Monique Keiran: Eliminating plastic waste is impossible, but we can reduce it

In the 160 years since the discovery of the plastic production process and the 70 years since plastics first became commonplace, plastic has invaded our lives, our planet and our bodies. In one form or another, it surrounds us.

Eleven years ago, a small group of Australians challenged their neighbors to stop creating plastic waste for a month. The Plastic Free July campaign has since grown and spread around the world, with millions of individual participants now making efforts to reduce the amount of plastic they use and throw away during the 31-day challenge.

The Canadian government’s recent passage of legislation to ban the manufacture, importation and sale of single-use plastic grocery bags, polystyrene take-out containers, plastic cutlery, mix, straws and six-pack rings in Canada was timely for campaign participants here in the true north, even though the ban on most of the targeted items comes into effect in December.

Federal legislation complements local initiatives. In British Columbia, more than 20 municipalities are developing bylaws targeting single-use plastics under the 2021 provincial amendments to the Community Charter. Esquimalt, Nanaimo, Saanich, Tofino, Ucluelet and Victoria are among the communities that have implemented bans under previous provincial rules.

Despite the name of the July campaign, living completely plastic-free is actually no longer possible. In the 160 years since the discovery of the plastic production process and the 70 years since plastics first became commonplace, plastic has invaded our lives, our planet and our bodies. In one form or another, it surrounds us.

It is found on the polar islands. It’s in the ice on top of the tallest and most remote glaciers. Researchers have found it in sediment collected from the bottom of some of the deepest ocean canyons.

It’s in many everyday products that we use. The glues that hold together the composite wood products that make up our homes and the furniture that fills our homes are plastic.

Finding socks and jeans that don’t contain at least spandex or other synthetic fibers is getting harder and harder. Our food is transported, sold, packaged, confined and cradled in plastic. Our washing machines and dryers release it into our waste water and into the air.

It’s in the ground, rivers, lakes and oceans. It is picked up and dispersed by the wind, reaching high levels of the atmosphere.

As it ages and becomes abraded, the plastic that makes up grocery bags, straws, shampoo bottles, take-out containers, fleece jackets, sweat socks, etc., breaks off and breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. As this process continues, the resulting lumps can be the size of grains of sand.

These further break down into particles no larger than proteins or viruses and can only be detected with a microscope or other sophisticated equipment.

These tiny plastic particles are found in the water we drink and in the air we breathe. They are even found in the tissues of the animals and plants we eat.

All this means that plastics are also found in our bodies. Scientists have found evidence of plastic contamination in the tissues of the lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys of donated human cadavers.

All this to say that at all scales, plastic is everywhere. And despite the change in size and shape, it will stick around for a very long time.

So avoiding using plastic altogether or eliminating all plastic from our lives is fundamentally beyond us at this point. It is there (and everywhere), whether we like it or not.

We also wouldn’t want to eliminate all uses of plastic or plastic products. For example, medical equipment and devices made of plastic or containing plastic components have been saving and improving lives for decades. The number of ptomaine poisonings due to improper food processing or storage has also decreased in recent decades, thanks to plastics.

But reducing the amount of plastic waste we create daily is possible.

No one is claiming that national or local bans on single-use plastic products will solve the global plastic pollution crisis. The six items on the federal government’s list only account for about 5% of the plastic waste generated in Canada in 2019. The ban also does not affect the export of single-use plastics from Canada.

But for people who find it difficult to reduce their use and disposal of plastics or who can’t be bothered, the bans are pushing communities and Canadian society as a whole in that direction.

Bryce K. Locke