Your Plastic Footprint
You may remember the idea of the “carbon footprint,” measuring how much pollution and carbon dioxide you create in your day-to-day lives. Driving to work, mowing the lawn, and even running the lights for too long throughout the day all add up to your own personal carbon footprint. Now replace carbon with plastic. It’s the same thing, but instead of measuring the amount of pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, the plastic footprint movement measures pollution caused by plastics. The Plastic Disclosure Project is the leading environmental watchdog that aims to regulate the amount of plastic pollution that is caused by companies worldwide. The brainchild company is based in both California and Hong Kong and its goal is similar to many other environmental groups, such as the WWF, but with a direct focus on plastic pollution on land and water.
Plastic is both an important and an extremely damaging man-made material. Over the last 150 years, we’ve gone from having found a way to synthesize an ivory substitute to creating plastic-based interplanetary vehicles to explore our solar system. Check out the timeline below to see the history of plastic.
One thing to remember about plastic is that with our interconnected world, every person can impact everyone. Scientist Jessica Jambeck’s research shows that eight million tons of plastics are being dumped in our waters globally per year. Sixty percent of the plastic waste polluting the world’s waters come from China, the leading polluter of plastic.
Until recently, China was a paid dumping zone for multiple countries like the United States, Philippines, Hong Kong, Denmark, Thailand, and Japan. In 2010, China started refusing waste from other countries due to its own issues with pollution. Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh are also on the list of leading polluters created by Jambeck.
But some countries have the right idea. Sweden is becoming one of the world’s leaders in burning plastics and other recyclable products and converting it into energy. In Sweden, 32 plants produce energy, sorting waste to maximize energy. This success has made it possible for Sweden to use half of the waste it produces for energy while the other half is recycled. Forty percent of homes in Sweden are heated by waste energy. Also, because of Sweden’s low pollution and consumption of waste, the country purchases waste from other European countries like the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway, and Italy to create more energy.
The reason this is successful is partly due to strict environmental laws in Sweden. If other countries follow this pattern, we could have initiatives like Sweden’s waste energy plants. Unfortunately, not every government’s environmental laws are as progressive as Sweden’s, but some companies are taking matters into their own hands. In Indonesia, an enterprising inventor transforms plastic waste into fuel for vehicles by using augmented furnaces. Also, Grammy award winning artist Pharrell Williams co-founded a clothing company called Bionic Yarn that uses plastic materials fished out of the oceans. Williams’ co-designs denim clothing with the materials made from the plastics.
Even smaller steps to minimize plastic waste can help out in our communities. At the end of the day, it’s all about the little things: picking up litter, recycling and sorting waste, utilizing the garbage and waste systems, using fewer products with plastics, and thinking about our actions that may impact the world.
Legislation in Canada
In recent years, concern over the safety of plastics has led to changes in legislation. Many laws and regulations have been implemented in Canada and North America over the years to ensure that the plastics used by consumers are safe.
The big concern, prior to 2006, was plastic wrap – and the chemicals it could potentially release when heated. This caused a general concern because many people who heat their food covered with plastic film (saran wrap) might be consuming chemicals along with their lunch. Plastic films used to be made from PVC, which had phthalate, a chemical that would make the wrap more flexible. But that same chemical is known to potentially disrupt hormones – and to leach from plastic when exposed to heat. Concerns over this led to a legislation that made it mandatory for the plastic wraps for food use to be phthalate-free. Since 2006, plastic wraps in North America have been made with LDPE, a safer material.
Types of Plastics
Few of us stop and think about plastic or, more specifically, about the different kinds of plastics that are a part of our everyday lives. Learn more about them in the graphic below.
Materials (including plastics) that could be used for packaging food are controlled by the Canadian government and Health Canada under Division 23 of the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations. According to the official Health Canada website and Section B.23.001 of the Act, it is prohibited to sell food in packages that could impart harmful substances to their contents. The food sellers must meet these requirements and submit information of their packaging materials to test their chemical safety.
Strangely, however, there is no legislation that guarantees the safety of products you might buy and use in your home to store food in your fridge or cupboards. Plastic containers that are sold without food are not tested by Health Canada and there is no indication as to what substances should be used to make them, although the Consumer Product Safety Bureau investigates any concerns if these products are reported to pose a health risk. As these materials are unregulated, it’s buyer beware. When in doubt, glass or metal are, generally, safer choices (but don’t put that metal container in your microwave!).
