Opinion

Plastic pollution and the climate crisis are symptoms of the same disease

As much as eight per cent of global oil goes directly to plastic production — an estimate that excludes the transportation of single-use plastics to global markets, the energy used to transport plastic to landfill, and the energy used to sort or recycle items, or incinerate them.

When we address our single-use plastic gluttony, we address our consumption habits as a whole

As much as eight per cent of global oil goes directly to plastic production — an estimate that excludes the transportation of single-use plastics to global markets, the energy used to transport plastic to landfill, and the energy used to sort or recycle items, or incinerate them. (John Gaudi/CBC)

About one week ago, the Canadian government announced a plan to ban single-use plastics as early as 2021. The ban could include phasing out plastic items such as straws, bags and drink stirrers.

As an advocate of low-waste living and someone who conducts research on microplastic pollution, of course I see this as a positive step forward. Many people have asked me how I feel about the ban, and my answer is: it's complicated.

Am I happy to hear of plans for a potential ban on single-use plastic items in Canada? Yes! Am I concerned that it might not go far enough? Also yes.

Some individuals may feel that this announcement is simply a "feel good measure" and a distraction from bigger issues such as the climate crisis.

The truth of the matter is that plastic pollution and the climate crisis are symptoms of the same disease. As much as eight per cent of global oil goes directly to plastic production — an estimate that excludes the transportation of single-use plastics to global markets, the energy used to transport plastic to landfill, and the energy used to sort or recycle items, or incinerate them. When we address our single-use plastic gluttony, we address our consumption habits as a whole.

If the ban follows a science-based approach, which the government has promised, the interconnectivity between the carbon economy and the plastic economy will be addressed and ensure that in reducing single-use plastic, we are also addressing the climate crisis.

Unintended consequences

In the past, some bans have actually resulted in an increase in other forms of waste, with poorly designed transition initiatives.

For example, paper bags may be seen as a sustainable alternative since, unlike plastic, paper breaks down in the environment. However, paper bags have a carbon footprint three times that of a plastic bag—and when it comes down to it, are still "single use" just as much as a plastic bag is.

Vigorously adopting a science-based approach will ensure that the alternatives to single-use plastic are more sustainable, and that the items banned are those that cause the most harm to our oceans.

I am however, concerned with the wording of the government's announcement. There is no strict timeline – "as early as 2021" is very different than "by 2021." The government has allowed itself a whole lot of wiggle room to dilly-dally on bold action.

If we are truly going to carry out an effective ban on single-use plastics that supports Canada's transition into a circular economy — meaning plastics stay in society and are re-used — we are going to need to invest heavily in our waste infrastructure to prevent plastic and other waste from leaking into our oceans or going to landfill.

This infrastructure includes sorting and recycling facilities and larger composting facilities. To carry out this plan, our government will also have to invest in innovation and research into sustainable alternative materials, and incentivize businesses to take part in reduction measures such as container-share programs.

So the question remains: is this simply smoke and mirrors, to veil a lack of bold action on both plastic waste as well as the climate crisis, or is this a bold effort that will be carried out to ultimately curb the production of single-use plastics? We will have to wait and see.

Changing consumption habits

There is irrefutable evidence that plastics are harming our environment, just like there is irrefutable evidence that human activities are altering the global climate. At the end of the day, notwithstanding what politicians, government or businesses may or may not do, it is you and I who must change our consumption habits now. We must stop using single use plastics in all forms. This is just one of many changes all of us must make to repair, protect and sustain life on earth.

It is our actions that truly matter. We vote with our money when we purchase items at stores such as clothing, electronics, and toys. We vote with our fork when we choose whether to eat a plant-based diet or a carbon-intensive meal. And this fall, we vote for our future, which will be in the hands of a future government that will inherit our environmental mess to clean up, including our addiction to plastic.

Individual actions may just feel like a drop in the bucket, but collectively they can add up to significant positive change. So, get excited about this announcement, feel hopeful, learn to live more gently on this good earth, and also hold our political leaders accountable to ensure we do better.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Rhiannon Moore is a researcher at Vancouver-based Ocean Wise, working in the Plastic Lab. Ocean Wise is a not-for-profit organization whose vision is a world in which oceans are healthy and flourishing.

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