Dealing with plastic pollution within one generation is possible, but it will require innovation, significant action by industry, and strong policies from every level of government.
“Plastic pollution is everywhere. It already fills our rivers, our lakes and our oceans, and harms wildlife that call those places home,” said Peter Schiefke, parliamentary secretary to the federal minister of environment and climate change.
“As home to the longest coastline and one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, Canada is a huge player in this — it has a huge stake in addressing this urgent challenge.”
Schiefke was part of a panel discussion on Friday about plastic waste and its effect on our oceans, lakes and waterways at the virtual Zero Waste Conference hosted by Metro Vancouver and the National Zero Waste Council.
Five years ago, governments, industry and non-government organizations made global commitments to reduce plastic pollution after it was found that eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year.
Chelsea Rochman, an assistant professor in ecology at the University of Toronto, is part of a working group that produced a paper that was recently published in the journal Science.
Their research showed that the goal of reducing plastic waste in oceans and other bodies of water can’t be achieved without increasing the already ambitious targets, even though those targets won’t lead to a reduction.
Rochman said there needs to be systemic change.
“Unless the growth in plastic production and use is halted, a fundamental transformation of the plastic economy is essential, where end-of-life plastic products are valued rather than becoming waste,” she said.
“I think we have the motivation and will to move forward. The question is, will we?”
International agreements and supportive policies can be part of that change.
Schiefke pointed out that last month the federal government revealed the next steps in its plan to achieve zero plastic waste within the next decade, including banning single-use plastic items.
He said there needs to be a “herculean” approach plastics pollution because it is such a huge challenge, and that approach includes extended producer responsibility programs across the country, a more harmonized approach to recycling, putting in place more recycled content requirements for packaging to drive investment in recycling and spur innovation.
“All of that is not small — these are huge undertakings that we’re looking into right now and having big discussions on with our provincial and territorial counterparts, as well as key stakeholders in industry,” Schiefke said. “But, we need Canadians to back that up by making sure that message is heard with industry stakeholders, with elected officials and make sure that they’re constantly putting pressure on it, and that’ll ensure that we know this is something Canadians want and we have the backing of Canadians to undertake these huge challenges.”
On the industry side, Walmart Canada president and CEO Horacio Barbeito said the company has had a long commitment to sustainability and as a large retailer there is a lot it can do, but even if companies want to reduce their use of plastic, they need the rest of the supply chain on board.
“The progress we see in the industry is great, but we need to do more. The problem is getting bigger, so in order to bend the curve we need to do more, and we need to do more, faster,” Barbeito said.
Creating and using biomaterials can help companies avoid using plastic and other materials for products and packaging.
Suzanne Lee, founder and CEO of Biofabricate, spoke at the conference about using microorganisms like yeast, algae and bacteria to make fabrics for clothing, accessories and even furniture.
Ecovative works with mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, to grow materials that are compostable, such as a replacement for styrofoam that is now being manufactured on three continents.
“This is one I’m really proud of when it comes to a very discrete, commercialized way we’re addressing plastic pollution and waste,” said Ecovative co-founder and CEO Eben Bayer, who added that the company is also doing work in the areas of apparel, fashion and food.
Textile and paper waste can also be turned into pulp that is used to make a range of products, said Canopy Planet fibre solutions strategist Valerie Langer.