Climate change and COVID-19 aren’t the only issues on the ballot for Canadians when they head to the polls in a few weeks. Plastic is driving a global pollution problem that is choking our environment and potentially harming human health, and Canada’s future efforts to end it are on the line. Each year, Canadians produce millions of tonnes of plastic waste. Over 90 per cent ends up in landfills or the environment. The remainder is recycled, according to a 2019 report commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), but observers warn some waste destined for recycling likely ends up in incinerators and cement kilns, or is shipped overseas illegally. Plastic also plays a role in deciding the future of the oil and gas industry. As the world shifts to renewable energy sources, fossil fuel companies are banking on plastic production to fuel their growth — a move that could drive greenhouse gas emissions. Get top stories in your inbox.Our award-winning journalists bring you the news that impacts you, Canada, and the world. Don’t miss out.The previous Liberal government in May listed plastic as toxic under Canada’s main environmental law. The decision was the first in a suite of planned regulations — including a ban on six single-use items, like plastic straws and six-pack rings — aimed at reducing Canada’s plastic waste and pollution. While environmental advocates largely applauded the move, many warn Canada’s next government will need to implement stronger regulations to tackle the plastic problem. “For so long, governments have tried to tackle plastic pollution from the waste end through trying to improve… the fiction of recycling plastic,” explained Elaine Macdonald, director of Healthy Communities for Ecojustice, an organization advocating for better environmental laws. “The only solutions that are really going to make a dent now are going to be the ones that are targeting non-essential plastic production.”Canada’s National Observer scoured the four main federal parties’ platforms for their positions on key issues in the plastic debate, from recycling to regulations, to see what the future could hold for plastic in Canada. (The Bloc Québécois doesn’t mention plastic in its 2021 platform.) What people are reading Will Canada ban single-use plastic?In 2019, the former Liberal government announced plans to ban six harmful single-use plastic items: plastic checkout bags, straws, six-pack rings, stir sticks, plastic cutlery and food containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics. Many of these items are ubiquitous; for instance, Canadians use up to 15 billion plastic bags each year, according to ECCC. While environmental advocates welcomed the move, many pointed out the banned items only represent a small portion of the single-use plastic Canadians use. Ending plastic pollution will require wider bans to force companies to develop better reusable materials on top of regulations curbing new plastic production, they said. Here’s where the parties sit on the issue: The Liberals have pledged to pursue their planned plastic regulations, including a ban on the six single-use plastic items. Their platform also promises tweaks to federal procurement policies to “prioritize” reusable and recyclable materials. The Conservatives have said they will not pursue the regulations on plastic proposed by the previous government, including “showy” bans, according to their platform. However, environmental groups have noted that while bans can’t solve the problem entirely, they can go a long way to reducing plastic — an essential step to ending plastic pollution. Single-use plastics would be immediately banned under an NDP government, the party has promised. It is also the only party to pledge support for workers in Canada’s $28-billion plastics industry to transition to new, more sustainable industries. The Greens would maintain the previous government’s planned regulations on plastic waste but expand the list of banned single-use items. Similar to the Liberals, the party has pledged to support “green procurement” policies that would see governments and businesses purchasing more sustainable plastic products.Is plastic a toxic substance? Earlier this spring, the federal government designated plastic as “toxic” under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), Canada’s primary environmental law. A material can be considered legally “toxic” if it harms human health, the environment or biodiversity. Plastic pollution, which harms marine animals and birds, meets those criteria, according to an ECCC study.The designation opens the door to future regulations on plastic, such as bans on some items, rules requiring plastic sold in Canada to contain a certain amount of recycled materials and potential curbs on plastic production. The decision was opposed by Canada’s plastics industry, and several major plastic producers have since launched legal action against the federal government’s decision. Here’s where the parties sit on the issue: In October 2020, the former Liberal government announced a wide-ranging plan to curb plastic pollution, including designating plastic as toxic. If re-elected, the party has committed to pushing this plan forward. While the Conservative platform decries the Trudeau government’s decision to list plastic as toxic, it does not specify whether the party will try to take the material off the toxic list. The NDP has committed to banning single-use plastics, a move easily done now that plastics are considered toxic under CEPA. The party also supported the Liberals’ decision to list the material as toxic. The Green Party has pledged to maintain the Liberal government’s planned regulations for plastics, including the toxic designation. Can recycling solve the problem — and who pays for it?Plastic recycling didn’t exist until the 1970s, when it was “formalized and launched” by the Container Corporation of America in response to growing concern over the material’s environmental impact. Recycling promised to transform used plastic into new products — if people and governments took on the responsibility for sorting and collecting millions of tonnes of used material each year, explains Max Liboiron, a plastic expert and professor at Memorial University. Decades later, recycling has mostly failed. Only about 305,000 of the millions of tonnes of plastic waste generated in Canada is recycled, according to a 2019 ECCC report. Despite these dismal numbers, all the parties have promised to improve Canada’s plastic recycling: The Liberals have pledged to continue supporting provincial and territorial efforts to make plastic producers pay for recycling and waste disposal, and have said they will create a federal registry of plastic producers. The party has also promised $100 million to support “technologies and solutions” for the reuse of plastics. The Conservatives promise to ensure plastic waste is “responsibly” recycled but make no mention of implementing rules that would force plastic producers to cover the costs of recycling their products. However, the party has promised to invest heavily in technologies that transform plastic waste into fuel — an approach critics say