The Guardian (Charlottetown)
The plastic problem
Everyone has a part to play in keeping waste out of the ocean and the region's waterways
It's a familiar story. You’re walking along the shore, enjoying the ocean breeze and the noise of crashing waves, and eyeing the ground for interesting shells or small sea creatures when you notice something odd.
It’s bright green and round. Upon closer inspection, you realize it’s not a shell at all: it’s a plastic bottle cap.
You sigh, pick it up and vow to throw it in the nearest garbage can. But soon you see more, along with other things: plastic bottles, plastic cutlery, face masks, discarded fishing gear. There’s just too much to take with you.
Our infatuation with plastic is ongoing, and the pandemic is only exacerbating that, generating new sources of waste like masks and gloves.
And much of it is ending up in our oceans and on our shores.
After China banned plastic waste imports in 2018, P.E.I. banned plastic bags, followed by Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Though the ban has had far-reaching effects on the amount of plastic being recycled, much is still slipping through.
“The China ban … has focused attention on where plastics in Canada are going and also the relatively, well, very low levels of recycling of plastic that's currently taking place at the same time that we're using more plastic,” said Mark Butler, a volunteer with Nova Scotia environmental organization Ecology Action Centre.
The fishing industry contributes a lot of waste to the oceans as well, especially along Atlantic Canadian shores.
“You go down to the South Shore (of Nova Scotia), it's pretty bad along some shores there. There's a lot of stuff from the fishing industry,” said Butler.
It also comes from boaters throwing stuff over the side or items that blow off the deck, he adds.
“And of course … everywhere we look, we're seeing microplastics in our air, food, water, body tissue. … We’re finding microplastics in the ocean and in seafood now. So, you know, there's a huge incentive for the fishing industry and everybody to stop plastics going into our oceans, because it ends up in the food we eat. And of course, we know it kills marine animals like turtles and birds.”
Butler said he hopes the federal government follows through on its commitments to ban several singleuse plastic items nationwide, including plastic bags, cutlery and stir sticks, as well as adding plastic manufactured items to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
But what can Atlantic Canadians do to minimize plastic in our lakes, rivers and oceans?
WHERE DO BLUE BAGS GO?
Waste that ends up in blue bags in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality heads to the Camdon Recycling facility in Edwardsville, N.S., where it's sorted. Right now, the CBRM is pulling out high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic, a material valued for its strength and rigidity.
“That’s one where there is a market (for it) and then what would be remaining would be mixed plastic,” said Francis Campbell, solid waste manager at CBRM.
Campbell suggests people reuse plastic materials as often as possible before throwing them out. Ensuring materials like plastic bags are secured in the car, rather than lying loosely on the floor, is also helpful since they blow around easily.
“You know, you see it in landfills, all that loose garbage blows all over the place. Reduce the amount that you use, get reusable bags. Just that kind of basic stuff.”
Campbell does think there is a problem in CBRM with plastic waste ending up on beaches and in waterways.
“I think it’s a problem throughout the province. You see those bags, they blow all over the place, they end up hanging in trees, on fences, it’s just an eyesore. And they’re a nuisance.”
THE PROBLEM WITH LANDFILLS
According to Oceana Canada, about 2.8 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in Canadian landfills every year. And about 86 per cent of Canada’s plastic waste ends up in landfills, while only nine per cent is recycled.
Plastic that’s littered on the ground or sitting in overflowing trash cans or in landfills can get blown into stormwater sewers, rivers or streams.
And most of them eventually lead to the ocean – especially in Atlantic Canada.
The plastic in oceans isn’t entirely made up of fishing gear either, though that does account for 20 per cent of Canadian plastic that ends up in oceans. The other approximately 80 per cent comes from land-based sources, such as landfills.
Butler always goes back to the waste hierarchy that he was taught in school, which shows the best to worst ways of reducing trash. The best place to start is refusing products that will result in waste in the first place.
“We've got the petrochemicals/ plastics industry trying to sell us more ways to use plastic, so it's kind of an uphill battle, but the more we can find ways to reduce our plastic use, the better," he explains. "And also, you know, reusing things, repairing things … (our) disposable culture mindset isn't helpful.”
EXTENDED PRODUCER RESPONSIBILITY
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a concept that places the responsibility of the end of a product’s life on the company that makes it (or sells it, in some cases).
“So, the company that makes or sells a product is responsible for taking it back at the end of its use and recycling it. … The producer is responsible for the packaging, the product at the end of its life,” said Butler.
Butler said an EPR program already exists in Nova Scotia for electronics, with specific recycling centres designated for items like cell phones.
“Right now, we don't have EPR for printed paper and plastic and packaging. And some provinces do, and where they do have that, there's much, much higher recycling rates,” said Butler.
"It's the taxpayer and the municipalities that ultimately have to figure out how to recycle that plastic or (figure out) what to do with it. … So this would make the folks making these materials and producing these plastics responsible for getting rid of it and take the burden off municipalities and individuals.”