For the first 50 years after plastic was invented, the idea of only using the long-lasting material once was blasphemous, an affront to values of frugality honed over years of war and economic strife.
Then, in the late 1950s, the plastics industry launched a massive marketing campaign — and single-use plastic was born.
“The happy day has arrived when nobody any longer considers plastic packages too good to throw away,” Lloyd Stouffer said at the 1963 U.S. National Plastic Conference. Stouffer was a U.S. plastics marketing guru and the man who, in 1956, first pitched the idea that a virtually indestructible material — plastic — should be sold as disposable.
Since then, about 8.3 billion tonnes have been produced; most has been thrown out. Landfills are stuffed. Oceans and the animals in them are choked. Plastic particles are even showing up in human placentas, with unknown health impacts.
Plastic is everywhere: Manhattan, the Marianas Trench, even Mars.
Faced with this ecological crisis, dozens of Canadian municipalities and provinces have joined a growing global movement against plastic pollution. They have introduced bans and crafted new waste management legislation to try to control the problem.
Recently, the federal government jumped in, announcing plans for a national waste strategy that would list plastics as toxic under Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) and a ban on some single-use plastics. Most importantly, the plan calls for a new “circular economy” that would rely on massively scaling up existing recycling facilities and still-nascent recycling technologies to keep disposable plastic ubiquitous in our daily lives.
But can recycling really save us?
“Any material in the world can be recycled — if you separate it, prepare it and pay enough money to put it through the (recycling) process. The question is, is there a market for it? That’s what drives recycling,” says Samantha MacBride, an expert in solid waste management and a professor of urban environmental studies at the Marxe School of Public Affairs at Baruch College of CUNY in New York City.
“It’s a great industry — it provides jobs, it makes use of what’s around — but it doesn’t have anything directly to do with improving the environment.”
Canadians dispose of about 3.3 million tonnes of plastic each year, according to a 2019 study commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), almost half of which is packaging. Well over three-quarters currently goes to landfills, a small proportion is incinerated and about one per cent ends up directly in the environment.
Only nine per cent — or 305,000 tonnes — is recycled, the 2019 study found.
That’s no surprise. Low oil prices make it difficult for plastic recyclers, who must invest in expensive sorting and processing facilities, to compete against already established petrochemical manufacturers, whose facilities are well integrated with the oil and gas industry. It’s cheaper to make plastic from so-called “virgin oil” and put the waste in landfills than it is to recycle old plastics into new products.
Oil and natural gas producers are betting heavily on continued growth in virgin plastic production, with the industry expected to soon account for between 45 and 95 per cent of global growth in demand for oil and natural gas, according to a September report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative.