent when it comes to the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean, said Peter Ross, vice-president of research at Ocean Wise and the executive director of the Coastal Ocean Research Institute. 

That doesn't mean it's not a good move — in fact, Ross says it's "long overdue."

"I'm delighted," he told CBC's On The Island. 

"It's a no-brainer. This is low-hanging fruit, the list is modest, the items are replaceable, we have alternatives, and at the end of the day, it means just a little bit less plastic will leak into the ocean."

Thousands of grocery bags and tens of thousands of plastic straws are routinely found on Canadian beaches every year, and that's just the tip of the iceberg, Ross said.

It's the bigger (and much, much smaller) plastics that are the next problem that need to be addressed, he added. 

Studies show gear from fisheries accounts for a large amount of the garbage currently floating around in the ocean, he said. It's estimated that 50 per cent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a massive floating mess of trash in the Pacific Ocean — is composed of items related to the fisheries industry, Ross said.

Bits of "micro plastics" smaller than five millimetres have been found everywhere from Antarctica to the tops of alpine meadows and even the household air that we breathe.

In a cubic metre of seawater around Vancouver Island, Ross said researchers have found anywhere from two to 9,000 particles of plastic, mainly colourful polyester particles from items like clothing.

This points to wastewater as being a significant source of plastic leaking into the oceans, he said. He is working with outdoor apparel retailers to identify solutions to the problem, but there are things consumers can do, like buy filters for washing machines and shop for fabrics wisely, Ross added.

The responsibility shouldn't just fall on the consumer, he said. 

"There's also a very important role for industry to step up and take advantage of the kind of knowledge that we're generating which can lead to a thousand-fold reduction in the loss of micro fibres during laundry from a single product," Ross said.

He hopes the latest move from the government signals a commitment to a broader scaling back of the use of plastic in Canada. 

"What Canada is doing is positioning itself to call plastic out in terms of its harm to the environment, and that will allow the government to design an action plan and a management plan to intervene where logic and where science dictates," he said. 

"It's that kind of lever, I think, that will lead to innovation and entrepreneurs designing a better future for the aquatic environment for our oceans."

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