will do more environmental harm than good. The NDP has pledged to boost requirements forcing plastic producers to cover the cost of recycling their products. However, unlike the Liberals, their platform suggests these would be national standards, not left to the provinces and territories. The party has also pledged to help municipalities develop better waste management systems. The Greens make no mention of requirements to make plastic producers pay the recycling costs of their products. However, the party has promised to implement tax rebates or waivers on recycling initiatives, and says in the party platform it will promote “sustainable waste management.” Plastic pollution is a global problem. Will Canada help solve it? Every day, Canadian companies send about 80 truckloads of plastic waste into the U.S. The shipments are a key part of a plastic trade between the two countries worth $18.8 million, but it’s unclear whether they are recycled, stuffed in an American landfill or shipped overseas in contravention of Canada’s international commitments.Canada (and most countries except the U.S.) has signed the Basel Convention, an international agreement that bans countries from exporting hazardous waste, including plastic, minus a few exceptions. However, advocates worry Canadian waste is passing through the U.S. — an exemption lets Canada trade its trash with our southern neighbour — for disposal or recycling in lower-income countries, where it can more easily threaten the environment and local food security. Unlike other global environmental issues like the climate crisis and persistent toxic pollutants, there are no international treaties on plastic pollution that tackle everything from production to disposal, making a co-ordinated solution to the problem nearly impossible. Still, observers say efforts by several countries to create a legally binding global plastic treaty could be minted within a few years — but Canada’s support for the effort remains unclear.Here’s where the parties sit on the issue: In 2018, the former Liberal government and five other countries, including the European Union, launched the Oceans Plastic Charter, a voluntary pledge by countries and businesses to help reduce ocean plastic pollution. The party has promised to continue working on this effort in addition to supporting the development of a global agreement on plastic. However, the party is unclear about its support for a legally binding treaty, which experts say is essential to end the crisis. The Conservatives have pledged to ban the export of plastic waste, except waste destined for recycling, a promise that echoes a private member’s bill put forward last year by Conservative MP Scott Davidson. The bill has been criticized by environmental groups for allowing plastic waste to be exported for recycling in countries without adequate recycling infrastructure or strong environmental laws and monitoring. The party makes no mention of supporting a legally binding plastics treaty — an essential tool, experts say, to ending plastic pollution worldwide. All plastic waste exports would be banned under an NDP government. The party’s platform doesn’t mention its position on international efforts to end plastic pollution. If elected, the Greens would push for a legally binding global plastics treaty — a position no other party has yet made. They have also pledged to tighten Canada’s plastic waste export laws.
Legislative changes and consumer pressure could certainly create more of a market for at least some of the plastic that is now going straight into incinerators and landfills, says Wright, of the National Waste & Recycling Association. A legal requirement or company commitment to use more recycled material in plastic products, including those made of less frequently recycled plastics, could create incentives for manufacturers to make more recyclable products and for recycling facilities to do a better job sorting, processing, and actually recycling that material.For example, the high demand for the type 1 plastic used in PET beverage bottles is largely due to consumers pressuring beverage companies to improve recycling processes and lawmakers requiring them to use a certain percentage of recycled plastic in their products. A California law passed last year, for instance, requires beverage bottles to be made of 15 percent recycled plastic. That will increase to 25 percent by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030. Requirements like these “force manufacturers to change the makeup of their products, to use more recyclable plastic or more environmentally friendly materials,” says Shanika Whitehurst, associate director of product sustainability, research, and testing at CR.
“Consumers really can change and push a market,” says Shelie Miller, PhD, a professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. “Plastic companies are actively looking into better recycling methods and how to design plastics to be more easily recyclable because they know this is such an important consumer issue.” The American Chemistry Council recently said it supports a national standard that would require all plastic packaging to contain at least 30 percent recyclable material by 2030.
Another part of the solution, according to Enck, Lifset, and others, is extended producer responsibility (EPR), which would require plastic makers and sellers to be responsible in some way for the life cycle of their products, including cleanup after they are sold. EPR usually involves producers either implementing collection programs themselves or funding local collection programs to ensure more products are recycled. An EPR system in British Columbia, for example, increased the share of plastic waste collected for recycling from 42 percent in 2018 to 52 percent in 2020.
In 2021, Maine became the first state in the U.S. to pass EPR legislation addressing packaging waste. The law will levy fees on companies that create or use packaging; fees will be lower for practices with less environmental impact, like using more recyclable materials. The fees will be used to fund local recycling efforts. Oregon passed an EPR law soon after Maine, and six other states have EPR bills in the works.
Enck says another worthy goal is eliminating single-use plastics, like plastic bags and polystyrene foam. But for such a change to have a positive impact, the items that replace them have to actually be reused—and often, says the University of Michigan’s Miller. “Someone who goes to the grocery store and forgets to bring reusable bags and every time buys a new reusable bag is creating a more [harmful] single-use item,” she says.
That suggests the real shift consumers need to make: More than just avoiding plastic, we need to evaluate our behavior and move away from unnecessary consumption and living a throwaway lifestyle. “If we’re really honest, any solution will require us to analyze our own consumption to try to understand what we’re consuming and why, and whether there are ways to reduce our individual consumption,” Miller says. She acknowledges that’s a tall order for a lot of people. It’s much easier to say “I can consume anything I want. I’ll just recycle it.”
