Hoarding Plastic Waste: Buried Alive

By A. Rachelle Foss
Earth Common Journal
2013, Vol. 3 No. 1 | pg. 1/3 |


Plastic is a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. Popular for its versatility, it can be attributed to the creation of the numerous conveniences we enjoy in contemporary society. However, traditional plastic does not break down and thus has also become ubiquitous within the environment, and the mounting consequences to its extensive use is being seen. Recycling provides a degree of relief in our efforts to address this problem and can be a boost to the economy but there are barriers that reduce the effectiveness of this solution. In addition to the complex and arduous process of separating and preparing different plastics for recycling, many plastics never reach recycling facilities. But even more common is the inability of many facilities to handle most types of plastics. Biodegradable plastics have been introduced to address this issue. However, bio-plastics also have proven failings, one of which is the damage they cause within the traditional recycling stream and concerns over increased littering. With the ever- accumulating material now reaching almost every part of the earth, governments must consider changing the laws to regulate the plastics we allow in our country before the earth is buried under the remnants our of conveniences.

Introduction: A Mounting Concern

Plastic has become a ubiquitous product on the planet; it is the vehicle for many conveniences. As such, the material is so ingrained in daily life, most people are not aware of how many products are produced using it. The startling reality is many of our products would not exist without plastic. The number of single and temporary use plastic items we would find the list is exhaustive. It is used to make toothbrushes, electronics, the foam in a pair of slippers, the fridge, and it goes on (Ian Connacher, 2008, ch.1). Plastic’s versatility gives it tremendous value and while this versatility is an asset it is also a flaw. The material’s versatility and universal use has made it a widespread and incessant problem that litters our earth. It fills garbage dumps, spilling over to litter beaches, lakes and oceans, mountains and valleys (Moore, 2011, p. 5). This is because “every single piece of plastic made over the past 60 years is still there, in one form or another” (Ian Connacher, 2008, ch. 1). In their book, Plastic Ocean, Moore and Philips (2001) state that “plastic litter has been found in every single part of the seven seas - from the floor of the Arctic Ocean to the farthest reaches of the Pacific. And it's not going away” (p. 2).

We cannot rely on recycling alone to solve this ever-increasing problem. Government legislation controlling the plastics manufacturers use to produce products sold in Canada, ensuring single and temporary use products are only made with biodegradable material, and that long term use products are made of recyclable plastic material can help. These laws can be used to address and begin to resolve issues surrounding waste pollution and recycling shortfalls.

Plastic: The Virtue of Convenience and Vice of Durability

Although “plastic in essence is a material that is mouldable when heated and retains the shape once cooled” (Alberta Plastics Recycling Association [APRA], 2013, para. 1) including naturally occurring plastic like amber (APRA, 2013, para. 1). Modern plastic is a man-made material composed of various polymers, also known as resins, derived from crude oil and natural gas. Plastic come in many varieties ranging from brittle to flexible to lightweight foam. It is used to produce most items we use daily including mixing bowls, toys, and vehicle parts.

Single use and temporary use items include plastic bags, water bottles, straws, to go containers, utensils, plastic wrap (saran), sandwich bags, toothbrushes, razors, and the list continues (Plastic Pollution Coalition, 2010, para. 1-4). Many of these single use items have become a permanent fixture in society since 1957, and the convenience they provide only increases their popularity (SPi The Plastic Industry Trade Association, 2012 para. 4).

There is no denying that plastic is an indispensable product, but according to research by documentary film director, Ian Connacher, (2008), “virtually no organism can degrade plastic. Which means every piece that has ever been made, except for a small amount that has been incinerated, still exists” (ch. 1).

This points to serious consequences when we consider that “Canadians take home an estimated 2.86 billion plastic bags each year” (Banks, 2008, para 1). The majority of plastic ends up in one of Canada’s estimated 2,400 landfills (Landfill Inventory Management Ontario, 2011, para. 1) where it does not break down (Ian Connacher, 2008, ch. 1). The landfill’s hermetic seal blocks the oxygen, moisture, and air necessary for the right organisms to breakdown our garbage and “without oxygen, air, moisture and the right organisms, nothing will breakdown or go away” (Ian Connacher, 2008, ch.1). According to Statistics Canada, there is concern that as landfills near capacity, municipalities struggle to find locations for new ones (Babooram & Wang, 2008, para.1).

Off the pacific coast of North America a circulating set of currents, known as the North Pacific Gyre, trap a steadily increasing amount of non-degrading plastic garbage and fragments. The North Pacific Gyre has come to be nicknamed the Pacific “Garbage Patch” (Ian Connacher, 2008, ch.1).

Globally the problem is even more pervasive, and it’s not just a problem that exists in developed countries. Colourful, filmy bags float through the air, swathe the natural foliage, fill the ditches, and hang from branches and clotheslines; A gaudy trash mosaic that bedecks the landscape. In Nairobi, Kenya, the locals call plastic bags the national flower. According to Nairobi businesswoman, Tahreni Bwanaali, “it is quite a big issue and quite a big concern” (Ian Connacher, 2008, ch.7). The overwhelming issue has prompted Kenya’s government to take measures to reduce the number of plastic bags in the country (Ian Connacher, 2008, ch. 7).

European researcher, Dr. Jan van Franeker, claims roughly seven to eight kilograms of garbage wash up daily on each kilometre of beach in Holland (Ian Connacher, 2008, ch.5). Garbage, rejected from the plastic potage the ocean has become, ceaselessly washes ashore littering the world’s beaches. According to a claim by the United Nations, there are “46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean” (Ian Connacher, 2008, ch. 1) and tests of ocean water have found in some areas, the ratio is a ten to one ratio of plastic to plankton. It is also estimated that ten percent of ocean water contains nertles, the small plastic beads that make up the basic foundation for all plastic products (Ian Connacher, 2008, ch. 2). By nature, plastic attracts oily pollutants and the nertles, which resemble fish eggs— a common food for a lot of marine life— are no different. Many ocean fish consume nertles coated in toxic pollutants. Humans then consume the toxins when they eat the fish (Ian Connacher, 2008, ch. 4).

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