Nfld. & Labrador·Waves of Change

What's SUP, anyway? Here's what you need to know about single-use plastics

We use them for just a few minutes, but they'll still be here in a thousand years. Single-use plastic is a big problem, but do we really understand it?

CBC's Waves of Change series is taking a deeper dive into the issue

About eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the world's oceans every year. (CBC)

Waves of Change is a CBC series exploring the single-use plastic we're discarding, and why we need to clean up our act. You can be part of the community discussion by joining our Facebook group.   

Of all the plastic the world throws away, half of it is just packaging. About 150 million tonnes of bottles, bags, cigarette butts, coffee lids, straws, Styrofoam containers and more all wind up being thrown out. Tonnes of that petroleum-based waste makes its way into the ocean, putting the marine environment and species at risk. 

Designed to be discarded in moments, single-use plastics have an afterlife that can last for centuries. 

Here are some things you should know.

What's SUP? Single-use plastics — collectively known by the acronym "SUP" — are also called disposable plastics, because they're manufactured to be used just once. The most common types are plastic straws, grocery bags and water bottles, but they also include a lot of the materials you buy every day, and may not have noticed. 


As part of CBC's Waves of Change series, Zach Goudie gets the basics on a massive environmental issue 3:42

Click the player above for a video primer on single-use plastics, and what you can do. 

"The ones that are on most people's radar are things like straws, water bottles for disposable water, single-use packaging," said Max Liboiron, a Memorial University researcher in St. John's who specializes in plastics. "Those are the big ones. But they're also things that you think of less often, like toilet paper. It's not made of plastic but has plastic packaging."

Packaging is a big part of the problem. Half of the plastic we throw out is packaging. Look around you: you'll notice it everywhere, all over the grocery store, at practically any store in a shopping mall. The items themselves may be fine, but those plastic shells and containers wind up becoming a headache downstream. 

Speaking of downstream... About eight million tonnes of plastic waste finds its way into the ocean every year. Here in Atlantic Canada, plastic waste is a formidable foe. It's not unlike an actual creature you'll find underwater: a sponge. "They absorb the oily chemicals that are around them in the water," said Liboiron. "So if you've ever had spaghetti or curry and you can't get that orange colour out of your Tupperware, that's a manifestation of how plastics absorb a bunch of chemicals, like tomato sauce. But in the ocean, there's less tomato sauce and more things like PCBs [and] flame retardants, and those glom on to the plastics." 

From the ocean, into us. Plastic doesn't decompose the way organic materials do. Rather, plastic continually breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming what's called "microplastic." Those microplastic pieces get eaten by animals, along with all the harmful chemicals they've absorbed. Those chemicals are then introduced into the food chain, often ending up in humans, too. 

Plastic is so cheap, it makes recycling seem expensive. We usually get plastic from petroleum, and it's usually cheaper to make new plastic than to recycle old plastic. "Very often," said Liboiron, "the price point for raw oil is lower than for recycled plastic. So a lot of plastics don't even get recycled, even if you put them in the recycling stream."

Plastic gets around. Even plastic that goes in the landfill often doesn't stay there. "Because a lot of single-use plastics, especially packaging, are very light, they blow out of landfills, they blow out of transfer stations," Liboiron said. "So even if there's no litter involved, they end up in the environment, where they last a very, very long time." 

Max Liboiron, a geographer at Memorial University in St. John's, studies the effect of plastics on the ocean and marine wildlife. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Plastics are overwhelming … or are they? By far, the best way to combat plastic pollution is to produce less plastic in the first place. But what can one individual do, particularly when the problem is global and immense?

Liboiron says we need to get organized.

"The No. 1 myth that I come across all the time, that I spend a lot of time debunking, is the scale myth," she said, referring to the perception that "your individual consumer behaviours, while deeply ethical and you definitely should do them, doesn't impact marine plastic pollution." 

Instead, Liboiron says, we need to approach the plastic problem on a different scale, and harness the power of collective action. "Let's say you're the president of the university, let's say you're an operation manager, let's say you run a store, let's say you vote — now you can scale. Looking towards how individuals and groups of individuals and individuals in context scale. That's the crucial thing." 

About Waves of Change 

Change does seem to be afoot on the plastics front. Canada is urging other nations to sign on to its Ocean Plastics Charter, which calls for dramatic reductions in plastic waste.

In the Atlantic region, CBC is focusing on the issue with a series called Waves of Change, which is looking at plastic and how we use it 

Take a look at any food court, and you'll soon find plastics that are being discarded after just one use. (CBC)

Watch the video above, then get in touch with your ideas. Have you tried to cut down on plastic waste in your home? What's stopping your business or community from using less plastic?

Join the discussion on the CBC Waves of Change Facebook group, or send us an email: wavesofchange@cbc.ca

About the Author

Zach Goudie is a journalist and video producer with CBC in St. John's, NL. Connect with him on Twitter at @zachgoudie

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