Discarded face masks could be melted down and recycled to help tackle plastic pollution.It is estimated 129 billion single-use face masks are used monthly around the world, with 55 million a day in the UK.The Welsh government has set a target on creating no waste in Wales by 2050 and a recycling expert wants the NHS to set an example by recycling PPE.One Welsh firm is now working to turn hospital waste into new masks with 65% recycled materials.Old PPE like face masks, which people in the UK go through about 19 billion every year, is currently incinerated – producing climate-warming carbon emissions – or sent to landfills.Step-by-step guide to making your own face maskSmall changes you can make for a greener lifeHermit crabs mistake plastic pollution for foodMat Rapson, managing director of Cardiff-based Thermal Compaction Group – or TCG, said was a “huge problem”.”We use 55 million masks a day in the UK and globally the figure is 129 billion masks, a lot of which is being discarded into landfills,” he said.How does it work?TCG is already working with seven hospital trusts across the UK, which are using thermal heating devices to melt down PPE.The firm heats single-use masks, gowns and curtains to 300C, sterilising all pathogens, and is recycling 300,000 defective masks each month, which would have otherwise been incinerated or sent to landfill.It turns them into 1m-long blocks that are 99.6% polypropylene – made up of about 10,000 masks – which can be used to make products such as plastic chairs, buckets and toolboxes. “If a mask goes into landfill, or worse beaches or rivers, it takes 450 years to decompose,” Mr Rapson said.”It’s ridiculous. We’re just discarding these single-use disposable items, but they’re not single-use, they can be recovered and remade multiple times.”The ideal is that all hospital PPE waste gets recovered and made back into masks for hospitals.”Linda Ball, chief executive of Upcycled Plastics, said the firm was making masks using plastic waste recovered from the sea.She said the manufacturing process resulted in a 36% reduction in carbon emissions, and she believed the NHS, the UK’s largest user of disposable PPE, could cut its impact significantly by switching to recycled PPE.She said: “The biggest problem that we have in the medical industry is single-use plastic.”If we keep buying stuff from China and bringing it over here, the amount of carbon usage is insane.”She said recycling masks, however, was a challenge as the ear hoops, the filter and the nose piece are often made from different types of plastic.Rob EliasDr Rob Elias, director of the Biocomposites Centre at Bangor University, said all PPE should be made in a way that it can be easily recycled, with one type of material making it “a heck of a lot easier to recycle in the future.”He said polypropylene in a mask can be recycled “five to six times” before it breaks down, but the challenge is “these recycling processes tend to be quite small at the moment, so they lack the scale”.”When you scale up the production process, you get massive energy savings.”But Dr Elias said it was a “great example” of the circular economy, where single-use products like disposable masks are put back into the economy for reuse instead of being thrown away. That is one of the key goals of the Welsh government’s Beyond Recycling strategy, which aims to have no waste produced in Wales by 2050.What is the solution to plastic pollution from PPE?Prof Gary Walpole, director of the Circular Economy Innovation Community Project at Swansea University, said recycling was something we should be doing an “awful lot more of” and public sector bodies such as the NHS could set an example by recycling PPE.”The basic premise of circular economy is to keep all products within the circular loop as long as possible,” he said.”There’s a lot of energy that goes into creating products like plastic, so the longer you can keep that plastic in use, by reusing it, the less energy use, the less raw material use, and therefore the less carbon you emit.”But Prof Walpole said getting the private sector to adopt this approach on a wider scale was difficult. He said one possible way forward would be to have the Welsh government mandate large organisations, such as the NHS and local authorities, into making the change.”The public services buy a lot of goods and services, so it’s a good place to start a different way of thinking,” he said. “This particular company is taking plastic products from the NHS where there are high volumes so they are able to leverage economies of scale, prove the concept, and then offer it out into the private sector.”It was also one solution to an increase in litter during the pandemic, including face masks and disposable gloves, according to Keep Wales Tidy.The campaign group said there has been a “significant and widespread increase in personal protective equipment being littered all over the country”, posing a danger to wildlife and public health. Mr Rapson said: “Plastic’s not the problem, it’s the infrastructure and we have one of the solutions here in Wales.”Plastic is not disposable, it’s not single use, we can actually embrace plastic and use it multiple times.”The Welsh government said: “We are aware of the TCG Sterimelt proposals and welcome innovation from industry to tackle the challenges of single-use plastics in healthcare settings as we move towards a circular economy by 2050.”IF YOU GO DOWN TO THE WOODS TODAY: Five friends bound together by a brutally fragile pact of silence…FIERCE AND FABULOUS: Hayley Goes… exploring the issues of her generation in a brand new series
Most consumers don’t pay much attention to the packaging that their purchases come in, unless it’s hard to open or the item is really over-wrapped. But packaging accounts for about 28% of U.S. municipal solid waste. Only some 53% of it ends up in recycling bins, and even less is actually recycled: According to trade associations, at least 25% of materials collected for recycling in the U.S. are rejected and incinerated or sent to landfills instead.
Local governments across the U.S. handle waste management, funding it through taxes and user fees. Until 2018 the U.S. exported huge quantities of recyclable materials, primarily to China. Then China banned most foreign scrap imports. Other recipient countries like Vietnam followed suit, triggering waste disposal crises in wealthy nations.
Some U.S. states have laws that make manufacturers responsible for particularly hard-to-manage products, such as electronic waste, car batteries, mattresses and tires, when those goods reach the end of their useful lives.
Now, Maine and Oregon have enacted the first state laws making companies that create consumer packaging, such as cardboard cartons, plastic wrap and food containers, responsible for the recycling and disposal of those products, too. Maine’s law takes effect in mid-2024, and Oregon’s follows in mid-2025.
These measures shift waste management costs from customers and local municipalities to producers. As researchers who study waste and ways to reduce it, we are excited to see states moving to engage stakeholders, shift responsibility, spur innovation and challenge existing extractive practices.
Holding producers accountable
The Maine and Oregon laws are the latest applications of a concept called extended producer responsibility, or EPR. Swedish academic Thomas Lindhqvist framed this idea in 1990 as a strategy to decrease products’ environmental impacts by making manufacturers responsible for the goods’ entire life cycles – especially for takeback, recycling and final disposal.
Producers don’t always literally take back their goods under EPR schemes. Instead, they often make payments to an intermediary organization or agency, which uses the money to help cover the products’ recycling and disposal costs. Making producers cover these costs is intended to give them an incentive to redesign their products to be less wasteful.
The idea of extended producer responsibility has driven regulations governing management of electronic waste, such as old computers, televisions and cellphones, in the European Union, China and 25 U.S. states. Similar measures have been adopted or proposed in nations including Kenya, Nigeria, Chile, Argentina and South Africa.
Scrap export bans in China and other countries have given new energy to EPR campaigns. Activist organizations and even some corporations are now calling for producers to become accountable for more types of waste, including consumer packaging.
Packaging helps sell consumer products, and consumers are starting to demand more sustainable containers.
What the state laws require
The Maine and Oregon laws define consumer packaging as material likely found in the average resident’s waste bin, such as containers for food and home or personal care products. They exclude packaging intended for long-term storage (over five years), beverage containers, paint cans and packaging for drugs and medical devices.
Maine’s law incorporates some core EPR principles, such as setting a target recycling goal and giving producers an incentive to use more sustainable packaging. Oregon’s law includes more groundbreaking components. It promotes the idea of a right to repair, which gives consumers access to information that they need to fix products they purchase. And it creates a “Truth in Labeling” task force to assess whether producers are making misleading claims about how recyclable their products are.
