Plastics on Ship Channel Cay, Bahamas
July 29, 2018
In June, 2018, five of the seven G7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Britain — and the European Union endorsed a plan to cut down on plastic waste, such as single-use plastics, straws, bottles, grocery bags and cups. Although the agreement is only voluntary, and not enforceable, it would at least be a small first step in limiting the huge amount of plastics that enter the oceans every year. Of the nine billion tonnes produced so far, it is estimated that only 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated and 79% has ended up in landfill sites or the environment. A staggering 11 million metric tonnes wind up in the oceans every year. A study in 2020 led by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Stemiq estimated that by 2040 that figure will grow to 29 million tonnes, equivalent to 50 kg for every metre of coastline in the world. That study did not take into account the enormous increase of PEP products caused by the Covid pandemic.
The two countries that declined to endorse the agreement were the U.S. and Japan. It is not surprising that the U.S. would not agree. They were pulling out of all sorts of international agreements, especially environmental ones. The fossil companies were in control of the White House and denial is a Republican thing. And Coca-Cola, which produces an estimated 108 billion plastic bottles per year, would have great interest in this plan. It is unlikely that President Biden will have much success with this considering Republican intransigence. But Japan? This is disappointing. I have paddled almost annually in Japan for over 30 years and have visited and camped on its beaches. They are tragically trashed. No doubt a lot of the plastic bottles, nets, floats and garbage come from other countries. According to a study reported in Scientific American, of the ten rivers that carry 93% of the trash, 8 are in Asia, and two are in Africa. The Yangtze alone carries 1.5 million tons of plastic into the Yellow Sea every year. Across the world plastics make up 85% to 95% of beach litter. But on Tarama Island and on other Japanese beaches I have visited, a lot of the plastic was of Japanese origin. It seems in a supremely tidy country where there is almost no litter on the streets and recycling is a way of life, no one cares about what is on the beaches and in the water. Again, this seems odd. Japan does not have a big petrochemical industry which extracts large profits from plastic resin production as in the US, Canada and elsewhere. It does, though, consume the second most plastic per person in the world, behind only the U.S. Perhaps its addiction to bento boxes and its tradition of intricate gift wrapping is contributing to this.
Henderson Island is one of the most obscure islands in the world, located in the South Pacific west of Easter Island. Researchers have recently stated that it has the highest density of plastic debris found anywhere in the world. They found 38 million pieces. In one report the most common items found were Suntory single use bottles. Suntory bottles, from the third largest brewery in the world, have been found everywhere in the Pacific. You can’t help but wonder what power this and other large beverage producers have in Japanese politics. Add to this the reluctance of Japanese people to rock the boat, to challenge the status quo, and the magnitude of the problem (where to even start?), you can begin to understand how it came to this.
It has been reported widely in the news that by 2050 there will be more plastic trash in the oceans, by weight, than fish. Sales are expected to grow worldwide by at least 4% a year. Plastic production has become cheap due to the boom in shale oil and gas in the U.S. and this has spurred production companies to invest over $180 billion in plastic factories. They plan to increase production by 40%. The same companies, such as Exxon and Shell, that are responsible for much of the climate crisis, are backing this explosion in plastic waste. In Canada the petrochemical companies produced $10 billion worth of virgin resin in 2016.
In a 2015 study published in “Science” and in a testimony before Congress in 2016, environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck found that the amount of plastic in the oceans is the equivalent of 5 grocery-size shopping bags filled with plastics placed along every foot of coastline around the world. By 2025 she expects that number to be 10. A 2018 study found that there were traces of plastic in 83% of tap water world-wide and 94% in the U.S. Over time plastic builds up in animal and human tissues. (“The New Yorker”, February 4, 2019)
Plastic kills an estimated one million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals each year. Whales, sea turtles, birds and other animals gorge themselves on plastic bags and die of starvation. Plastic chemicals kill additional unknown quantities of sea animals. Plastic has been found in 90% of seabirds and has been discovered in creatures living seven miles beneath the sea. Abandoned or lost fishing gear is the single largest source of plastic pollution. Seals, sea lions, dolphins, fish and whales get caught up in fishing nets, which are made from plastic and may last for 600 years, and drown or starve. Mussels lose their grip when exposed to plastic toxins and many marine organisms become more vulnerable to predators.
