They are convenient, inexpensive and versatile but plastics are harming our health and our planet. Recognizing the damaging effects of plastic pollution, the federal government recently announced regulations limiting single-use plastics. But they do not go far enough to protect human health or ensure environmental sustainability.
Eighty billion tons of plastics have been produced since the 1950s and less than 10 per cent have been recycled. Plastics have found their way into the bodies of fish and birds, into our soil, water and air and even the human bloodstream.
Studies on the health effects of plastics are difficult to conduct given that all humans on the planet are exposed to plastic pollution and control subjects are hard to find. But there is good evidence some components of plastics are harmful to human health – infants and children are more vulnerable given their smaller body weights and developing brains.
Phthalates are chemical plasticizers used to increase the flexibility of plastic products. They can leach into food from containers or out of infant soothers or other soft plastic toys children put in their mouths. Phthalates disrupt the endocrine or hormonal systems of the body leading to obesity and insulin resistance and affect the human reproductive system in males and females resulting in infertility. Some phthalates are known to be carcinogens.
The detrimental effects of plastics are also evident in the environment. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is well-known but it is only one of five plastic garbage patches found in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Plastics take 100 to 1000 years to biodegrade and pollute our soil, water and air for a very long time.
Plastic garbage breaks up into smaller pieces and is consumed by fish, birds and sea mammals. Toxic chemicals from plastics – lead, cadmium and mercury – get concentrated as the contaminants travel up the food chain, eventually reaching humans.
Plastic pollution is a global problem and requires a coordinated and concerted effort by all countries to reduce the number of plastic products manufactured, consumed and disposed of worldwide.
If we are to curb the harmful effects of plastics, we need governments to introduce regulations to reduce the extraction of fossil fuels used in plastic production. Extraction and refining of fossil fuels contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Governments will have to be resolute in the face of lobbying from fossil fuel companies looking to shift their market to plastic manufacturing as the demand for fossil fuels as an energy source declines.
Banning single-use plastics can have an impact on plastic pollution but the recent regulations announced by the federal government are woefully inadequate, banning a limited number of single-use plastic products and addressing just 3 per cent of annual plastic use in Canada with many rules not going into effect until 2025.
We need bolder regulations addressing a wider range of products with aggressive timelines if we are to make any progress in Canada’s plastic pollution problem. In Denmark, the introduction of a tax paid for by retailers and manufacturers of single-use plastics resulted in rapid decreases in over 70 per cent of taxable plastic products.
Producers of plastics need to take responsibility for the reuse, recovery and recycling of their plastic products. When soft drink companies used to sell their products in glass bottles, they created and paid for a collection, cleaning and reusing system for their bottles as they were expensive to produce and there was an economic incentive to collect and reuse the containers.
Since soft drink companies shifted to cheaper plastic containers, they have passed on the costs of collection and recycling to municipalities or other levels of government and have abdicated any corporate responsibility for the millions of tons of plastic pollution they create annually.
Extended Producer Responsibility shifts the onus back on the corporations that create plastic pollution to collect, recover, recycle or reuse their products. In Finland, for example, where all packagers or importers of packaged products were required by government policy to organize a collection and recycling system for plastic entering the markets, the recovery rate for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – a completely recyclable plastic – was 92 per cent.
As consumers, we all have a role in reducing our use of plastic products by choosing non-plastic alternatives, reusing plastic products and reducing our overall consumption of material things. However, to make a significant reduction in global plastic pollution we have to make it clear to let all levels of government through our voting, letter-writing and other forms of citizen engagement that we want action to reduce plastic pollution and that we want it now.
Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in Alberta. Her commentaries appear in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on the third Thursday of each month. For more articles like this, visit www.engagedcitizen.ca.