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Thursday, November 14, 2019
Connecting Our Communities

In the age of plastic, there’s literally no escaping the stuff

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THIS WEEK

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Aside from relieving municipalities of the cost – some $130 million annually province-wide, though don’t expect a refund – the province’s fast-tracked changes to the Blue Box program come with a hope of some relief in the accelerating plasticization of the planet.

In making producers pay the full cost of recycling programs, officials hope to see more standardization and fewer packaging options that aren’t easily and cost-effectively recycled. Today’s plethora of packages create headaches for municipal recycling programs, with items often ending up in landfills, where they’ll persist indefinitely or, more insidiously, end up out in the environment as part of the millions of tonnes of microplastics that are now everywhere.

Literally, everywhere.

Plastics have been found in the oceans’ depths, high up in the mountains, and in polar regions. There is no escaping them. Estimates put the amount of plastic in our waterways at more than 150 million tonnes, joined by some eight million more each year, the likes of errant plastic bags or plastic straws. New research is now shining a light on the issue of microplastic contaminants. A U.S. Geological Survey report, for instance, found it’s literally raining plastics, as fragments of a range of materials was found in rainwater high up in the Rockies.

Microfibres abound, both directly spewed out into the environment through the likes of dryer and vacuum dust and line and indirectly through the disintegration of larger plastic items, from the fast-food cups blowing around to items dumped into waterways. Even the water spilling down the drain from, say, our washing machines is likely to contain microfibres that will join with similar streams and larger-scale industrial flows on route to treatment plants that aren’t equipped to filter out such small particulate. Even processed, the water carries the microplastics onward.

In its ability to persist and move around, microplastic pollution is akin to chemical pollutants found in groundwater, for instance, the latter a not-unfamiliar topic in this area given the decades-long efforts to rehabilitate the contaminated aquifers under Elmira. Like toxins, microplastics can bioaccumulate.

While we’re much more aware of chemical pollutants – though that hasn’t stopped the contamination completely, despite doing away with the most egregious examples – microplastics are just coming under the microscope. For now, however, the amount of such pollutants released into the environment continue to grow.

A report issued this month by Swiss researchers, who measured microplastics in snow from places such as the Alps and the Arctic, painted a daunting picture of the problem’s scale. Production rates of plastic pollution is of some 380 million metric tonnes per year in 2015 could rise to 3.4 billion tonnes of annual waste production by mid-century. Mismanaged plastic waste could triple from 60 million to 99 million metric tonnes to 155 to 265 million tonnes by 2060.

We know the plastics end up in the food chain, becoming particularly pronounced in the oceans, where animals ingest them in a cumulative manner. Given the spread of microplastics into the planet’s every nook and cranny, there is no escaping them even in our diets. In fact, a 2017 study of drinking water in Europe and North America found 83 per cent of tap-water samples were contaminated with plastic fibres. Bottled water offered little respite. Even processing, as in sampling of German beer, failed to get rid of fibres and fragments, which also show up in foodstuffs. A 2015 study in Paris showed microplastics falling from the sky at a rate of three to 10 tonnes annually.

What that means for human health is still up in the air, however. There’s really no avoiding tiny plastic particles in our food and water, and researchers are now looking on what that means to our health and wider ecosystems. A thought to keep in mind well beyond sorting at the Blue Box.

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