Thursday, May 31, 2007

Plastics are Forever

Like a lot of Canadians, I divided my Victoria Day weekend between garden centres and dallying in our flower gardens at home. Aside from the perennials that we've inherited from our mother's and grandmother's gardens, up until now most of our flowers have been annuals. This year we decided to invest in expanding our perennial stock. At the end of the weekend, as I stood admiring our handiwork, I began wondering exactly how long each purchase would last. As I was cleaning up the leftover plastic pots and bags that remained, I got my answer. Seasons and flowers, even perennials, come and go, but plastic is forever.

My revelation comes on the heels of the Ontario government's announcement that it wants to reduce the number of plastic bags that consumers use by half over the next five years. If the voluntary program, (launched through a partnership with the Recycling Council of Ontario, grocery and retail associations), doesn't work, then the province is promising everything from charging for bags to an outright ban.

And so they should. Many other jurisdictions have already placed everything from heavy tariffs to bans on plastic bags. Last month, Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, became the first municipality in Canada to enact a complete ban. Retailers who ignore the ban risk a fine of up to $ 1,000.

Ontarians, who currently use about seven million plastic bags per day, should be taking notice. Plastic bags, like all other plastic products, are made from oil, a non-renewable resource. The fact that we have created these single use carry-alls solely for the purpose of being thrown out is criminal. The use of plastic bags, packaging and wrapping should be banned, or at least heavily taxed. Packaging, most of which is plastic, makes up a whopping one-third of our waste stream.

Unfortunately, we can manufacture these plastic disposables so inexpensively that on the surface it appears to be cheaper to throw most of them away than it does to create systems to recycle them. The plastic items that we currently put in our blue boxes make up a small fraction of the total plastic waste that we discard every day. For example, the plastic plant pots that I threw out could have been reused many times over. Unfortunately, they aren't accepted in curbside recycling programs, and any garden centre that I’ve tried to return them to won't take them back. It's cheaper and faster to buy new ones.

At least for now. Scientists are just beginning to understand how truly permanent these temporary items are. Alan Wiseman writes in The World Without Us, the long-term prognosis for plastics is simply that, long-term. With the exception of plastics that have been destroyed by burning, every bit of plastic that has been manufactured in the last fifty years remains somewhere in the environment.

"That half century's total production now surpasses 1 billion tons. It includes hundreds of different plastics, with untold permutations involving added plasticizers, opacifiers, colors, fillers, strengtheners, and light stabilizers," wrote Wiseman. "The longevity of each can vary enormously. Thus far, none has disappeared. Researchers have attempted to find out how long it will take polyethylene to biodegrade by incubating a sample in a live bacteria culture. A year later, less than 1 percent was gone."

The tragedy, according to Wiseman, is that contrary to popular belief, only a small fraction of the plastics that we discard end up in our landfills. Eventually, they are blown into streams and lakes where ultimately they end up in our seas and oceans. Charles Moore, founder of the Algita Marine Research Foundation, estimates that 80 percent of what's floating in our oceans originated on land, the majority of which is plastic. Something to think about the next time you go shopping.


Polymers are Forever, by Alan Weisman, is an abridged excerpt from his book The World Without Us, published by St. Martin's Press (July 2007). The article is featured in the current (May/June) issue of Orion Magazine. This thoughtful, visually beautiful and commercial-free magazine is produced by the Orion Society. To read Weisman's (and other equally thought-provoking articles), join an online discussion group, or subscribe to the magazine, visit

For more information on the Recycling Council of Ontario, go to


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