A major new study examined 125,000 corals in the Asia-Pacific region, or half the world’s total, and found that 89% of those fouled with 11 billion pieces of plastic were suffering diseases. This compares to only 4% on corals where no plastic was present. Add that to the list of human-caused damage to corals.
Annual consumption of plastic bottles is set to rise to over half a trillion by 2021, creating an almost insurmountable problem for poor people and marine areas around the world.
Bodies of water where the problem is largest include:
Yangtze, East China Sea; Indus; Arabian Sea, Yellow River; Yellow Sea, Hai He; Yellow Sea, Ganges; Bay of Bengal, Pearl River; South China Sea, Amur; Sea of Okhotsk, Mekong; South China Sea
Nile; Mediterranean, Niger; Gulf of Guinea.
No wonder Japan has been inundated. In addition to its own garbage, waste is washing up on its shores from the Sea of Okhotsk to the north, the Yellow Sea directly west and the South China Sea down current to the south west.
We are all involved in this. Before casting an accusing eye on the poor folks in Asia, we might check the labels on our clothing. Where does it come from? China, Vietnam, Indonesian, Philippines, India, Pakistan, Nigeria.
British researcher and author David MacKay has calculated that more energy and pollution is embedded in the products that Great Britain imports than is created in the country itself. This is a huge byproduct of globalization and the outsourcing of production to those countries with the cheapest labour, worst working conditions and non-existent environmental protection enforcement. Two billion people in the poorest countries have absolutely no access to garbage or recycling services. And this is where our stuff gets made. How many trade agreements that so heavily favor large corporations even mention the staggering amounts of plastic that are being dumped onto land, and into rivers and oceans every day? How many fishing agreements even mention lost plastic gear?
Shiro on Tarama Island
Dealing with Plastic
Sometimes it is easy to take for granted success at home. It’s not that the shorelines around Vancouver and surrounding areas are pristine. If you look around you can find pieces of plastic on just about any beach. Even our outer exposed beaches have plastic litter on them. But compared to those surrounding Asian cities that I have visited, they are remarkably free of plastic waste. B.C. enacted the oldest deposit-return system in North America in 1970 and began operations in 1998. The system is administered by Encorp, a not-for-profit company that charges a transparent recycling fee on many aluminum cans, plastic, glass and some drink box products.
Encore claims that in B.C. more than 80% of cans are returned, baled, melted and back on the shelf within 6 weeks, saving 95% of the energy required to make new cans and considerable raw materials.
Over 75% of plastic bottles are returned. They are power-washed and shredded. The raw material is sold to companies that make new bottles and other plastic items, using 1/3 less energy than manufacturing from new material.
93% of glass bottles are returned and ground into small pieces for re-use in items as diverse as road-making, fibreglass production and sandblasting.
About 60% of drink boxes are returned and pulped for re-use in paper products and boxes.
This is one reason Vancouver beaches look as good as they do. It is not because the people of Greater Vancouver are particularly tidy. Just go to Kits Beach or English Bay after a mid-summer fireworks show. It is astonishing how much trash people simply leave behind. They manage to carry it in, but don’t have the energy to pack it out. There is a small army of people who make all or part of their income from collecting and returning recyclable items. They get busy. These people are true, under-appreciated urban heroes. That leaves city staff just the real stinky garbage to clean up early the next morning. They do it well.
When I used to paddle to work in Vancouver, the most common, by far, drink container that I would see floating on the water in summer would be Starbucks iced coffee cups. These were made from polypropylene and, as Starbucks stated on their recycle website, “many curbside programs won’t accept this type of plastic”. There weren’t many other containers because the army of recyclers made money from them. Evidence, again that this type of program works.
