The Plastic Threat

Recently I started seeing an ad from Walmart that, as of April 22nd, they will no longer be offering plastic bags to pack your groceries.  This ad started me thinking.  As with many other grocery giants, the plastic threat is the latest trend to save our planet.  I questioned if plastic bags are such a threat, what about the million other products already packaged in plastic on the grocery shelves?  Why are plastic shopping bags the thing we are concerned about most?   

Understanding Plastic

Plastic has become a term that describes numerous types of polymers (any class of natural or synthetic substance composed of large molecules). Usually derived from petroleum or natural gas, these long, repeating molecules exhibit distinct physical properties.  Shortened from the word thermoplastic, they are materials that can be shaped and reshaped using heat.  These polymers are strong and do not break down easily.

Polymers first appeared in the 1930s. The wartime shortages of silk stockings required a replacement – the result was nylon.  Going forward to the second world war, researchers looked to polymers when other materials like natural rubber for tires became scarce.  Over the years, technology and science advanced these synthetic polymers to become the plastics we know today.  Not only are they lightweight, but also inexpensive to manufacture. Plastics have integrated into every product we purchase, from food and drinks to cars and clothing.

Our current food production and consumption practices generate a lot of packaging.  Grocery store food is in plastic or paperboard containers.  Many items traditionally found in glass are now in multi-layer plastic-coated containers or bags.  Processed food often has multiple layers of packaging: from the serving tray to the plastic covering it, to its container, and then to the plastic wrap that covers the container.  Finally, these items are carried home in a plastic bag.  All this plastic and most of it is single-use.

Why is Plastic Such a Threat?

Consider what you have eaten today.  Perhaps you ate yogurt from a plastic container? Did you drink water from a plastic bottle or pack your lunch in a plastic container?  Believe it or not, there is a good chance that you have ingested plastic.  That’s right.  There is mounting scientific evidence that plastic is detrimental to our health from as early as our time in the womb. 

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released research that indicated that more than 90 percent of bottled water contains microplastics.  Scary thought, right?  These microplastics can carry a range of contaminants such as trace metals and some potentially harmful chemicals.  How do they get there? These microplastics leach from the surface into the food.  The more acidic the food, the greater the leaching effect.  Once ingested, they can increase the toxic effects on your body.  Some can even have carcinogenic properties.  The worst part – leaching can happen even at room temperature.

Earlier this year, 33 scientists from around the globe prepared a report that hazardous chemicals can transfer from food contact materials. They identified 148 chemicals, fifteen of which were considered endocrine-disrupting chemicals. These chemicals look like hormones in the body yet mess up the body’s normal hormone function. They can cause numerous chronic health issues such as diabetes, cancer, and neurological disorders like ADHD. Of these 148 chemicals, there was no safety information on 60 percent of them.  

Plastic is polluting our rivers, lakes, and oceans. It generates microplastics that make their way into the water we use and drink. Ocean fish are eating it and cannot digest it. In California (USA) in 2008, a sperm whale was found dead. The reason? It had ingested 22.8 kilos of plastic.  Statistics show that 1 million marine animals die due to plastic pollution each year. Ecologically, the oceans are being devastated. These tons of plastic debris have formed five underwater garbage patches. The largest of them, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Texas.

What is the Biggest Threat?

Every year in Canada, we throw away 3 million tonnes of plastic and only recycle 9% of it.  The vast majority of this plastic ends up in landfills or the oceans.  Even if we recycle plastic into a new plastic product, it is still not degradable and eventually ends up in landfills or the oceans.  Despite the name, even biodegradable plastics are not as eco-friendly as they sound.  They require specific moisture, heat, and oxygen conditions to break down properly, and our local composting facilities are not necessarily able to do so.  Food packaging also uses our resources in production and often generates air emissions, including greenhouse gases. 

Globally, the numbers are even more astounding.  We use 5 trillion plastic bags in a year, and less than 1 percent of those are recycled. We use 8.3 billion plastic straws, 500 billion plastic cups, 40 billion plastic kitchen utensils, and over 100 million plastic bottles.  Even our clothing and carpeting use plastic, with over 70 million tons attributed to these products.  Packaging accounts for 40 percent of all the plastic polymers produced.  It also results in most of the waste.

Government Stands Against Plastic

Governments around the world are taking notice, and Canada is no exception.  In Canada, the government plans to ban plastic bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings (as found on soft drinks and beer), and hard-to-recycle plastic containers by 2030.  Furthermore, it is transitioning its Blue Box recycling program to an Extended Producer Responsibility model to begin in early 2023 (with full responsibility to take effect by the end of 2025).  This program means that the producers will take responsibility for the waste they create. The hope is that it will encourage innovation in packaging, making it easier and more efficient to recycle. In a perfect world, it would mean less waste.  Perhaps it is not so far-fetched. Some companies have stated they are researching compostable, or even edible packaging.

Around the world, other countries have implemented programs to battle the plastic threat.  France is committed to developing systemic solutions to achieve the recycling of 100 percent of plastic waste by 2025.  Norway currently has a recycling rate of 97 percent due to its efficient deposit return scheme.  Chile promotes using reusable containers in over 1,000 convenience stores (you get future discounts on purchases if you bring a reusable container for your purchase). Germany has strict waste segregation rules that have resulted in a 56 percent recycling rate.  In 2017, Kenya banned the use of plastic bags.  Anyone caught violating this law faces imprisonment of up to four years or a $40,000 fine.  Positive examples for the rest of the world to follow.

What Can You Do?

Your health is of utmost importance. You want to ensure that the food you eat is not harming you and, ultimately, the environment. Avoid purchasing products packaged with multiple layers of plastic whenever possible.  (Unfortunately, there is very little you can buy that does not have some form of plastic in its packaging.)  Make sure you recycle your plastics.  Every little bit helps. For your health, use glass or metal reusable water bottles. Avoid bottles lined with plastic resin.  Never store or heat food in plastic containers.  According to Harvard University, leaching occurs even faster (and to a greater degree) in plastic exposed to heat. Finally, ditch the plastic bags and bring your own.  The plastic threat is real.

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