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Plastic waste starts, and stops, at home

Here are ways you and your government can reduce plastic pollution

Plastic Planet
The federal government has launched new efforts this year to address plastic pollution – a problem St. Albert residents are all-too familiar with as their blue bags are rejected due to unwanted forms of plastic waste.
This story is the second in a three part series on the nature of the plastic problem and what we can do about it.

So you want to cut back on plastic waste but the city keeps rejecting all of your blue bags and everything at the store is wrapped in plastic. What can you do?

Quite a lot, actually. Just ask Cass Romyn of Gibbons. Romyn's family, which includes a husband, a kid, and two pets, produces less than half a cart of waste every two weeks.

“We kind of make it a friendly competition at home on how much waste we can reduce,” she said.

An environmental advocate, Romyn said she’s taken a long list of steps over the last decade or so to keep her plastic footprint to a minimum.

She carries a reusable straw, water bottle, and grocery bag wherever she goes, for example, and has reusable produce bags that can double as cheesecloth.

“My daughter loves filling them up with pears and apples,” she said.

She’s replaced cling-wrap with reusable beeswax covers and store-bought soap with homemade stored in old glass jars. She also used cloth instead of plastic when her daughter was still in diapers.

“Buying in bulk is great,” she added, and sometimes gets you a discount if you bring your own container. If you eat out a lot, try toting your own fork and reusable container for leftovers.

Individuals can do a lot to shrink their plastic footprint, and they can do even more with the help of local government. This week, the Gazette looks at steps you and your local leaders can take to keep plastic out of the waste stream.

Single-use action

If you take a look at your plastic waste, you’ll find that virtually all of it is some kind of packaging. Plastic wrap, bottles, containers, cups and the like make up 47 per cent of Canada’s plastic waste, a recent report from Environment Canada found.

As most of that waste isn’t accepted by St. Albert’s recycling program – all that’s allowed are hard plastic jugs or tubs, deposit bottles, and milk containers – we’re not going to recycle our way out of this waste problem.

Instead, we need to make use of the first two R’s – reduce and reuse.

Single-use or short-lived plastic items like bags, cups, straws, and packaging, account for about a third of all plastic use in Canada, the federal government reports. Used for seconds, these items last for ages in our environment and cost serious cash to clean up: the City of Vancouver estimates that it costs $2.5 million for it to remove single-use items, many of which are plastic, from its streets and waste bins each year.

“That stuff isn’t cheap, and ultimately it’s the taxpayer that’s paying for all that,” said Melissa Gorrie of Waste Free Edmonton.

The first step to reducing plastic waste is to consume less. The less you buy, the less waste you create, Romyn said. For example, she trades kids clothes with her neighbours to reduce what she needs to buy new and avoids excessively packaged items (such as those individually wrapped toilet paper rolls at Costco).

Next, replace single-use items with reuseables wherever possible, and keep reusing them.

“Everything that’s produced has an impact,” Gorrie said, but the more times you reuse something, the less that impact becomes.

Instead of contributing to the 57 million single-use plastic straws the federal government estimates Canadians use each day, get a reusable one made of plastic, metal, or bamboo. Better still, use your lips – unless you have specific physical or medical conditions or a drink that requires it, you don’t need a straw.

Vancouver collects some 2.6 million disposable cups from its streets and public trash bins each week. Get a reusable mug, and you don’t need those cups. Some stores (like Good Earth Coffeehouse in St. Albert) will give you a discount if you bring one.

Canadians use about 15 billion single-use plastic bags a year, the federal government estimates, and there are a wide variety of reusable alternatives available. You probably have a bunch of reusable bags and backpacks at home already, Gorrie noted – use those instead of buying new ones.

“Anything you’re using, if you’re using it over and over again, is a good thing.”

If you want to get technical, a comprehensive 2018 analysis by Denmark’s Ministry of Environment suggests the best reusable bags are ones made from polypropylene, polyester, or PET, as they beat out a single-use plastic bag reused for trash in terms of overall environmental impact after 35 to 84 uses – well within their lifespans. A paper bag is only better if you can make it last 43 uses, while a new cotton bag needs an impractical 7,100 to 20,000 reuses. (If you already have that cotton bag, though, you might as well use it.)