The Oregon law also requires a study to assess how bio-based plastics can affect compost waste streams, and it establishes a statewide collection list to harmonize what types of materials can be recycled across the state. Studies show that contamination from poor sorting is one of the main reasons why recyclables often are rejected.
California paint recycling data from PaintCare, a nonprofit stewardship organization that runs paint recycling programs across the U.S.
Some extended producer responsibility systems, such as those for paint and mattresses, are funded by consumers, who pay an added fee at the point of sale that is itemized on their receipt. The fee supports the products’ eventual recycling or disposal.
In contrast, the Maine and Oregon laws require producers to pay fees to the states, based on how much packaging material they sell in those states. Both laws also include rules designed to limit producers’ influence over how the states use these funds.
Will these laws reduce waste?
There’s no clear consensus yet on the effectiveness of EPR. In some cases it has produced results: For instance, Connecticut’s mattress recycling rate rose from 8.7% to 63.5% after the state instituted a takeback law funded by fees paid at the point of sale. On a national scale, the Product Stewardship Institute estimates that since 2007 U.S. paint EPR programs have reused and recycled almost 24 million gallons of paint, created 200 jobs and saved governments and taxpayers over $240 million.
Critics argue that these programs need strong regulation and monitoring to ensure that corporations take their responsibilities seriously – and especially to prevent them from passing costs on to consumers, which requires enforceable accountability measures. Observers also argue that producers can have too much influence within stewardship organizations, which they warn may undermine enforcement or the credibility of the law.
Few studies have been done so far to assess the long-term effects of extended producer responsibility programs, and those that exist do not show conclusively whether these initiatives actually lead to more sustainable products. Maine and Oregon are small progressive states and are not major centers for the packaging industry, so the impact of their new laws remains to be seen.
However, these measures are promising models. As Martin Bourque, executive director of Berkeley’s Ecology Center and an internationally known expert on plastics and recycling, told us, “Maine’s approach of charging brands and manufacturers to pay cities for recycling services is an improvement over programs that give all of the operational and material control to producers, where the fox is directly in charge of the hen house.”
We believe the Maine and Oregon laws could inspire jurisdictions like California that are considering similar measures or drowning under waste plastic to adopt EPR themselves. Waste reduction efforts across the U.S. took hits from foreign scrap bans and then from the COVID-19 pandemic, which spurred greater use of disposable products and packaging. We see producer-pay schemes like the Maine and Oregon laws as a promising response that could help catalyze broader progress toward a less wasteful economy.
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HOLLAND, MI — The July sun beat down as Casey Walker weaved among Lake Michigan beachgoers at Holland State Park, picking up litter. In his bag, Walker carried cigarette buts, wrappers, plastic bottles and other typical beach trash — but there was one form of garbage he couldn’t really pick up, even though he and everyone else were surrounded by it.All around, tiny plastic fragments littered the sand.“You’d need to comb the whole beach with a sifter to try to get it all,” said Walker, a salesperson at Great Lakes Wine & Spirits who was volunteering with an Adopt-A-Beach cleanup July 28. “Once I started looking at the ground, I started seeing it everywhere.”Volunteer, Casey Walker of Holland, picks up trash during an Adopt-A-Beach cleanup at Holland State Park in Holland, Michigan on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. (Joel Bissell | MLive.com)Unfortunately, Holland is far from the only Great Lakes town with a beach awash in plastic. Broken down bits of bottle caps, wrappers, beach toys — as well as non-consumer items like pre-manufactured “nurdle” pellets — have become a staple of shorelines; accumulating at popular beaches where people come on holiday, daytrips or just to catch a sunset.But researchers who are tracking plastic pollution in the Great Lakes say the problem goes deeper than beach litter. Humans and animals are ingesting plastic particles released into the environment. Studies are finding microscopic plastic fibers in drinking water, beer, and fish — raising questions about what affect those particles may have on people’s health as well as the health of ecosystems which are absorbing plastic at the base of the food web.Meanwhile, studies show the volume of plastic in the lakes is getting worse. Researchers say various stewardship efforts aren’t making much dent in the flow of plastic of any size into the lakes, where items can travel long distances before sinking to the bottom, washing ashore somewhere or breaking down and being eaten by birds, fish or insects.Five years ago, researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) estimated that 22 million pounds (10,000 metric tons) of plastic debris are entering the Great Lakes annually from the U.S. and Canada. Rather than accumulating in “garbage patches” as plastic tends to do in the oceans, lake currents swirl that debris around, breaking it down and sending Chicago and Milwaukee’s plastic onto beaches in western Michigan, or Detroit and Cleveland’s trash to shorelines in Pennsylvania and New York.Along the way, it can absorb contaminants such as PFAS, DDT or PCBs, turning the smaller, “microplastic” sized pieces less than five millimeters in size into new vectors for toxic chemical exposure once they’re ingested by fish which are, potentially, consumed by humans.The extent of the problem is, unfortunately, far from being clear. Relatively few studies have examined the environmental risks from either “micro” or “macro” plastics in freshwater systems like the Great Lakes compared to the oceans, even though such lakes and river systems tend to be the first waters that industrial or consumer plastic debris reaches.“When people think of plastic pollution, they tend to think of the oceans,” said Sherri Mason, sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend who conducted some of the initial studies on microplastic in the Great Lakes as a researcher in New York.“I think it’s because of the visuals that are associated with oceanic plastic pollution. It’s quite impactful. You don’t see the same kind of images when it comes to the Great Lakes,” Mason said. “But nevertheless, if you look upstream from the oceans, you’ll see that most plastic is making its way to the oceans through freshwater systems.”