House Call with Carol Hughes

The scourge of plastic waste

Plastic is everywhere in our lives. From the straws in our drinks to the fibres that make our clothes stretch, plastic has permeated so many products that it has become a huge environmental problem. It’s in our landfill, the oceans, and has even entered our food chain. Adding to the problem is the fact that plastic takes so long to break down that garbage we create today could still be around in a thousand years. What’s clear is that we don’t have the luxury of time to address the problem.

A recent report from Oceana Canada, ‘Drowning in Plastic: Ending Canada’s Contribution to the Global Plastic Disaster,’ paints a clear picture of the challenge we face in order to tame our plastic addition. Among the items in the report is the astonishing fact that about 70 percent of the plastic we consume is through in the trash. Of that, half is from single-use packaging. These are items like straws, plastic forks, and all the clear wrapping we use to contain items from produce to clothing. 

This is where the government has chosen to dip its toes in the water, announcing in the throne speech they would regulate single-use plastic. This week they named six single-use plastic items that aren’t easily recycled and already have better alternatives that will be the first to go under Canada’s new restrictions on plastics. On the list are plastic straws, stir sticks, carry-out bags, cutlery, Styrofoam dishes and takeout containers, and six-pack rings for cans and bottles.

While it’s a start, there is much more the government can do to change how plastics are used and disposed of. New Democrats have been proposing that any company relying on plastics should be responsible for the entire life cycle of their plastics products and packaging. This is for plastics beyond single use, which we have called for a ban on. While the six items announced by the government are a start, we have a long way to go to achieve the goal of zero-waste.

One of the challenges in moving towards a zero-waste goal is that municipalities tend to control the flow of garbage and recycling programs. Although that arrangement makes sense on a number of levels, it also makes it difficult to promote solutions such as better recycling across the nation. It’s clear that without a strong investment from the government, little will change since most municipalities operate within tight budgets. This is why New Democrats have also proposed helping municipalities improve their waste management and recycling programs.

The importance of improving recycling was made clear in the Oceana Canada report which showed over 87 percent of the plastics we think are being recycled are winding up in landfills. For those who faithfully sort their waste and recycle, this is disheartening news. The need for leadership is obvious, but the problem doesn’t end at our border.

In addition to our domestic challenges, Canada has exported almost four million tonnes of plastic waste over the last 30 years. That just adds to the urgency to develop solutions that will dramatically reduce the amount of plastic finding its way into landfills and waterways. Making producers responsible for their plastics right through to actual recycling would help globally and domestically.

It has been five years since parliament passed a New Democrat motion banning microbeads in personal products. That successfully led to a phase out of these plastics which had worked their way into our water supply. In the meantime, we have learned the severity of the problem from a global perspective all the way down to the local challenges. The time for bold action is clearly upon us, but the government has taken baby steps.