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Plastic pollution: A global problem with local solutions

Canada

Only nine per cent of Canadian plastics are recycled, according to a federal report. About 86 per cent gets dumped in landfills.

Southeast Asia often gets blamed as the culprit for global plastic pollution, but developed countries including Canada, the U.S., and Europe have been sending plastic waste to the region for decades in aa “global waste train,” says Valerie Craig, deputy to the chief scientist at the National Geographic Society.

When China shut the door on plastic-waste imports in 2018, the waste was redirected to countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, which were inundated while already struggling to keep up with its own trash output.

“That’s why you see such a concentration of mismanaged waste in those areas,” said Craig. “It’s not an Asia-created problem, but a western-countries created problem, and that’s why it matters for us to be engaged in solving the waste side of it.”

The phenomenon of shipping waste overseas was highlighted earlier this year in a high-profile diplomatic spat between Canada and the Philippines over hundreds of shipping containers containing trash but marked as recyclable that were dumped at a Philippine port by a private Canadian company in 2013.

Plastic pollution is an immense environmental problem that requires a global solution, but it’s also highly conspicuous and has galvanized public attention.

“Unlike things like climate change, plastic is visible,” said Craig. “People are seeing it, and you can look at your own daily life and see how you use plastic on a day-to-day basis, and can immediately see how you can be part of the solution.”

Bans and awareness campaigns mounted by cities like Vancouver and Victoria against plastic bags, straws, and other single-use disposable items aren’t going to single-handedly solve the problem, said Craig, but they help citizens become more aware of their own plastic footprint and could lead to people taking action.

Craig is one of the keynote speakers at the Zero Waste Conference being held Oct. 30 to 31 in downtown Vancouver organized by Metro Vancouver and the National Zero Waste Council.

She will be speaking about the global context of plastic waste, how we have arrived at this point, and what needs to be done by government, corporations and civil society to tackle the issue.

According to an Environment Canada report, only nine per cent of Canadian plastics were recycled. About 86 per cent gets dumped in landfills. Worldwide, nine million tonnes of plastic gets dumped into the ocean every year, with the pace expected to increase.

Plastic is a “miracle material” in many ways, said Craig — responsible for revolutionizing industries and improving safety in food and medicine. But its ubiquity, starting in the 1950s with the growth of throwaway culture, is also taking a devastating toll on the environment.

About 40 per cent of the plastic we use today is used just once before it’s dumped, noted Craig. That’s why consumers need to reduce the volume of plastic being used and shift away from single-use packaging.

One possible solution are circular economy businesses such as Loop, a new initiative of U.S-based company TerraCycle, which is piloting a new system of high-quality packaging for items like shampoos, laundry detergent, and ice cream in reusable containers that can be returned and refilled again.

In Canada, Loop has partnered with Loblaw in a Toronto pilot program that begins early next year. TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky will also be speaking at the Zero Waste conference.

Earlier this year, National Geographic launched its Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge in partnership with Sky Ocean Ventures seeking applicants from around the world to develop new solutions to tackle the plastic waste crisis. About 300 completed submissions were received, including from sole Canadian finalist Earth Suds, which creates shampoo, conditioner and body wash tablets to replace single-use plastic amenity bottles.

Winners of the $500,000 prize purse will be announced in December.

 

This article was originally published on vancouversun