[embedded content]How much plastic is in the Great Lakes?In the decades since synthetic polymer manufacturing advances begat the rise of mass-produced plastic in the 1950s, more than 8 billion metric tons has been made worldwide.The versatile material revolutionized society. But it doesn’t just go away when we’re done with it. Full decomposition takes hundreds of years for even simple, single-use items such as plastic bottles or straws. Some of is incinerated, some of is recycled, but most plastic ends up in landfills. Unfortunately, a lot of it also ends up in oceans, lakes and rivers.In the Great Lakes, the big number is 22 million pounds entering the lakes annually — a 2016 figure that study authors say was developed based on population estimates around each lake and modeling of how much plastic waste certain zip codes produce.Children pick up plastic debris on North Beach in South Haven, MI. (Joel Bissell | MLive.com)Of that, the study concluded that half of the plastic pollution entering the Great Lakes, about 11 million pounds each year, goes into Lake Michigan. The next highest load is to Lake Erie, which gets about 5.5 million pounds. Lake Ontario gets about 3 million pounds. Lake Huron gets about 1.3 million pounds and Lake Superior gets about 70,000 pounds.Over time, natural wear and abrasion, sunlight and ultraviolet radiation break larger pieces down into smaller fragments. Eventually, they become microplastics.“Consistently, once we look at years and years of data, we see that about 85 percent of what our team leaders pick up is made either wholly or partly of plastic,” said Jennifer Caddick, who coordinates the Adopt-A-Beach program at the Alliance for the Great Lakes nonprofit in Chicago. “That’s a data point we’ve been able to extract pretty consistently.”Dealing with the problem is an expensive proposition. According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research, the estimated the overall cost of beach cleanups, storm drain devices, street sweeping, waterway cleanup, and public anti-littering campaigns could amount to $400 million each year in the region.But litter doesn’t tell the whole story. “Nurdles,” or resin pellets used to manufacture plastic products, are being found in surprisingly high quantity on beaches in every Great Lakes state. Their presence can’t be blamed on litterbugs because consumers don’t touch them. Nurdles are being lost somewhere in the supply chain and they’re ending up in the lakes.In 2018, Canadian researchers examined 66 beaches on all five lakes. They found nurdle pellets on 42 of them, at an average of 19 pellets per square meter, in a variety of colors.The heaviest concentration was at Baxter Beach on Lake Huron in Sarnia, Ontario. More than 7,200 pellets were found in the sand along the shoreline. High pellet numbers were also found at Bronte Beach in Oakville, Ont. near Toronto, and in Rossport, Ont. on the north shore of Lake Superior where a Canadian Pacific train derailed in 2008 and spilled pellets.There are efforts to crackdown on such pollution. The plastics industry runs a voluntary program called Operation Clean Sweep. Lawmakers announced a bill this spring that would prohibit discharge of nurdle pellets and other pre-production plastic into waterways.A 15-minute survey of plastics on North Beach in South Haven produces a handful of “nurdles,” industrial plastic pellets used for making products. (Joel Bissell | MLive.com)The Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act is among Congressional or state bills aimed at curbing plastic pollution and moving toward a “circular economy” where all or most plastic waste is converted into raw material and new “virgin” plastic creation is reduced or eliminated.To that end, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would tax plastic bags and other containers, as set up a national bottle bill similar to Michigan’s 10-cent deposit program, and require manufacturers to manage single-use plastic container recycling.States are already trying to shift the waste disposal cost burden to manufacturers through “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) laws. Maine and Oregon each passed bills this summer to force producers to manage and recycle more plastic waste. Similar bills are proposed in California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York.Such efforts are, perhaps unsurprisingly, opposed by industry.The Break Free Act “would be absolutely devastating to manufacturing jobs and America’s overall economy just as we begin to rebound from the effects of COVID-19,” Tony Radoszewski, Plastic Industry Association president, said in March. “This bill is a direct threat to the nearly one million men and women who work in the domestic plastics industry.”Aquatic Ecologist Tim Hoellein presents water samples from the Chicago River that were studied at his environmental research lab at Loyola University Chicago in Chicago, Ill. (Joel Bissell | MLive.com)Tributaries delivering plastic that fish are eatingRyan Baker stood on his friend Herb Theodore’s fishing boat and shook his head at the patch of trash clumped together in the Kalamazoo River log jam a few feet away.Baker, president of the Kalamazoo River Alliance, a local anglers group, had organized a June 5 cleanup a couple months prior in which volunteers pulled more than 3,000 pounds of junk out of the river near downtown Kalamazoo. Then, July rains came and washed more trash from several urban creeks and an upstream homeless encampment into the river.“In this section of river, once you get through downtown, every other logjam is the same story said Baker. “It’s milk bottles, pop bottles, one-gallon propane tanks. It’s a smorgasbord of junk.”Tributaries like the Kalamazoo River transport significant quantities of plastics to the Great Lakes — although the actual amount that makes it to the lakes versus what sinks into river sediments is still being studied. What is clear is that rivers are bringing plastics from various sources to the lakes and, along the way, fish in those rivers are eating them.In 2016 and 2017, Loyola University Chicago biologists sampled 74 fish from the Muskegon and St. Joseph rivers in Michigan and the Milwaukee River in Wisconsin and found that 85 percent had microplastics in their digestive tract, with an average of 13 particles per fish.Birds are eating plastic, too. In 2019, University of Toronto researchers found microplastic in the digestive systems of double-crested cormorant chicks from Lake Ontario, who are suspected to have ingested the particles by eating fish that had consumed plastic.Tim Hoellein, a Loyola ecologist who studies how plastic interacts with aquatic life, said microplastics are reaching waterways directly through wastewater plant discharges — and indirectly through wastewater biosolid sludges containing plastic that are spread on cropland as fertilizer. When it rains, those particles can move from soils into streams.A Loyola University Chicago researcher processes water samples from the Great Lakes with colored dye at an environmental research lab at Loyola in Chicago, Ill. (Joel Bissell | MLive.com)Research has also shown that microplastic fibers can spread through the air, depositing in remote or rural areas that lack concentrated sources. Sooner later, humans are ingesting them. A 2018 study found microplastic fibers in tap water drawn from the Great Lakes, beer brewed with Great Lakes source water, and commercial sea salt brands.“The problem is waste,” said Hoellein. “It’s trash. It’s our waste management systems and our wastewater systems and, ultimately, probably, our consumer culture.”Microplastic enters wastewater when synthetic fabrics like fleece jackets shed fibers in the washing machine — or, when landfill leachate is treated at water reclamation plants. Landfills are harsh conditions for plastic and accelerate breakdown, say researchers.“We suspect a lot of microplastics being emitted from wastewater treatment plants are actually coming from the landfill leachate,” said John Scott, a chemist at the Illinois Sustainability Technology Center (ISTC) who studies microplastics.In that respect, Scott sees parallels with another significant global emerging contaminant problem: the toxic ‘forever chemicals’ known as PFAS, which persist in the environment and are endemic in wastewater discharges as well as other Great Lakes ecosystems.Unlike PFAS, microplastics aren’t generating the same level of concern from regulators or policymakers, in large part because their impact on humans is less clear.