By Eden Hataley
Single-use plastics are everywhere
Plastic shopping bags, straws, cutlery, disposable coffee cups, beverage bottles, food, and toiletry packaging invade our everyday lives. Ironically, the attributes that make plastic such a marketable material – its durability and low cost – also make it a pervasive and persistent pollutant. These characteristics, combined with high demand, short-lived utility, and poor post-use management, make plastic pollution in Canada and beyond a big problem. Today, nowhere in the world is left untouched by plastic pollution.
In Canada, less than 10 per cent of all disposable plastic gets recycled. The rest end up in landfills and incinerators, litter the outdoors, and eventually find their way to our rivers, lakes, and oceans, where they remains for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In the environment, plastic does not readily decompose. Instead, it breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastics. Although the long term impacts of microplastics on human health are yet to be determined, we know one thing – they are everywhere. These small pieces of plastic have been found in fish, tap and bottled water, and even beer.
Single-use plastics ban
An increasing number of countries are taking action to address single-use plastics production and management. This summer, the Canadian Liberal government joined those ranks, announcing its plan to curb plastic pollution. The proposed plan is two-part. First, it includes a “ban on harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021.” The federal Liberal government has yet to decide which single-use plastics will be included in the ban. However, the ban will likely be modeled after what the European Union has implemented: plastic items that commonly pollute the environment are banned, with limited exclusions for those with no viable substitute. Second, it consists of a plan to “work with provinces and territories to introduce standards and targets for companies that manufacture plastic products or sell items with plastic packaging, so they become responsible for their plastic waste.”
Where do the other parties stand?
With just days remaining before 2019 Canadian federal election, political parties have had ample time to take a position on single-use plastics and the resulting problem of plastic pollution. To date, neither the People’s Party (PPC) nor the Conservative Party (CPC) have addressed single-use plastics or plastic pollution. The position of the Liberal Party (LPC) is as above stated. The New Democratic Party (NDP) has vowed to ban single-use plastics, extend manufacturer’s responsibility on waste management, and “work with municipalities to improve their waste management and recycling programs and work towards a zero-waste future.” In addition to what both the LPC and NDP propose, the Green Party (GPC) platform also includes a whole host of measures geared at working towards a “comprehensive national strategy on plastic pollution.” This includes, but is not limited to, establishing a “plastics lifecycle advisory group,” setting reusable and refillable packaging targets for food retailers, and extending the ban on microbeads to include cleaning products.
From our federal candidates
I asked each federal candidate for Kingston and the Islands why or why not a ban on single-use plastics is important to the Kingston community. These are the submitted responses:
Mark Gerretsen, Liberal Party of Canada
This is important not only to the Kingston community, but also to communities across our nation, as it will reduce pollution and protect people from harmful toxins that are found in plastic products.
Barrington Walker, New Democratic Party
We will work to ban single-use plastics except where needed for accessibility.
Candice Christmas, Green Party of Canada
As a waterside community, the ban of single-use plastics is particularly important, to preserve our drinking water supply as well as aquatic ecosystems from the poison of micro-plastics, but also as part of a much greater watershed with global implications.
A Kingston perspective
In Kingston, we are lucky. No matter where you live, work, learn, or play, you likely get a glimpse of Lake Ontario each day. Many, like me, cross the LaSalle Causeway morning and evening. From our perspective, the water looks pristine. However, it is estimated that roughly 10,000 tonnes of plastic end up in the Great Lakes every year. That’s equivalent to directly dumping 5,000 semi-truck loads of plastic into our lakes annually.
A recent study found there to be, on average, 230,000 microplastics per square kilometer of surface water in Lake Ontario. These numbers are staggering. Clearly, we have a problem. The quality of this water source underpins not only our health, but also our ability to enjoy our surroundings and engage with nature.
As science has demonstrated, unless our political leaders introduce measures that reduce the production of single-use plastics while ensuring they are recaptured post-use and managed responsibly, we will not successfully address this growing problem – this federal election, you have the power to use your vote to take a stand on plastic pollution.
Eden Hataley is a Master’s of Environmental Studies student in the Queen’s Experimental Ecology & Ecotoxicology (QE3) Research Group at the School of Environmental Studies, Queen’s University. She believes that science is for everyone, and has come to appreciate the power of effective science communication in bridging the gap between scientific knowledge and public policy. In her spare time, the native Kingstonian enjoys spending time on the water with her two dogs, friends, and family.