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COLUMN: Focus on single-use plastics a waste of science

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 6/28/2019 12:14:00 PM

On June 5, 2019, federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna tweeted “BIG NEWS Coming Soon: We’ve been busy working with provinces, territories, and Canadians, and we’re almost ready for a big announcement. Stay tuned!” 

A few days later on June 10, 2019, the big news turned out to be not so big — a press release from the Prime Minister, “Canada to ban harmful single-use plastics and hold companies responsible for plastic waste”. But, when one read the release, one found that the government had a plan under which it might ban harmful single-use plastics, such as plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks, as early as 2021, “where supported by scientific evidence and warranted, and take other steps to reduce pollution from plastic products and packaging.” 

While some of the fine-print initiatives in the press release and supporting documentation have merit, the wiggle room in the announcement amounts to politicization of scientific research. Science cannot tell a government whether to ban specific single-use plastics, and politicians who think that science can provide such guidance are misleading themselves and the public. Anyone who has studied the problem even briefly understands that a ban on plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks is nothing more than tokenism, and that putting such a ban forward as if it were a reasonable solution to the very serious plastics problem is already showing disregard for any kind of scientific evidence. 

Science has a very important role to play in public policy formulation but, at the end of the exercise, science provides only guidance to public policy, not the policy itself. The guidance provided by scientific research depends very much on the questions asked of the researchers. For example, while the emerging but still rickety science of product life-cycle assessment (LCA) may be able to tell us whether a single-use plastic bag has a greater or lesser environmental footprint than a single-use paper bag or a multi-use textile bag, there are so many judgment calls contained in the analysis — such as the source of the fibre that goes into the paper bag and how many round trips the multi-use bag is likely to make — that different studies will produce different results. 

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There is no doubt that banning plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates, stir sticks, or any other product will reduce the environmental footprint of our society, but by such a minute amount that the initiative amounts to nothing more than what is commonly known as greenwashing. A parallel analogy might be that of the automobile. Cars undoubtedly provide a real social benefit but in Canada more than 1,800 people are killed per year and almost 10,000 are seriously injured by motor vehicles. Should we ban cars because of the toll on human life they exact? 

There is already enough science to know that plastics are causing a problem in our oceans but there is not enough science to know the most important sources of the problem or how best to eliminate, and not just minimally reduce, the problem. 

One part of the problem is microbeads. These were used as a mild abrasive in personal care products but such use is now banned in Canada. An even greater source of microparticles is our clothing. Every time we wash, clean, wear, or even handle synthetic textiles, such as polyester, microparticles of the fibre, which is in fact a plastic, are released. Data on this source of plastics is very limited but it is likely one of the most important sources of plastic in the oceans. 

Another source of microplastics may be the action of ocean waves and sunlight on bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks, but there is very little data on how much of the microplastic problem comes from oceanic grinding of plastic products and packaging. If this is found to be a problem, then it will apply to all plastics that find their way into the action, not just the mini-list apparently being targeted by the federal government. All those scratch marks on plastic products represent a loss of microparticles that will eventually end up in the oceans. 

Of course the problem is not just microplastics. Marine life often eats plastic litter, confusing it with food materials. The results can be fatal. Given the amount of plastics going into the oceans, this consumption of plastics may be reducing animal and bird populations to critical levels. Plastics are also a problem on land, not just as a waste that is not sufficiently recycled, but also as a use of petroleum resources that are themselves a contributor to pollution. 

We need much more scientific research on:

  • how to reduce and eventually eliminate plastic microparticles from all sources
  • how to deal, if it is possible at all, with the plastic materials that are already at large in the environment
  • how to increase recycling of plastics from the current miserable level to a much more impressive level
  • how to reduce our use of the most damaging plastic goods while continuing the benefits they provide to society. 

The current focus on single-use plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks is a waste of science resources that could be spent much more usefully on the really big plastics problem.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He was selected by Environment Canada to be the principal author of the waste management chapter in the report The State of Canada’s Environment 1991. Colin can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone), (416) 362-5231 (fax), and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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