“I honestly thought microplastics was going to be the emerging pollutant we in the wastewater busines were going to worry about, and then PFAS came along,” said Scott Schoolcraft, director of the North Kent Sewer Authority wastewater plant near Grand Rapids. “I suspect at some point it will become an issue. We’re all trying to fry other fish right now.”Swimmers and beachgoers fill South Beach in South Haven, MI. on July 28 2021. (Joel Bissell | MLive.com)State regulators in Michigan are of similar mind.“PFAS is much scarier to the average citizen than microplastics,” said Rich Hobrla, head of the Great Lakes Management Unit in the water resources division at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). “In general, people tend to respond more fiercely if they think something very directly affects their health. If there was some tie that suggested people who consume fish that ingest microplastics are more or highly susceptible to cancer, that’s the kind of thing that would really elevate the problem.”Hobrla said EGLE relies on federal agencies for guidance on microplastics and sees its role as limited mostly to encouraging further research.“It’s an important problem, but EGLE has to prioritize,” said Hobrla. “We have lots of important problems and they can’t all be at the top of the list. Unfortunately, this is one that’s not.”61Plastic pollution in the Great Lakes
Plastic made in 2019 will cost the environment and society about $3.7 trillion – or more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of India – over its estimated lifetime, according to a new report by wildlife charity WWF.This life span includes the production, consumption and clean up of plastic, said the report that was published on Monday.Plastic production has almost doubled over the past two decades and the global approach to addressing the plastic crisis is failing, it added.The report warned that if these current trends continue, the social cost of the material produced in 2040 may escalate to $7.1 trillion, equivalent to approximately 85 per cent of global spending on health in 2018 and more than the combined GDP of Germany, Canada and Australia in 2019.“The failure of governments to better understand the real costs of plastic has led to poor management of this material, and growing ecological, social, and economic costs for countries,” the report noted.Communities across the world are “unknowingly subsidising” plastic, paying only for its primary production, but failing to account for the full cost imposed by the plastic life cycle, highlighted the report.“In 2019, the cost was just over $1,000 per tonne. However, this price fails to account for the full cost imposed across the plastic lifecycle,” it said.The full cost cited by the report includes greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the production process, health impacts, and the waste management of plastic.The WWF cited studies as saying the cost of GHG emissions from across the material’s lifecycle amounted to more than $171 billion, with the management of plastic waste from 2019 alone costing more than $32 billion.Marine pollution from plastic made in 2019 alone “will incur a cost of $3.1 trillion,” the report said.“Plastic takes hundreds to thousands of years to fully degrade and as it degrades, it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles making it hard to recover and remove plastic from the environment. Plastic will therefore remain in the environment to incur further costs,” it added.While several organisations have proposed circular economy approaches to keep plastic within the economy and out of the environment, the report said rising financial and technical resources needed to overhaul societies prevent governments from acting.“These approaches can effectively reduce the negative impacts of plastic, including reducing the annual volume of plastic entering oceans by 80 per cent and GHG emissions by 25 per cent,” it noted, adding that there is a lack of incentive to implement the kinds of systemic changes required.The WWF called for civil society, companies and financial institutions to set up a new global treaty on marine plastic pollution.“A global treaty could provide a well-designed framework encompassing global coordination on definitions, policies, reporting, and implementation support to accelerate the transition to a circular economy for plastic,” it said.“For a new treaty to be established, governments will have to start negotiations through the adoption of a formal negotiation mandate at the 5th session of the UN Environment Assembly in February 2022,” it added.
The pollution, emissions and clean-up costs of plastic produced in 2019 alone could be $3.7 trillion, according to a report released Monday (6 September) by wildlife charity WWF, warning of the environmental and economic burden of this “seemingly cheap” material.
There is increasing international alarm over the sheer volumes of fossil-fuel based plastics entering the environment, as microplastics have infiltrated even the most remote and otherwise pristine regions of the planet.
In its report, WWF said societies were “unknowingly subsiding” plastic, with their estimates for the lifetime costs of 2019 production equivalent to more than the gross domestic product of India.
“Plastic appears to be a relatively cheap material when looking at the market price primary plastic producers pay for virgin plastic,” said the report ‘Plastics: The cost to society, environment and the economy‘, produced for WWF by the consultancy Dalberg.
“However, this price fails to account for the full cost imposed across the plastic life cycle.”
It estimated that unless there was concerted international action, a projected doubling of plastic production could see costs rocket by 2040 to $7.1 trillion.
The analysis looked at factors including the greenhouse gas emissions in the production process, health impacts, waste management and estimates of the reduction in the economic “services” of ecosystems on land and in water.
Since the 1950s, roughly 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced with around 60% of that tossed into landfills or into the natural environment.
Tiny fragments have been discovered inside fish in the deepest recesses of the ocean and peppering Arctic sea ice.
The debris is estimated to cause the deaths of more than a million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals each year.
“Tragically, the plastic pollution crisis is showing no signs of slowing down, but the commitment to tackle it has reached an unprecedented level,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, in a statement.
‘More plastic than fish’
The report comes as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) meets in the French port city of Marseille, with one motion under consideration calling for an end to plastic pollution by 2030.
Earlier in September the European Union threw its weight behind calls for a legally-binding international agreement to reduce plastic pollution, during UN-hosted talks in Geneva.
The UN Environment Programme has said the planet is “drowning in plastic pollution”, with about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste produced every year.
The proposed resolution is due to be discussed during the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi next year.