A Plastic Economy in Ontario
Recycling is a business and the value of plastic is directly correlated to the price of oil. So when oil prices go up or down so does the value of plastic. Over 185 pounds of plastics are disposed of per year and 95% of the plastic material, worth 80-120 billion US dollars, is lost to the economy after a short, one-use cycle. The Circular economy is a new term that has emerged within the waste management and plastics industries. It’s not just about the environment anymore – it’s about business. Ontario’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change has released a proposed bill Waste-Free Ontario Act, Bill 151, focusing on the diversion of waste.
And that’s good news. Rafael Santos, a professor in Sheridan College’s chemical and environmental program, says a circular economy starts with a solid waste diversion program.
|Halton Waste has a diversion rate of around 60%, making it one of the most environmentally friendly waste facilities in the province. Halton Waste has already started to expand its diversion plan to accept more types of plastics, which can then be sold to different companies. Halton Waste now diverts lids, tubs, and clamshell-type packaging in its circular economy program. A recent Ontario Management Waste Association (OMWA) study is encouraging companies to rethink waste. Plastic products are a major landfill contributor in Ontario. Ultimately, part of the progress is due to economics. Waste plastic is a commodity – and has a value that fluctuates with the stock market. And that means many companies would sooner purchase and use it than have it sit idle in a landfill. The companies that produce plastic waste also save money by selling their product rather than paying to dispose of it.
Every plastic and clamshell packaging has repercussions for air quality. The average water bottle requires nearly one-quarter of its volume in oil for the manufacturing process. It also generates up to four times its weight in greenhouse gasses. During the development of this project, one of the students involved, Muluba Habanyama, began an experiment. She collected all of the plastic bottles she used over a three-week period. By the end of it, her studio apartment resembled a landfill. As a 22-year-old college student living alone with a Costco membership, water bottles just seemed convenient for her. She got them for a good deal. It was certified clean water, and quickly disposable. Muluba never thought she was contributing to the plastic problem. She also bought into the myth that bottled water was healthier than tap water. Not true at all. In fact, according to Health Canada, tap water is BETTER than bottled water because it’s not wrapped in plastic. Also, after researching these water bottle brands, she learned that most of those companies actually use tap water. So, she has been paying for something that comes more or less free out of her tap. Muluba says she was using plastic because she was being selfish. She did what she thought was best for her – and didn’t consider all the ramifications of her plastic usage. At the end of the experiment, she had used 120 bottles. She did recycle them, but that’s not the point. She could have avoided all of that waste – and the greenhouse gasses associated with the production of those bottles – by simply using a refillable container. Now, she is using tap and fountain water in cups, glasses, and reusable water bottles. And that’s just a start. Muluba is also looking at the other plastics in her life – bags, skin and body care packaging, plastic wraps – the list is endless.
That’s Muluba’s plastic story. What’s yours?
LEGO of Plastic
Let’s set the stage for this future. Imagine yourself in 15 years. It’s 2030. We’ve got flying cars, the Canadian dollar has come within half a cent of the U.S. dollar, and the Toronto Maple Leafs have won the Stanley Cup. All is good in the world. Except Lego isn’t plastic anymore.
After over 50 years of producing tiny identical plastic bricks, the Denmark-based Lego company is on the hunt for the next wonder material. With more and more plastics being found to have negative effects on the environment, Lego’s environmental policy states that it’s become necessary for the company to find alternatives for its classic ABS (for the nerds out there, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) material:
“I need to find a material that is just as good as this one(…) that will be just as good in 50 years because these are passed down from generation to generation.”
– Allan Rasmussen, senior project manager for Lego
In a press release, Lego proudly announced it was investing one billion Danish Krones (almost 200 million Canadian dollars) in a sustainability project. The aim of this new Sustainable Materials Centre is to do just what the name implies; to find new and sustainable ways of producing the lego building blocks – without the plastic. Since the 1950s, the Lego company has been producing its classic, iconic bricks at a rate that now reaches 5.2 million an hour, 45 billion a year. To put that into perspective, 40 billion Lego bricks would reach the moon. Each brick has looked exactly the same since the 1950s, from the height of the hollow pipes to the width of each brick, with a 0.000018 percent defect rate. All of this was possible due to the use of ABS plastic, which would mold into exact copies within a five thousandths of a millimeter. The biggest challenge they will face is balancing perfection with environmental conscientiousness. In order to address the environmental issue, the World Wildlife Federation has teamed up with Lego to act as a source of information and reference, and as a kind of watchdog for the future of the company. With help from their environmentally focused partnership,
the Lego company has ambitiously promised to reduce its energy use by 10 percent in the 2016 fiscal year.
Credit: Hillary Johnson