Spring can be an informative time, as the veil of winter is pulled back to reveal the indiscretions of a season filling our ditches. Into these reservoirs of outright laziness we discard styrofoam, rubber tires and old boots, occasionally fridges and dishwashers, and atop it all – plastic.
This durable substance was very much a product of its age, invented 100 years ago and entering the mainstream in the 1950s, a time when convenience was king and uncounted costs were just that. The world was still a big place then, absorbing our wastes with no apparent difficulty, but now whales are washing ashore with all the raw materials necessary to build a greenhouse knotted in their stomachs.
The bill has come due, and the statistics are staggering. All told, we’ve produced something like 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic, 60 per cent of which is either in landfills or clogging the ecosystems of the world. Our oceans alone play unwilling host to 5.25 trillion individual pieces of plastic, which have been swallowed at one time or another by 90 per cent of seabirds, one of every three sea turtles and about half of all whales and dolphins. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. Good luck sleeping tonight.
For a very long time the plastics industry has placed the blame with consumers, suggesting a widespread lack of personal responsibility which happens to prevent any real discussion of serious reform. The truth is, no matter how responsible or well intentioned the majority of Canadians or Nova Scotians, there will always be an unconcerned or uninformed minority willing to throw plastic cup out the nearest window, and no landfill is a fortress. The best among us will always encounter times when the proper disposal of waste is the least of their concerns. There are so many of us using so much plastic that any campaign of personal responsibility will be, in the long run, meaningless. What’s needed is a genuine shift away from plastic.
This shift is taking several forms, but the finest solution in my mind is the push to produce no waste in the first place. There are a precious few grocery stores across Canada which use next to no plastic, reusing shipping materials over and over in partnership with suppliers, storing their products in bulk without disposable packaging, and providing nothing in the way of bags to customers. It’s up to the customer to bring reusable grocery bags, Tupperware, mason jars and mesh baggies, or else carry everything in their arms.
Sadly, I don’t have a waste free grocery store near me – with the worthy exceptions of Bulk Barn and my local farmer’s market – and must suffer through the masses of plastic my veggies insist on wearing, but changes like those mentioned above have dramatically reduced the amount of plastic I throw out, perhaps by half. Recycling is an imperfect system and a far cry from producing no waste in the first place, but I use it wherever I can.
I’ve heard complaints that reusable bags and such are hard to remember when departing the home, to which I ask if they’re in the habit of forgetting their wallet as well. Of course not, because it’s an established habit to bring one’s wallet to the grocery store. Plastic bags are no different – a habit you will pick up with even a modicum of effort. Forgetting them is about as excusable as forgetting one’s money.
Recently this talk of dying oceans has inspired efforts to ban plastic bags right here in the Maritimes. On July 1 of this year, the businesses of Prince Edward Island will not be allowed to offer them, investing instead in reusable or paper bags which customers will be obliged to pay for. Newfoundland is undertaking a similar ban, through it’s many months off yet. While Nova Scotia’s provincial government has formally shirked its responsibility to our oceans and the regional industries dependent on them, Halifax has taken the lead, working toward its own potential ban and bringing nine other municipalities with it. New Brunswick is apparently considering a ban, but has no timeline.
You might dismiss the banning of plastic bags because, at the end of the day, these bags represent a small fraction of our plastic consumption, but that’s not the point. These bags are the absolute easiest plastics we can eliminate, while also being the most visible manifestation of our plastic addiction. Eliminating them will force customers in our region to habitually carry reusable bags, forming basic habits necessary for a bigger revolution. It’s a short jump from reusable bags to a couple trusty mason jars, and a powerful lesson to those examining their plastic waste for the very first time. And we can build on these bans, maybe someday securing a waste-free Sobeys or going after other signature wastes like styrofoam. Mighty oaks spring from tiny acorns.
Convenience is no longer king, or at least it shouldn’t be. Ours should be an age of forethought, of remediation, or transition from an unwise past into a sustainable future. Banning the bag is a start.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.