France’s minister in charge of biodiversity, Berangere Abba, said if the world failed to act there would be “more plastic in the oceans than fish” by 2050.
The European Union on Thursday (2 September) backed calls for a legally binding international agreement to reduce plastic pollution, during a UN-hosted conference in Geneva.
A German official said some 75 nations were already supporting a draft resolution circulated at the meeting, but warned that it could be years before an agreement is put in place.
France’s minister in charge of biodiversity Bérangere Abba said if the world failed to act there would be “more plastic in the oceans than fish” by 2050.
The UN Environment Programme, which is hosting the conference, has said the planet is “drowning in plastic pollution”, with about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste produced every year.
Since the 1950s, roughly 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced with around 60% of that tossed on landfills or into the natural environment.
Millions of tonnes ends up in our oceans, with the debris causing the deaths of more than a million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals each year.
‘Difficult to predict’
More than 1,000 representatives from 140 countries and numerous NGOs participated in the Geneva meeting.
The draft text, presented Thursday by Peru and Rwanda with the support of the European Union, its member states and seven other countries, called for the creation of an intergovernmental negotiating committee to draft an agreement.
The text singles out the importance of microplastics — the tiny fragments that have been detected in every ocean and even at the bottom of the world’s deepest trench.
The aim should be “promoting a circular economy and addressing the full life-cycle of plastics from production, consumption and design to waste prevention, management and treatment”, the draft text said.
The proposed resolution is due to be discussed during the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi next year.
The declaration already has firm support from 25 countries and provisional commitment from 50 more, German environment official Jochen Flasbarth told a press conference.
“Twenty-five plus 50 before we have even started is pretty good,” he said.
“It’s very difficult to predict how long the negotiations will take. I think it will not be in months but rather in a few years to see a convention come into force.”
In one of his first acts in the White House, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to have the United States rejoin the Paris climate agreement. It signaled an important step in the country recommitting to action to tackle climate change after the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the accord and worked to roll back environmental regulations nationwide.
Biden’s move was hailed by world leaders and applauded by environmentalists at home. But the climate convention wasn’t the only global environmental agreement from which the country has been conspicuously absent.
Here are four international treaties that have been ratified by most of the world’s countries, but not the United States.
1. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
The 1982 Law of the Sea helped set an international framework for managing and protecting the ocean, including by delineating exclusive economic zones and creating the International Seabed Authority, which is currently tasked with drafting regulations for deep seabed mining.
“Originally the U.S. government was on board with the treaty when it was being finalized in the late 1970s, but when President Reagan came into office he called for a review of the negotiations, fired the State Department’s head of negotiations and appointed his own people who created a new list of demands,” says Kristina Gjerde, an adjunct professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a senior high seas advisor to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Global Marine and Polar Program.
When the treaty wasn’t reworked to meet those needs, Reagan’s team didn’t sign it. It would take until 1994 to get a U.S. signature, but the country still has yet to ratify it. To do so, would require a two-thirds approval in the Senate.
“The Law of the Sea has been uniformly supported by everything from the U.S. Navy to the Department of Commerce,” says Gjerde. “There’s nobody who’s really against it — other than those who don’t like the U.S. to be engaged in multilateral institutions.”
Unfortunately there are enough people in the Senate with that mindset to hold up this treaty, and many others. But that hasn’t stopped people from continuing to push for the United States to accede to the Law of the Sea.
There are numerous reasons why it would be beneficial for the country, but Gjerde says one of the most important right now is that the United States has to take a back seat while regulations are being drafted on deep seabed mining.
“The United States doesn’t have a voice in helping to make sure that the regulations are appropriately environmentally precautionary,” she says. “And the country has a lot of islands and waters that would be subject to potential environmental impacts from seabed mining by other states.”
2. The Convention on Biological Diversity
The treaty, which garnered its first signatures at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, has been called the world’s best weapon in fighting the extinction crisis. It has three main stated objectives: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the equitable sharing of benefits that arise from using genetic resources.
The United States was a big player in drafting the agreement, but when 150 nations stepped up to sign it, George W. Bush declined to do so. Bill Clinton signed the treaty after he took office in 1993, but it never received the necessary ratification vote by the Senate.
And it still hasn’t.
The United States is the only member of the United Nations that has yet to ratify it, “which is just a disgrace,” says Maria Ivanova, a professor of global governance and director of the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
This omission stands in stark contrast to the country’s history of commitment to conservation, she says.
“The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species was initially called the Washington Convention because the first meeting was in D.C.” says Ivanova. “The United States was a champion for that convention and the first to start national parks.”
But that commitment began to fade in the 1980s with “run-amok capitalism,” she says. “That means you can use nature with impunity without replenishing anything. “
The United States does still participate in the Conference of Parties that assemble for the Convention on Biological Diversity, but without having ratified the agreement, it’s relegated to “observer” status. This year it will get some extra muscle from a California delegation that will also be attending in the hope of ramping up the United States’ commitment to biological diversity.
Conference of Parties for the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2016. Photo: Biodiversity International, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
3. Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants
The Stockholm Convention, an effort to protect the health of people and the environment from harmful chemicals, was adopted in 2001. The treaty identifies “persistent” chemicals — those that stay in the environment for a long time and can bioaccumulate up the food chain.
Currently the treaty regulates nearly 30 of these chemicals, which can mean that countries must restrict or ban their use, limit their trade, or develop strategies to properly dispose of stockpiles or sites contaminated by the waste from the chemicals.
So far 184 countries have ratified the agreement. The United States signed it in 2001, but once again, the treaty has yet to be ratified by the Senate. That means that the United States is often behind the curve on banning harmful chemicals, such as the highly toxic pesticide pentachlorophenol.
4. Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal
The United States has also signed but not ratified the Basel Convention, which took effect in 1992. This international treaty limits the movement of hazardous waste (excluding radioactive materials) between countries. It was written to help curb the practice of richer, industrialized nations dumping their hazardous waste into less developed and less wealthy countries.
The convention is now taking on the global scourge of plastic waste, of which the United States is the largest contributor. A new provision went into effect this year that seeks to curb the amount of waste shipped to other countries that can’t be recycled and ends up instead being burned or escaping into the environment.
