Nearly 3 million tonnes of plastic end up in landfills in Canada every year, and 29,000 tonnes make their way into the environment. These plastics take up valuable land space, as they accumulate faster in the environment than they decompose. Certain types of plastics take hundreds if not thousands of years to degrade, such as plastic bottles, which can take up to 450 years or longer to break down. Plastics often break down into tiny microplastics that create pollution from the deepest depths of the Mariana Trench to the highest peak on Mount Everest.
Millions of Pounds of Plastic Debris Litters Lake Ontario
In 2010, over 8000 tonnes of plastic waste ended up in Canadian waterways, a number that has only grown in recent years. In fact, over 22 million pounds of garbage enters the Great Lakes every year, with 3 million pounds entering Lake Ontario. This pollution has devastating effects on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The plastic debris injures and kills wildlife, either from being tangled or through ingestion. Additionally, as the plastic decomposes, it leaches toxic chemicals that can harm both humans and animals alike.
Single-Use Plastic Consumption Contributes to Climate Change
Manufacturers of single-use plastics consume 6% of all global oil supply, which is estimated to increase to 20% by 2050. Also, the refining of plastics releases 184 to 213 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is roughly equivalent to what 45 million passenger vehicles emit each year. By 2050, single-use plastics are projected to account for 10% of worldwide GHG emissions.
Plastic’s Harms to Human Health
Human health is harmed by single-use plastics. When left to degrade in the elements, single-use plastics leach many harmful chemicals into the ecosystem, such as bisphenol-A (BPA). They release endocrine-disrupting chemicals that bioaccumulate in humans and can cause cancer and impact reproductive hormones.
Additionally, the high demand for disposable masks to combat the pandemic has added to the pollution problem. A single disposable mask can release 1.5 million microplastics into surface waters and ocean environments, hurting marine species and infiltrating people’s drinking water supplies.
The Future of Single-Use Plastics
Despite growing public awareness and calls to decrease single-use plastic consumption, petrochemical companies are projected to increase annual production to 1,124 million tons by 2050, as compared to 311 million tons in 2014. Retailers have committed to reduce plastic waste by embracing alternative packaging, using recycled plastic materials, or eliminating plastic supplies altogether. To wean from fossil-fuel based plastics, companies will need to adopt a responsible supply chain to reduce their plastic footprint significantly. Unless major change happens, single-use plastics will only continue to harm the climate, land, oceans, and human health.
And it’s not all bad news; in March 2022, the UN passed a global plastic pollution treaty that aims to reduce plastic pollution around the world. The specifics of the treaty must still be finalized, and will go into effect in 2024.
In addition to pushing for systemic change, there are many things you can do to reduce your plastic usage. Here are just a few:
Buy clothing made from natural materials like cotton, rather than synthetic, plastic-based materials like polyester or nylon
Bring your own bags to the grocery store, even for produce
Buy in bulk whenever possible to reduce packaging
Reduce your plastic use in the kitchen by using glass or ceramic containers
Use reusable water bottles, rather than plastic disposable ones
Lena Milton is a freelance writer covering sustainability, health and environmental science. She writes to help consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in everyday life so we can find viable solutions for both.