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Ban the ban?

The recent discussions around the banning of plastics, particularly straws and plastic garbage bags, have piqued our interest. Two Atlantic provinces, Newfoundland and PEI, have passed bills banning plastic bags.  In other provinces, municipalities such as Montreal and Victoria have banned plastic bags, and Halifax is drafting a bylaw that should, by year’s end, ban plastic bags within the city. The federal government has also announced a plan to impose a nationwide ban on all single-use plastics by 2021.

On the surface, this looks like a good idea.  We’re all aware of the devastating effect of plastics on marine life: of dead whales found with nearly 100 pounds of plastic bags in their stomachs; of microplastics discovered in everything from plankton to lugworms to fish and whales; and of the vast floating garbage patches in our oceans, comprised largely of plastics. The obvious solution is to remove single-use plastics from circulation; ban them altogether so they can’t end up in our oceans (or our landfills, for that matter).  By eliminating plastics, we should effectively eliminate the problem that is plaguing our environment.

Or perhaps this is just the easiest solution, one borne of political motivation – this seems a simple way for the government to curry favour with voters on what has quickly become a leading environmental issue – and of ignorance. Yes, ignorance, as in a lack of knowledge, or a deficiency of factual information. Here’s why: the arguments have also been made, and with considerably more supportive research and data than exists within the “plastics are bad” camp, that banning plastics in Canada will a) have virtually no impact on the amount of plastic waste in the environment and in the oceans in particular; b) actually have a much larger negative environmental impact than if we were to continue using plastics; and c) have a significant negative economic impact, both in terms of increased costs and lost employment opportunities. Can this be true?

Kim Ragaert is a professor at Ghent University in Belgium – considered one of the top universities in the world – and there’s a great video of her on YouTube called “Plastics Rehab” in which she gives an eye-opening talk about our misguided perception of plastic and how the alternatives can actually be far worse for the environment. Increased energy costs for production, distribution and in some cases recycling for replacement products made of paper, cloth or glass far outweigh that of plastic products, as does the overall carbon footprint.  She urges people to learn the facts for themselves rather than just buying into the evil plastic mythology.

Likewise, this article from the Globe and Mail, and this article from the Financial Post both highlight how the ban on plastic bags will in fact have a negative impact on the environment.  Again, the alternatives result in greater CO2 emissions for production and also for transport due to significantly increased product weight per unit.  Increased monetary costs associated with production and distribution also mean increased costs that will be passed on to the consumer.  Many of us are keen to add our voices to the cry for a plastics ban, but aren’t so eager to accept higher costs of consumer goods as a result.  Also noted is that plastic bags make up less than 1% of the trash in the ocean to begin with, and that any such bans in Canada will have little impact on marine pollution.  The vast majority of ocean trash can be attributed primarily to developing countries and to the four biggest offenders on the planet – China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines – as all have very poor waste management systems and lax (or non-existent) environmental laws.  That’s not to say that Canada should not do its part, but banning plastics might not be an effective measure.  There are countless such articles posted by the BBC, National Geographic and many other more renowned news sources and scientific entities (and some not so renowned).  The point is that there is definitely another side to the plastics argument that we have been either ignoring or simply knew nothing about.

Finally, one has to consider fairly new developments in the life-cycle of plastics that could lead to improved roads, fuel, building materials and many other as yet unrealized opportunities. A recent CBC news article described how 2 tons of plastic material from shopping bags was used in the paving of a parking lot in Burnside, NS.  This replaced 25% of the bitumen that would normally be required for the job and kept the plastic out of the landfill.  (Evidently Vancouver used plastics in paving projects as far back as 2012, but different plastic materials were used besides bags.)  Another article describes how non-recyclable plastics in landfills are being turned into fuel such as diesel and gasoline, while other companies are turning plastics into Styrofoam, which can be repeatedly recycled.  The point is that plastics don’t have to be single-use; they can be “recycled” – maybe not to produce consumer products, but for use as described above and probably in many other ways that have yet to be discovered and developed.  This all means future job opportunities in industries that revolve around extending the life cycle of plastics.

One consistent theme throughout all of this is that we need to be better at recycling.  To begin with, our current recycling facilities typically don’t have the means to properly sort the various plastic waste we throw in our blue bags.  Even if they did, though, we aren’t always diligent about recycling in the first place; a lot of recyclable plastic still ends up in the garbage.  Furthermore, it’s not always clear what plastic is recyclable and what’s not.  What if we could return all plastic waste to a recycling depot for, say, so many cents per 100g as part of an incentive program?  If industry is going to use plastics in paving, in creating fuel, etc then they will pay a nominal amount for it, especially if they’re going to save money by using it.  But will people bother returning plastic for small amounts of money?  Who is going to put bags of plastic waste in the trunk of their car and drive it over to a recycling depot to collect $10.50? That sounds unlikely…except that we already willingly do that with beverage cans and bottles for a mere 5 cents apiece.  So the idea has already been put to the test, and it works.

Ultimately, we need to recognize that plastic is a resource and its life cycle should exist as a loop.  We develop plastic from petroleum deposits to make countless items, many of which can be recycled to make other products. However, it seems that all plastic can then be broken down further for use as fuel or as components in the production of asphalt, building materials, and so on.  By throwing plastic in the garbage because it can’t be recycled, we are needlessly breaking the life cycle loop and creating an environmental problem where one need not exist.  Perhaps instead of a ban, what we need is a bit of ingenuity and perhaps the government’s support to develop alternative uses like we’ve seen recently.  Just food for thought, but certainly enough to get us rethinking the idea of banning plastics…

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