The Basel Convention has also worked to address electronic waste. The failure of the United States to ratify the treaty, experts say, has allowed companies to shift recycling of toxic computer components to developing countries. Outsourcing of plastic and e-waste recycling from the U.S. to developing countries has recently been linked to chemicals entering the food chain through eggs eaten by the world’s poorest people.
A pile of plastic casing for LCD screens near Sriracha, Thailand. Photo: Basel Action Network, (CC BY-ND 2.0)
If you’re seeing a pattern here of the United States signing — but not ratifying — treaties, you’re not wrong. “In the United States, the biggest hurdle is that ratification of a treaty has to go through the Senate,” says Ivanova.
Despite this roadblock, which has stopped the United States’ full participation in some international agreements for decades, some still hope for a different outcome. “I think it’s sort of the dream of most who are engaged in international action that the United States would join these important international processes,” says Gjerde.
When it comes to the Law of the Sea in particular, she says, “It’s an opportunity to show real, global leadership again in tackling the many challenges facing the ocean.”
There are others who might not agree.
“You hear the argument from a lot of the policymakers internationally that they’ve been doing fine without the United States in the negotiations,” says Ivanova. “So maybe it’s better that the United States doesn’t sign.”
That may be because the United States can object to a lot of things and be an obstacle as negotiations are worked out. Or because the country can negotiate from its own national interest point of view.
“The United States has disproportionate power in global governance,” she says. “Or it used to. It has to regain the credibility and the legitimacy that it lost.”
But, she says, there are likely more benefits to the United States ratifying the conventions and being a rightful actor on the world stage.
“All of these problems are global, and we need all countries engaged,” she says. “We need all hands on deck. And the United States is a powerful state and brings with it a lot of additional expertise and engagement.”
The United States, in addition to government representation, has top universities and NGOs that do research and advocacy. “And so when the United States is a part of an agreement, it brings with it all of the power that it has intellectually and financially,” says Ivanova.
Not participating leaves the country open to criticism, as well as reduces the likelihood some countries will improve their laws on their own. Most recently, the United States’ environmental shortcomings have been called out by China whenever its own record is questioned.
With this in mind, the best thing the United States can do to reestablish its environmental credibility internationally is to take action at home. The Obama administration got the narrative right, but it didn’t sufficiently match on action, Ivanova says. Now, it’s crucial to do better.
“A lot of people misunderstand the global part [of these international treaties],” she says. “You actually implement them at home — you don’t go and implement them in other states. To achieve those goals, you actually have to take action at home.”
A team of Chinese scientists has converted a common type of plastic into useful materials using an inexpensive process, raising hopes that the method could be used to turn plastic waste into valuable products at a large scale.
Only 9% of plastic waste ever created has been recycled, in part because the current cost of recycling plastics outweighs any financial return. As a result, it is estimated that one garbage truck’s-worth of plastic enters the world’s oceans every minute.
But, using a catalyst made from common metals, researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing have converted samples of PET plastic (full name polyethylene terephthalate) into commercially useful chemicals, along with hydrogen which can be used for fuel.
In a paper published in Nature Communications, the team revealed the method can yield commodities worth $3,000 from one ton of waste PET. That compares very favorably to a current market value for recycled PET of about $350-400 per ton.
By developing an economically viable process for dealing with the material, the research appears a promising solution in the fight against plastic waste.
“Our team was excited when we finally obtained the pure and crystalline commodities from PET plastic,” Haohong Duan, a professor of chemistry at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told me. “This result demonstrates the feasibility of transforming waste into valuable products. This achievement encourages us to further optimize this technology and explore new reaction routes to expand the variety of valuable products.”
“In my view, our process can contribute to reducing the burden of waste plastic,” he said.
PET is the most abundant polyester plastic, with some 70 million tons manufactured each year. It is commonly used to make such items as plastic bottles, which a recent study found make up 12% of all plastic trash found within ocean environments.
About 300 million tons of plastic trash are produced annually, of which at least 8.8 million tons end up in the ocean. Waste plastics cause multiple harms to humans, plants and animals, some of which are not yet understood.
The new process breaks PET plastic down into three useful substances: the first, called potassium diformate, or KDF, has commercial uses as a safe replacement for antibiotics as a growth promoter in animal feed; next, the process yields terephthalic acid, or PTA, which is used to make coatings and resins for metal components; lastly, the process yields a small amount of hydrogen, which can be used as a fuel.
Duan explained that cost was the major hurdle preventing the more widespread adoption of existing forms of recycling, upcycling and separation of plastics. But the cost effectiveness of the new process was likely to become more attractive as it is refined. And as energy grids decarbonize and electricity prices drop, such processes should become cheaper still.
Plastic waste washes up on a beach in Koh Samui, Thailand. Environmental groups say tackling the … [+] plastic crisis will require a coordinated, global effort.
AFP via Getty Images
“Generally, the costs of process and revenues of products are the main obstacles determining the industrial feasibility of this technology,” Duan told me. “The former mainly depends on the cost of input chemicals, facility cost, and electricity price, in which the cost of feed stock is relatively stable. The facility cost can be reduced by improving the efficiency of the catalyst and optimizing of the reactor. From an electricity cost perspective, renewable prices continue to plummet. This cost decrease in renewable electricity provides an optimistic and aggressive goal for electrocatalytic technologies.”
Duan and colleagues therefore view waste PET as a valuable resource.
Yet PET is just one of seven main categories of plastic, and even if such a process sees widespread industrial implementation, tackling the mountainous plastic crisis will require a multi-pronged approach. It is contingent upon nations to produce less plastic in the first place, but environmental and legal groups warn that fossil fuel companies, faced with falling demand for their products as energy sources, are gearing up for a shift towards producing massively more plastic.
For this reason, multiple nations and firms have called for the introduction of a new plastic pollution treaty, to curb both the production and use of plastics. Yet major plastic-producing states such as the U.S. have resisted calls to support such an agreement, likely a result of intense lobbying from the oil and gas sector.