The problem of plastic pollution is gaining increasing attention from the media, from politicians, from scientists, from environmentalists, and, hopefully, from the public. However, unlike the problem of climate change for which our technological and business communities are presenting numerous partial solutions which taken together are likely to make a very big difference, there is relatively little being put forward on meaningful solutions for our plastic problems.

According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Canada’s current plastic waste management system proves to be a lost economic opportunity—86 per cent of plastic waste goes to landfills, representing a loss of nearly $8 billion, which is expected to increase to over $11 billion by 2030.

The Government of Canada seems to have become fixated on banning a few single use plastics even though it has admitted that this will fall short of addressing the problem. It would seem very unlikely that any government of a so-called developed country will ban enough plastic products in short enough time to make a difference to the plastic pollution problem. However, our technology-based society would take a huge hit if use of all plastics was to be prohibited.

Many of our governments see making users of plastic packaging responsible for collection and recycling even though there are no realistic projections on how, or by how much, this will reduce the flow of plastic material into the environment.

Requiring plastic products to contain a certain percentage of post-consumer recycled material is a move that will move the needle and actually reduce accumulation of plastic waste into the environment but it would seem that it will be decades before a recycled content mandate would stop the flow to the environment completely. Even if plastic recycling rates rise from the current nine per cent to 35 per cent, 75 per cent, or even 90 per cent the amount of plastic in the marine environment will continue to increase for decades and disturbances to plastic sediments will continue to return microparticles of plastic to the water column.

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Many environmental organizations have become enamoured with the idea of filtering plastic wastes from the oceans but this seems to be a very optimistic outlook. With the world’s oceans containing an estimated 1.3e+21 litres of water (1.3 followed by 21 zeroes) it would take something more than three and a half billion years to filter all of the world’s ocean water, assuming a technology could be found that would remove the plastic particles from a billion litres of ocean water a day and separate the filtered water from the unfiltered water!

For climate change and for many other challenges the world faces we develop science-based projections along with short, medium, and long-term mitigation plans. For plastics there are no such plans and our entire strategy seems to be based on a few product bans and unproven recycled content mandates. That is not to say that what is being done today should be stopped but to believe that we will solve the problem of global pollution by plastics with these few tools is hopelessly unrealistic.

Too much reliance seems to be placed on command and control strategies (regulations) and too little on economic instruments, incentivizing the economy and entrepreneurial activity to develop and implement solutions to the plastic pollution problem.

There are a few interesting proposals being considered. Among them are the following:

  • The United States Congress has been considering the idea of imposing a tax of $0.20 per pound on all newly created plastic (plastic that has not been recycled).
  • Given evidence from Canada and elsewhere that deposit-refund systems achieve higher recovery rates than curbside collection programs, deposit-refund systems with large enough refundable deposits to incentivize recovery of all types of plastic and plastic-coated beverage and other liquid food containers may be useful. Consideration could be given to including all rigid and semi-rigid food packaging as well as usually clean film packaging such as shopping bags as well as to expanding deposit-refund to curbside collection with automated collection and refunding.
  • Review and provide incentives for reusable packaging systems. At the present time the regulatory systems which do address reusable packaging systems tend to discourage both consumers and businesses from adopting reusable systems. Technologies being used in commercial locations in Europe demonstrate that reusable packaging systems can be hygienic and environmentally efficient in the same way that restaurant and beverage establishment tableware systems meet these objectives.
  • Encourage the use of standardized packaging formats and avoidance of ink, dyes and associated materials which make recycling unnecessarily complex. Such encouragement could be through application of a tax on non-standard packaging formats.
  • Provide incentives such as initial corporate tax holiday and investor incentives for establishment of new waste material recycling operations. Restructure and eliminate regulations which impose barriers for recycling facilities when those barriers are not imposed on virgin material production facilities.
  • Avoid imposing labelling and other requirements on products which are recyclable and compostable when similar requirements are not imposed on products made from virgin materials. If product labelling is to be required it should be that non-recyclable products should be labelled as such, not that recyclable products must be labelled as recyclable.
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There is no doubt that even these initiatives will be insufficient to solve completely the marine and terrestrial plastics problems completely but at least a more comprehensive plan will be more effective than what Canada and many other countries are currently doing.

Colin Isaacs is a chemist with practical experience in administration, a municipal council, the Ontario Legislature, a major environmental group, and, for the past three decades, as an adviser to business and government. He is one of the pioneers in promoting the concept of sustainable development for business in Canada and has written extensively on the topic in the popular press and for environment and business platforms.

 

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