With every passing day, the Earth takes another step towards becoming a plastic planet. Plastic has infiltrated every habitat across the globe, from the high seas to the soil beneath cities. In an effort to address the gargantuan problem of plastic pollution, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada party have proposed a single-use plastic ban. By 2021 at the earliest, the Liberal Party intends to ban plastic bags, straws, and cutlery.
For environmental scientists and conservation biologists, this ban is a welcome intervention given the scale of plastic pollution, which has become one of the most pressing environmental issues worldwide. With production of plastic products accelerated after the Second World War, plastics have only become increasingly prominent in our daily lives, though the world’s ability to deal with plastic waste has fallen behind. Single-use plastics, which account for 40 per cent of plastic products produced every year, are a big part of this problem. Their convenience has led to a throw-away culture that is partly responsible for the world’s current inability to deal with plastic waste. Most of these single-use products are not recycled and many more are improperly discarded.
Dr. Audrey Moores, an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Chemistry, specializes in material chemistry and specifically green chemistry, the synthesis and catalysis of environmentally benign agents that can break down environmental pollutants and reduce their negative impacts.
“In Canada only nine [per cent] of all plastics produced are recycled,” Moores wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “The vast majority of Canadian plastic is land filled.”
The plastic products that are improperly disposed of often end up in river systems that then carry plastic waste towards the ocean.
“Canada alone is responsible for 46,000 million tons of plastics being released to the environment every year, which is a staggering number,” Moores wrote. “It is considered that eight million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean on a yearly basis [worldwide], and the number keeps going up.”
Once at sea, ocean currents transport waste around the world. During this process, mechanical and chemical forces break down these plastics to form microplastics, tiny plastic pieces fewer than five millimetres in length.
“Microplastics are either manufactured as small plastic particles or they originate from the degradation of larger plastics—both single-use and recycled forms,” Dr. Anthony Ricciardi, a professor in McGill’s Department of Biology, wrote in an email to the Tribune. “Research over the past two decades has revealed a wide range of effects on animal reproduction, growth, and behaviour.”
These microplastics, which are often found in our oceans and freshwater systems, are particularly harmful for wildlife. Studies on a number of fish species have demonstrated that exposure to microplastics stunts growth and alters behaviour patterns. Moreover, research shows that large quantities of plastics enter the bodies of fish through feeding and respiration.
“Plastic fibres, microbeads, and fragments are frequently found in the digestive tracts and tissues of freshwater and marine animals,” Ricciardi wrote.
Once they have entered an animal’s body, microplastics can cause serious damage. These fragments can block the digestive tract of some species, leading to starvation. Microplastics can also leach chemicals that cause neurological damage into the bloodstream.
Given the scale of the plastic pollution problem and the harmful effects these products inflict on nature, a plastic ban is a prospect welcomed by many.
Checkout bags, straws, cutlery, and food packaging made from plastics that are difficult to recycle are only some of the items included in the ban. However, other single-use plastics such as milk bags, garbage bags, and snack food wrappers were not included. The government said the ban did not target these products because of the lack of affordable and readily available alternatives. Other items were left off Trudeau’s plastic blacklist because of a lack of evidence for their negative environmental impact or because they have been deemed too important to warrant a halt on manufacturing. Such items, like disposable masks, will continue to be allowed because they serve an essential purpose.
Reactions to the Liberals’ proposed elimination of some plastic products were mixed. Some business groups voiced concerns over the financial impacts and the increased costs that small businesses could face when pivoting to more environmentally friendly options. While many environmental groups welcomed the news, others pushed for a more intensive ban. Other non-governmental organizations, such as Greenpeace Canada, called for the ban to be more encompassing, forcing pollution-emitting corporations to take more responsibility for the lifecycle of their products and the waste they produce.
A 2019 report found that 90 per cent of Canadians supported stronger regulations on plastics and 70 per cent were in favour of a single-use plastic ban. However, support has dwindled amidst the pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, public endorsement for stronger regulations has fallen to 79 per cent and support for a ban has fallen to 58 per cent. The pandemic also set back progress by increasing plastic use and making price-conscious individuals and businesses more wary of expensive environmentally friendly packaging. Moreover, many respondents preferred personal protection equipment made with disposable plastics over alternatives.
Concerns over the single-use plastic ban are to be expected, given its societal impacts. This ban will have extensive ramifications for business practices.
“The ban on single-use plastics will force consumers and companies alike to develop solutions for products that can be reused as opposed to disposed of after use,” Moores wrote.
Dr. Theo van de Ven, a professor in McGill’s Department of Chemistry, commented on the initially high expense of possible alternatives.
“Initially, [alternatives will have] a higher cost to the consumer, but as new materials are being developed, the cost will come down,” van de Ven wrote in an email to the Tribune.
Apart from changes in production, increased social awareness of the environmental repercussions of plastic waste is another impact of the ban. Even small bans of single products such as plastic straws have forced people to acknowledge the futility of single-use plastic products and encouraged individuals to re-evaluate their habits. Above all, they provide concrete paths for countries to strive for a sustainable future. A ban on plastic products of the magnitude proposed by the Liberal Party could magnify this phenomenon.
Despite reservations that the plastic ban does not go far enough, or that it circumvents humanity’s underlying pollution problem, the changes that it enforces are a necessary first step towards Canada’s greener future. Unfortunately, however, Moores does not believe it will address the larger issue of creating green alternatives to plastic products.
“[The ban] will not solve the bigger picture plastics question,” Moores wrote. “[…] We do not recycle enough plastics, and we [first] have to overcome technical challenges to be much better at that.”