Canada has the opportunity to position itself as a leader in tackling the world’s marine plastics problem at this week’s UN Ocean Conference, experts say.

However, to effect real change, Canada and its international partners will have to aggressively wean themselves off unnecessary plastics and accelerate the development of a global circular economy to make sure plastic pollution doesn't end up in oceans.

“There’s no question the world faces a bit of an existential crisis over how best to proceed on the plastic economy front,” said Peter Ross, senior scientist and director of water pollution at Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Big or small, plastics are ingested by virtually every creature in the marine food chain, causing harm to animals from zooplankton to whales, Ross said.

Marine plastic pollution exacerbates the decline of marine biodiversity, a crisis already made worse by global warming, with more than 800 marine and coastal species suffering impacts from the ingestion, entanglement and absorption of the petroleum product.

A baby turtle grapples with plastic on a Sumatra beach. Photo by Paul Hilton / Greenpeace

Plastic has no half-life

There’s no getting rid of it, said Ross, a former researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada — plastic only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.

“The reality is recycling is not going to be the panacea that saves the world's ocean,” said @Raincoast scientist Peter Ross about dealing with marine plastic pollution as Canada participates in the #UNOceanConference.

“It breaks down physically but not chemically. It has basically no half-life,” Ross said.

Beyond being permanent pollutants, virtually all plastics are made from fossil fuels and contribute significantly to the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. In a business-as-usual scenario, emissions from plastic production, use and disposal in 2040 would eat up 19 per cent of the world’s carbon budget under the UN Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 C.

The vast majority of plastic pollution in oceans comes from sources on land that then finds a way into water systems, Ross explained.

“We are creating a geological layer for future archeologists and anthropologists to sift through the rubble and find this layer of plastic around planet Earth.”

Forums on marine plastics pollution at the conference emphasized the global scale of the problem. Some 11 million tonnes of plastic waste flow annually into oceans — a volume that may triple by 2040 if the status quo continues.

A week before the UN gathering, Canada put into action a phased ban on six single-use plastics, including checkout bags, non-recyclable takeout containers, straws, stir sticks, cutlery, and the yokes or plastic rings on six-packs of beverage cans. The new rules come with timelines to restrict the import, production, sale and export of these items.

Canada also helped secure an international agreement by 175 countries to develop a groundbreaking, legally binding international plastics treaty by 2024 that aims to address the full life cycle of the product and create a circular plastics economy.

But whether the plastics treaty is truly a watershed moment will depend on political will, said Ross.

“I think it's good that Canada is positioning itself for kind of a leadership role on the file,” he said.

“But with all the grand aspirations of the UN Ocean Conference … as we look ahead, the question is how do we have a blue economy?”

To halt the “moving train” of vested corporate interest in plastics production, the treaty needs to include significant improvements on the recyclability of plastics and a carrot-and-stick approach to push companies to redesign products and find innovations and alternatives in the private sector, he said.

More research on the effective monitoring of waterways, oceans and wastewater discharges is also needed to identify and tackle the most significant problems, Ross said.

Raincoast Conservation Foundation senior scientist Peter Ross says recycling does not abate marine plastics pollution. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation

It's a myth that recycling plastics will stem ocean pollution

The idea that plastic recycling will curtail the waste stream into oceans is “fiction,” he said.

Plastic products are full of dyes and a variety of chemicals that make them virtually impossible to recycle.

“The reality is recycling is not going to be the panacea that saves the world's ocean,” he said.

Sarah King, Greenpeace Canada's oceans and plastics campaigner, agreed.

The vast majority of plastics in Canada — 87 per cent — end up in landfills or the environment, with the packaging sector alone the source of nearly half of that garbage.

At best, Canada only has the capacity to recycle 17 per cent of its plastic waste, and the federal phaseout of single-use plastics involves a mere three per cent of the plastic headed into landfills, she said.

“We really need to look at the source of the problem, which is we’re producing too much of it,” King said.

There needs to be concrete reduction in plastic production in Canada and across the globe, she said, or plastic pollution will continue to sabotage federal and international commitments to create low-carbon economies.

A Canada's National Observer investigation into the country's top carbon emitters found three plastics and petrochemical factories — two in Alberta and one in Ontario — collectively produced about 5.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.

The fossil fuel industry is banking on plastics and expanding production to ensure its future, Greenpeace asserts. And without radical change, plastics use will nearly double in Canada and triple globally by 2060, a new Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study shows.

Greenpeace Canada's oceans and plastics campaigner Sarah King (pictured in the Philippines) says the international community must set plastic waste reduction targets. Photo by Daniel Müller / Greenpeace

No country, including Canada, has concrete waste-reduction targets, King said.

To meet its net-zero plastics pledge by 2030, the federal government needs to phase out all non-essential plastics in short order, stop the production of single-use plastics and set timelines for reducing plastic production across various sectors, she said.

Canada needs to rapidly accelerate the transition to a reuse-and-refill economy, shifting to systems that don’t rely on single-use plastics to provide everyday goods and services, she said.

“We need truly zero-waste and circular systems,” she said, adding government investment will be necessary to help scale up innovation and infrastructure for the transition.

The federal government has shown leadership in calling for the plastics treaty to be ambitious and legally binding, King said.

But the concern is Canada isn’t going into international discussions, such as those underway at the ocean conference in Portugal, prioritizing a wind-down of the industry, she said.

The world is working to phase out oil and gas to combat climate change and must do the same for plastics, which is the flip side of the same coin, she said.

“They go hand in hand,” King said.

“This is definitely where governments need to come together and agree to a cap and phasedown of plastic production globally.”

— With files from Marc Fawcett-Atkinson

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer

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So what happened to the biodegradable plasttics made from corn or rice "waste"?
Several years back, they were banned here in Toronto because they couldn't be recycled the way the "regular" plastic apparently could.