COLUMN: Drowning in a sea of disposable plastic

On my less-organized days when I need to grab lunch on the fly, it usually involves a walk to a nearby grocery store.

While convenient and fairly economical, buying a sandwich and a bit of fresh fruit to tide me over often leaves me feeling like no friend to the environment.

Last Thursday’s midday meal was a case in point, including two plastic clam-shell containers – for the aforementioned sandwich and fruit – and a plastic bag of baby carrots.

I decided not to add to my shame and skipped the plastic shopping bag, opting instead to carefully balance my modest bounty as I strolled back to the office.

Once empty, the containers went into the recycling bin and from there, well, who really knows?

I trust they will be re-purposed into something useful and not end up in a landfill – or worse.

But with less than 10 per cent of single-use plastics being recycled at the moment in Canada – and figures that are no doubt similar or far worse in other parts of the world – my responsibly recycled (though still wasteful) lunch containers represent only a small drop in a large – and badly polluted – ocean.

In fact, with the recent marking of Oceans Week we learned that more than eight million tonnes of plastic waste is being dumped into the ol’ salt chuck every year.

Much of it has simply been carelessly discarded. Even placed in the garbage, light plastics can be blown out of a landfill and into nearby creeks and rivers, eventually making their way to the sea.

Also during Oceans Week the prime minister indicated Canada will announce the elimination of single-use plastics – shopping bags, straws, stir sticks and the like – as early as 2021.

These are some of the items most likely to end up floating in garbage islands or be cut out of the bellies of dead marine mammals.

Some have already dismissed the announcement as a meaningless gesture. Within the larger context of our planet, where a handful of developing countries have been singled out as the worst offenders, that sense of futility is understandable.

But it doesn’t mean that 37 million people can’t make some difference. At the moment, Canadians are reportedly tossing away three million tons of plastic annually and one third of plastics used here are single-use items, including 15 million plastic bags and 50 million straws per day. (I got a lot of email during Oceans Week).

True, we represent just under half a per cent of the world’s population, but at the moment we are also one of the most respected nations on Earth (Forbes currently puts us at number 7), and that comes with the responsibility to lead by example.

So far, we’re doing a pretty poor job.

A ban seems to me like a good place to start. In theory, at least.

It’s the execution that concerns me.

Ditching drinking straws, party balloons and water bottles is an obvious first step. Opting for the more environmentally friendly option whenever possible – also doable. It may – as it has been pointed out – take more energy to make a reusable cloth bag than it does scores of plastic bags. The difference is, that cloth bag will eventually decompose.

Other solutions are less easy to execute.

One Oceans Week release advised, among other steps, choosing not to purchase items that come wrapped in plastic. I’m still trying to decide if the person who wrote it has ever stepped inside a grocery store.

In addition to pre-made sandwiches and melon chunks, pretty much everything we eat, from soup to nuts, comes wrapped in some form of plastic – sometimes layers of it when individual portions are involved. Even the bulk food produce sections offer rolls of plastic bags for shoppers’ convenience.

Plastic is durable, it’s leak-proof, sanitary, convenient and familiar. So it’s no wonder we use it for pretty much everything.

With what I think can be accurately described as humanity’s addiction to plastic, can we manage to put the genie back in the (disposable) bottle?

Possibly. But not without serious effort, including major incentives for both producers and consumers, and a level of personal and political will the world has not yet seen.

None of this means we shouldn’t try, but for now, at least, it’s far from in the bag.

Brenda Anderson is editor of the Peace Arch News.

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