While you can replace single-use plastic items with non-plastic disposables, Gorrie said to do so with caution, as it’s not always easy to tell if those alternatives are actually better.

For example, you might be tempted to use a paper, bioplastic or compostable bag for your trash, but a 2017 study by Recyc-Quebec found that those are worse than a single-use plastic one in terms of overall environmental impact as they take far more resources to make. If you’re looking for a replacement trash bag, your best option is actually no bag at all: St. Albert doesn’t require you to bag your trash.

Bulk solutions

Likewise, the best alternative to plastic packaging is often no package. While you might not be able to avoid those clamshells and cling-wrapped vegetables at major stores, specialty ones like Bulk Barn, Planet Organic, and Earth’s General Store in Edmonton offer a wide variety of goods for sale in bulk, and encourage you to bring your own reusable containers to store them in.

Earth’s General Store owner Michael Kalmanovitch said he started his operation 28 years ago to help people make less waste. Now the store carries everything from reusable forks to straws to menstrual cups, as well as bulk eggs, soap, olives, spinach, honey, blueberries, perogies, laundry detergent, and more. He doesn’t carry single-use bags, but does offer free reusable jars and bags donated by customers.

Bulk buys make environmental sense, Kalmanovitch explained. That shampoo bottle you have will probably last 20 years, so why not refill it when it’s empty?

“You’re going to buy frozen mangoes, but do you have to buy new packaging every time?” he asked.

Buying in bulk almost always saves you money, as you don’t have to pay for the packaging, Kalmanovitch said. That tiny bottle of lavender bought at the store actually costs about $1,200 a kilo when you crunch the numbers, for example – he can sell lavender for about $550/kg in bulk.

Many stores carry only a narrow range of bulk items, typically dry goods. Kalmanovitch said this might be because bulk goods mean more labour for store staff, as there’s no barcode to scan. Pre-packaged is also still the default for most producers – he has to specifically ask for no packaging, and often still gets stuff plastic-wrapped anyway. Still, he said industry listens to its wallet, and the more customers that buy and demand bulk goods, the more stores will offer them.

Government help

Despite being really committed to waste reduction, Romyn said she still has some plastic clamshells and plastic milk bottles in her fridge.

“Ideally, I’d like to get away from all the plastic in here,” she said, but glass milk bottles cost too much, and the clamshells are just too convenient.

Cost and convenience are significant deterrents to anyone working to reduce their plastic waste. It’s a lot less convenient to buy bulk at the specialty store across town than pre-packed items from the grocer across the street, and it can be tough to justify bringing or buying reusable bags and cups when stores and restaurants keep giving you free ones.

This is where governments can help. Governments can launch education campaigns to promote reusable alternatives, set single-use reduction targets, and lobby industry to make products easier to recycle.

They can also just ban single-use plastic items. Vancouver will ban polystyrene foam cups and take-out containers as of next January, for example, and will consider a ban on unnecessary single-use plastic straws in November. Seattle has gone further, having banned plastic straws, utensils, and polystyrene containers from food service businesses in 2018, with disposable flexible plastic straws allowed for those that need them for physical or medical reasons.

Bans can backfire if they push people to worse alternatives. Portland saw a 491 per cent jump in paper bag use after it banned single-use plastic bags in 2011, for example, which may have been worse for the environment as paper bags result in more greenhouse gas emissions and potential toxins than plastic ones.

Christina Seidel of the Recycling Council of Alberta said she favoured fees and taxes over bans, as taxes encourage people to reduce waste, require less enforcement, give those who need those single-use items flexibility, and can be followed by bans if necessary. The Northwest Territories has had a 25-cent fee on all single-use bags (plastic and not) since 2011, for example. It’s seen an 80 per cent drop in use of such bags as a result, and now has a lot of cash on hand for other waste reduction efforts.

Reducing plastic waste starts with being proactive, Kalmanovitch said. Bring that reusable fork to Taste of Edmonton, and use those reusable bags you have at home.

“Every time you do it, it’s a win.”

But don’t let manufacturers off the hook either, he continued.

“We as a government should say to the polluters, you need to pay (for this waste) but more importantly you need to change how you are doing business, because how you are doing business has too big of a footprint.”

Next week, we’ll look at one of the main ways we as voters can do that: extended producer responsibility.




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Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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