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Plastic recycling a myth, reduce becomes the plan

The federal government’s latest move to eliminate single-use plastics is predicated on the first of the three Rs – reduce – and the realization that the other two – reuse and recycle – are largely meaningless where plastics are involved.

Some 86 per cent of the 3.3 million metric tonnes of plastic Canadians consume each year ends up in landfill sites, with another four per cent incinerated.  Just nine per cent is recycled, and that number may have fallen off in the wake of China’s ban on the importation of plastic waste.

About one per cent of all plastic waste remains at large, representing that plastic bag floating in the breeze or the mass accumulations that gather in our rivers, lakes and oceans.

It’s that highly visible waste that the government focuses on in launching a bid to see zero plastic waste in the country by 2030.

The first target is six items that are most often found in the environment and not easily recycled, items for which the government says there are alternatives. The list includes checkout plastic bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and food-ware made from hard-to-recycle plastics.

Through its Zero Plastic Waste Initiative, Environment and Climate Change Canada is investing about $2 million in support of new projects to implement innovative solutions.

Canadians have already started moving in that direction. We’ve seen some movement towards paper straws, for instance. And the plastic bag issue is not new. In fact, it represents the most visible of the proposed changes.

We’ve long been carting around reusable shopping bags, the latest iteration of what was once a choice between “paper or plastic?” at the checkout. Starting in the 1970s, plastic bags became ubiquitous, accounting for four out of every five used at the supermarket.

So successful has been the transition, that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates upwards of one trillion plastic bags are manufactured worldwide each year.

In the last number of years, however, the bag has become a symbol of our disregard for the environment. The resultant backlash led to bans in some jurisdictions, while others have imposed a per-bag cost on convenience. The latter can be seen in grocery stores around here.

There are plenty of good reasons for cutting back on our use of plastic bags. While recycling programs do exist, participation rates are typically low. The bags are made from petroleum, with each placing a demand on dwindling supplies. Many simply end up in landfills where they can take decades to decompose. Worse still, many of the bags simply scatter, their shape and light weight allowing the wind to move them with ease. The result can be unsightly trash gathering in ditches and hedgerows. But more seriously they end up in waterways, where marine mammals try to eat them or they choke birds and other wildlife.

The focus on plastics jibes with Waste Reduction Week, which gets underway on Monday. The program’s goal is to inform Canadians about the environmental and social ramifications of wasteful practices.

The message is sinking in – many of us are mindful of over-packaged goods, for instance. As individuals we’re starting to make some changes, smarter choices. On the whole, however, we’re generating more waste than ever. That has much to do with industry rather than individual actions, but the two are connected.

In the case of excess packaging and products such as single-serving food items, business takes its cue from consumers: if we stop buying such goods, or shift our dollars to less-wasteful choices, they’ll take note. In the meantime, industry is also encouraged to reduce how much waste they generate behind the scenes as part of the manufacturing process.

To hasten the process, however, government action is required. Precisely the rationale of the Zero Plastic Waste Initiative.

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