Over the last few months, as ocean plastic pollution has garnered growing global concern, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna have promised to champion the issue at the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que.
“I’m very excited this year that Canada is going to be hosting the G7 — some of the largest economies in the world — and one of our focuses is going to be on ocean health. We know that part of that is stopping plastic, plastic waste in particular, from getting into our oceans,” McKenna said to The Discourse during a press conference in Vancouver in March.
The centrepiece of the government’s pledge is a commitment to a “zero-plastics-waste charter” with a focus on reusable, recyclable and compostable packaging. McKenna has also been considering how to support developing countries with their waste management system, she said. Five countries in Asia account for half of the plastic that ends up in the ocean each year, according to a study for the Ocean Conservancy by McKinsey and Company.
What should Canada’s plastics charter look like? And how can our government take leadership on this file? The Discourse asked experts, including a professor who researches waste management, a marine biologist, an environmentalist and a chemistry industry representative, to weigh in. Here are eight things they suggest:
1) Set ambitious targets for a circular economy.
“We would like to see an ambitious goal. So for example, [a commitment by all G7 countries to] zero plastic waste by 2030,” says Ashley Wallis, program manager for water and plastic at Environmental Defence, an environmental organization. This week, Environmental Defence, along with more than 40 other groups across the country, signed a declaration calling for a “zero plastic waste canada” by 2025.
That’s not an “all out ban” on plastic, but a pledge to recycling and reusing all plastic that is produced, explains Wallis. “Basically, we want to keep plastic out of the environment, out of landfills. We don’t want to see it incinerated.”
This requires moving towards a “circular economy” in which all plastic that is thrown away is reused to make something new. In contrast, we currently have a “linear economy” that “goes in one direction,” says Wallis.
2) Clean up our own mess.
Currently, less than 11 per cent of plastics are recycled in Canada, according to Canada’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. That puts Canada Canada roughly on par with the global recycling rate, which is 9 per cent, but far behind Germany, which recycles 66 per cent of plastic, and Taiwan, which recycles more than 55 per cent, according to research by Eunomia, an environmental consultancy.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” says Tony Walker, an assistant professor in the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University. “If we can demonstrate we can recycle our own waste much better, we will be able to walk the talk.”
Many northern and remote communities have limited recycling facilities and landfills from which plastic blows away or leaks into the environment, adds Walker, who consults for provincial and municipal governments on policies to reduce plastic waste. “Because of the permafrost, you can’t really dig holes in the ground and bury this stuff.”
We also need to standardize recycling across the country, says Walker. Currently, what can be recycled varies between cities and regions, even within the same province.
3) Help others with their trash.
“What we’re looking for in a plastics charter and around the G7 is really encouraging countries and communities to invest in local systems,” says Isabelle Des Chênes, executive vice president of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada. The industry group came together with the Canadian Plastics Industry Association last week to announce their members’ goal to reuse, recycle or recover 100 per cent of plastics packaging by 2040.
The focus on banning single-use plastics in Canada doesn’t get at major sources of plastic pollution, adds Des Chênes. “Banning straws, for instance, in Toronto or New York or Iqaluit will make us feel good but it’s very far from the oceans that we find in Asia and in India that are really filled with plastic.”
Ten rivers in Asia are the source of the majority of annual global plastic pollution. But that doesn’t mean Canada’s off the hook. That plastic could be coming from places producing products we use, as well as the plastics we send over to Asia for recycling, says Wallis.
4) Create a national marine debris strategy.
An investigation by The Discourse earlier this year found that plastic is accumulating on remote shorelines from coast-to-coast with potentially devastating consequences for the environment, but no plan in place to clean it up. Even though volunteers for the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup gathered almost 89,000 kilograms of litter in 2017, the investigation highlighted that Canada has hundreds of kilometres of shoreline that cleanup groups struggle to reach.
And that doesn’t even account for fishing gear discarded or lost at sea that kills fish, crabs and other sea life along Canada’s shores. At least 640,000 tonnes of “ghost gear” ends up in the oceans every year, injuring and killing millions of animals, according to World Animal Protection.
“There’s a near complete legislative and regulatory void for coastal debris cleanups and no funds that are dedicated towards it,” says Gord Johns, an NDP MP who represents a riding on Vancouver Island hard hit by marine debris.
For a G7 commitment to be meaningful, coastal communities, biologists and legal experts who spoke to the Discourse said that any pledges to move toward a “zero-waste” economy must be accompanied by a plan to clean up the mess already on our shores.
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5) Push for sustainable, international packaging standards.
“Canada, at the G7, will have to convince countries it does business with to do the same thing. If everybody is not on board, we will never have that solution to plastic,” says Maria Lourdes Palomares, senior scientist at Sea Around Us, an institute that studies global fisheries at the University of British Columbia. She notes that much of our plastic waste comes from packaging wrapped around food and other goods.
Canada should steer the conversation toward global standards for packaging that push manufacturers to decrease packaging and only use materials that are recyclable, says Palomares. For that to happen, companies need to change how they operate and transport goods worldwide. Global standards would help.
“Anything in terms of encouraging the use of more recycled content will absolutely help create more markets for this material,” says Allen Langdon, managing director of Recycle BC, which works with almost 1,300 companies, ranging from 7-Eleven to Adidas, to figure out how to recycle more of the waste generated by their products.
Currently, the organization is working on projects to figure out how to recycle materials, such as potato chip bags and sunscreen tubes, that currently end up in the trash. Langdon would like to see more Canadians follow their lead. National standards for extended producer responsibility, the idea of holding companies responsible for the waste generated by their products, would make it easier for them to act, says Langdon.
A boulder-sized chunk of styrofoam washed up on a remote beach on an island near Tofino, B.C.
6) Commit to research and innovation.
Walker and Palomares also hope Canada will take a lead on funding research to help improve technology for recycling and make plastics more sustainable. “That could be Canada’s export to other countries,” suggests Walker. Policies and regulations that make it easier for companies to develop more recyclable plastics and technologies for reusing them would also help, says Des Chênes.
7) Set global rules.
Others, including Jennifer Provencher, a marine biologist at Acadia University, would like to see Canada treat plastic pollution like climate change and start working toward an international treaty at the G7 that sets national targets for “plastic emissions.”
“Like climate change, plastic is transnational. It often exists in international waters, so beyond a single nation’s jurisdiction. It often doesn’t land necessarily on the shore where it’s from. And it’s not uniform in terms of how it affects countries,” explains Provencher.
It’s a possibility. Minister McKenna told reporters in Ottawa in May that the plastics charter could be like the Paris Agreement for Climate Change.
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8) Monitor what works — and what doesn’t.
Before Canada gets down to business, it should consider “a community-based monitoring program” involving citizen scientists and academics, who can help track how effective policies are, says Jennifer Provencher, a marine biologist at Acadia University, in an email. Currently, there is no national system for tracking plastic pollution.
“How will we know what is working?” asks Provencher. “Canada could come out as a leader by implementing improved recycling programs, supporting the circular economy, phasing out single-use plastics, AND developing and implementing a federal coast-to-coast monitoring program.”
Plastic, found everywhere from our clothes to our computers to our hospitals, is characteristic of modern life. Given how little is currently recycled and the negative consequences for the environment, I wonder, how can we move forward?
What questions do you have about sustainability in your daily life? Or where your garbage goes? Let me by posting your contributions here I’ll use what you say to help me pick a topic for my next investigation.