B.C. has an Extended-Producer Responsibility program
(EPR), in which recycling costs are borne by the multinational packaged goods companies. Plastic in Greater Vancouver’s waste stream actually decreased in the last two years. BC does not have a large petrochemical industry churning out plastics and lobbying against proper recycling, which undoubtedly contributes to its success. In the fall of 2020 Victoria placed 25 three-bin disposal units in well-trafficked areas around the city. There are swinging doors on the recycling bins so that people who collect cans and bottles for deposit can get refunds. This has been effective at reducing waste and more bins are on the way.
Statistics from different sources can be difficult to compare. One study found that the average person in Canada consumes roughly four times their body weight in throw-away plastic every year. Only 9% of that is recycled. It is hard to reconcile this with the recycling success reported in BC., but it is apparent that there has been less progress in other provinces and that programs developed in B.C. could be adapted elsewhere. Still to come: more programs encouraging less use of plastic in the first place and “closed-loop” systems in which plastics are continuously recycled and remade into new products at much lower levels of carbon emission.
China has long received mountains of plastic every year from first world countries. This has been profitable because their container ships would return empty without the plastic, and labour for recycling was cheap. But, that has changed and the plastic has become more complex, harder to sort and the amount of garbage shipped with the plastic has increased. China now refuses almost all waste plastic and its imports are down over 90%. Many countries moved to off load their plastic waste to poorer countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. They have been described as huge dumpsites. Recently nearly all countries in the world (187 in total, except the U.S.) have agreed to an amendment to the Basel Convention on a deal restricting shipments of plastic to these poorer countries. So now countries will have to deal with their plastic at home. Sometimes what is seen as a problem can be recognized as an opportunity. North America is responsible for only about 0.9% of the plastic trash that ends up in the oceans. Meanwhile the US is peddling backwards on environmental programs, especially those involving fossil fuels. If communities in other developed countries such as ours can learn to consume less plastic initially and create circular systems in which plastic is designed to be recycled and reused many times, great progress can be made and this knowledge can be shared and exported. Annual consumption of plastic bottles is set to rise to over half a trillion by 2021, creating an almost insurmountable problem for poor people and marine areas around the world.
If we in Canada really want to make an impact on this enormous plastic pollution of the oceans that is clearly originating in less developed countries in Asia and Africa, we have to help them. The expertise is being developed right here at home. Perhaps a public/private partnership could be created. We could start right away, even as we are developing new programs and improving existing ones. One of the very first steps is to set up a EPR program. Make the producers pay. Don’t let them buy off the politicians.
In an article in The Guardian (Sandra Laville, Recife, Brazil, April 11, 2018), Maria das Gracas saw the body of her neighbour floating past her house in Coqueiral, a poor neighbourhood in the city of Recife. She thought about the plastic pollution that had contributed to the deadly flooding that was ravishing her community and contributing to this death. She started gathering up her plastic bottles and those near her and taking them to the local storage skip where a collector pays her two reals for 50 plastic bottles. Not much, but she is in it more to stop the avalanche of plastic trash threatening her community.
As more communities become a bit more prosperous, the use of plastic skyrockets and most of the waste gets dumped in poorer communities such as Maria’s. Now imagine what would happen if the producers and sellers of all this trash were forced to pay 5 or 10 cents for every container. Use would decrease, while people such as Maria could make decent change by recycling.
Some of the funding for the Recife campaign is supported by Tearfund, an international NGO. Maria can sometimes make a tiny profit from selling her plastic to makers of handbags, jewellery and toys. Imagine if funding became available through the sale of every disposable plastic bottle or container. What a difference that would make.
Maria’s story shows the difficulties many poor communities face when trying to cope with an avalanche of plastics and also the determination and resourcefulness of people when trying to deal with it. But you can only make so many handbags and toys from waste plastic and some of the toys could be harmful to children. The problem is complex and unique to each community, and so must be the solutions. Canada could be a leader in this.
The oceans know no boundaries and the need is great.