Single use plastic: impacts and solutions to help solve the problem

Feb 14, 2019

By Jimmy Therrien

Most of you have probably heard about the plastic islands currently being found in our oceans and seas all over the world, impacting our ecosystems in a significant way.

In March 2018, Canadian news outlets reported that according to the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, the marine dumping ground in the Pacific is 16 times larger than they had estimated in previous assessments. From their sampling they found that most of the floating debris was microplastic particles in the form of tiny balls smaller than 5 mm in diameter.

It is estimated that there are 8 million tonnes of plastic debris distributed each year in the world’s oceans and seas. This problem reaches all the way to the Arctic, where there is also a large plastic island which was studied by researchers from a Spanish university. They discovered that the ocean current named the Thermohaline Current acts as a means of transport for these plastics. These materials come from as far away as the east coast of North America and the north-west coast of Europe. Arriving in the Arctic after a long journey, the plastic debris is blocked with ice and surrounding territories, and eventually sinks. With global warming, this problem will only worsen, as more of the ice turns into water, the waste will have large expanses on which to accumulate.

Since they are so resistant to decomposition, these plastics are a large cause of animal deaths. It is estimated that 100,000 marine mammals and one million birds die by eating and getting trapped in these plastics around the world each year. Although the Canadian Arctic has fewer plastic debris than other polar areas due to currents, this does not prevent impacts on its migratory birds that will often ingest floating plastic waste in the North Atlantic where they normally spend their winter.

The causes of this accumulation of plastic

While there are multiple causes of this pollution, using single use plastics is identified as one of the top. These items, such as plastic straws and plastic containers mainly come from our consumer habits that generate disproportionate amounts of waste that were not re-given value. Although they originate from various places in our communities, these materials eventually end up on the edges of beaches and other banks where they finally find their way to the oceans.

Impacts of using single use plastics

In addition to the previously mentioned impacts on marine animals through ingestion and entanglement, the plastic industry also has other negative side effects, notably its contribution to global climate change. In fact, whether in the form of packaging, bags or products with single uses such as straws, we find plastic material in almost all end-use segments of our economy. This industry contributes to global warming in part from the emissions associated with production and transportation of these products.

Plastic also contributes to global warming as it degrades in the environment. A study published in the United States in 2008 states that plastic waste releases greenhouse gases like methane and ethylene when it degrades. After several tests on all products (i.e. water bottles, bags, packages and industrial products), the researchers arrived to the conclusion that polyethylene, the most widely used polymer, was the biggest emitter.

What are the solutions?

Several technologies are being developed around the world to eliminate these plastics from the environment by mechanically removing them. However, while it is very important to continue cleaning up these bodies of water on our planet, according to several experts in the field, the problem is of such gravity that we can no longer simply limit ourselves to removing scraps and particles from our water systems. We need to act upstream by questioning the various sources of these plastics that end up in the ocean because once there, these plastics can be found anywhere on the planet. Putting our finger on the root causes of this pollution and eliminating it will significantly reduce our contribution to this global problem.

As you read this article, you may be wondering “How can I make sure that my actions as a consumer do not contribute to this problem of microplastics in natural habitats?” Well, as is the case in many other areas, some of the solutions available to us to combat this global problem are easy to integrate into our everyday routine. Others will require people to show a real willingness to review some of their current practices that have most likely become routine habits in their daily lives for years. Here are some solutions that we propose to reduce your dependence on plastic and thus do your part to improve the state and sustainability of the environment and our communities.

At the grocery store, big box stores and department stores

  • Shop at stores which you can bring your own reusable containers to fill items such as rice, cereal, etc.

INTERESTING FACT: A rigorous study from the University of Twente in the Netherlands as part of a master’s thesis, revealed that unpackaged or paper-wrapped products have had a positive effect on the perception of people with respect to health, freshness and general appreciation of the products. In contrast, no such association could be established between plastic packaged foods and people’s perception of the healthy nature or freshness of the product.

  • Choose products which are not wrapped in plastic. Example, choose the cucumber not wrapped in plastic versus the one covered in plastic
  • Use reusable materials such as beeswax wraps to cover your food instead of plastic alternatives like plastic wrap
  • Use reusable bags to transport your groceries and other purchases instead of the plastic ones given by the store

At the beach and along the coast

  • When you visit the beach or coast, pick up litter before it ends up in the water system
  • Organize a beach cleanup

At restaurants and cafes

  • Refuse single use plastic items like straws, cups and utensils
  • Support restaurants that follow sustainable practices
  • Bring a reusable mug for hot drinks or request a ceramic or porcelain mug if you will be sitting down for a while

Hygiene

  • Refuse a new plastic toothbrush and invest in a wooden or bamboo one
  • Use alternatives to plastic feminine products
  • Use shampoo and soap bars instead of plastic alternatives

Of course, we can not dismiss the fact that the economic sector of packaging of all kinds generates jobs around the world and that, since its invention, plastic remains one of the most practical materials in terms of hygiene, efficiency of use, lightness and malleability. However, under an approach that further integrates the importance of environmental sustainability into the three-fold Economy-Society-Environment perspective, a holistic vision must question how these three spheres can interact in harmony together and in a sustainable way to enable the sustainability of our human operations and minimize our destructive impact on ecosystems.

About the Author:

Jimmy Therrien has been with The Gaia Project since 2011 and is the Program Director. He holds a Bachelor of Science and Masters in Environmental Studies.

Click here to learn more about Jimmy.

References:

Abraham, Lois (2017, January 26). Bring your own containers: Low- and zero-waste food stores try to go green. Retrieved from https://www.ctvnews.ca/lifestyle/bring-your-own-containers-low-and-zero-waste-food-stores-try-to-go-green-1.3258655

En plus de polluer les océans, le plastique contribue au réchauffement climatique. (2 août 2018). Repéré à https://quebec.huffingtonpost.ca/2018/08/02/plastique-changements-climatiques-gaz-effet-serre_a_23494520/

Kroese, Manon (2017). Packaged versus unpackaged food: The perceived healthfulness and other consumer responses (Master’s thesis). Retrieved fromhttp://essay.utwente.nl/71732/1/Kroese_MA_FacultyBMS.pdf

Le dépotoir du Pacifique est 16 fois plus grand que prévu, selon une étude. (23 mars 2018). Repéré à https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1090985/plastique-depotoir-pacifique-continent-microplastiques-etude

Messal, Roselyne. (13 septembre 2018). Océans : les effets du plastique sur les animaux et l’environnement. Repéré à https://www.futura-sciences.com/planete/dossiers/pollution-dechets-plastique-mer-septieme-continent-1898/page/4/

Profil industriel de l’industrie canadienne des produits en matière de plastique. (4 janvier 2017). Repéré à https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/plastics-plastiques.nsf/fra/pl01383.html

Une île de plastique dans l’Arctique. (21 avril 2017). Repéré à https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1029542/ile-plastique-dans-arctique-etude