Plastic Oceans to Plastic People

How to navigate into the future, beyond the plastic horizon  

Lexi Mingo // Contributor

As you already may know, plastic is an artificially produced material made from distilled crude oil, or petroleum and chemically engineered to meet the desired purpose. Not only does the carbon-dense material have a variety of negative impacts on “disposal,” but it takes fossil fuels to make it. In Canada, barely 10% of plastic is recycled— which begs the question, where does it all go?

After my personal discovery of the plastic gyre in the North Pacific Ocean in 2009 (12 years after it was first discovered), I knew that something wasn’t right with our global consumption and disposal system. Since then I, like many others, have been exposed to a constant unraveling of systemic failures, disclosing many generations of ignorance and neglect. But stay with me here, I’m only talking about one problem today: plastic. 

It’s everywhere. There are miles of multi-coloured plastic bottles bobbing amongst a smorgasbord of neon flip flops, beach toys, and other questionably discarded floaters. The images of dissected sea animal stomachs full of trash filled my own stomach with an unsettling shame. 

In February of 2019, I decided to test my will-power. Aware of my privilege as a student with a little extra spending money (a novelty, I know), I decided I would explore the concept of “zero-waste.” However, the term itself is problematic. From my own experience dumpster diving, I knew that the vast quantities of corporate waste were inevitable.  

An individual who attempts a “zero-waste” lifestyle needs to know that they aren’t a superhero. If anything, they are a privileged practitioner of a counterculture. The “zero-waste” lifestyle comes with sacrifice no matter who you are. A typical grocery store’s potential “zero-waste” sections take up less than a quarter of its entirety. The rest is filled with bags, boxes, cans, tetra packs, foils and twist ties, none of which are mutually exclusive.  

Avoiding plastic for 40 days meant I needed to enter each day very prepared. Sure, I could get fruit, vegetables, nuts, and dried beans at Safeway without being confronted with single-use plastics, but where would I buy my tofu, tortilla chips, pasta and other items that are predominantly plastic wrapped? 

Armed with reusable cotton totes, glass jars, and bulk bags, shopping became a monumental journey into the eco-affluent part of town. I did weekly “zero-waste” pilgrimages to Vancouver’s publicly marketed “zero-waste” stores. It took a total of six buses round trip, with my bulky backpack awkwardly jangling all the way. For my good deeds, I was awarded back with pain and inconvenience.  

This is only one example of consumer experience, where “zero-waste” practice seems like a nice idea in theory, but is inaccessible in practice. If you don’t live in a community that accommodates to a “zero-waste” lifestyle, you’re damned with burning either fossil fuels or your own physical and mental fuel. The “zero-waste” lifestyle looked more like a mythical goal set forth by minimalists and trendy upper-class house-wives than a reality.  

After completing my challenge, I started to question other materials used in packaging. Is plastic really the culprit? It was revealed in my research that it takes four times as much energy to make a paper bag than it does to make a plastic one. Are plant-based plastics any better?  

As it turns out, Bioplastics and paper products are almost as controversial as plastics, and just as ambiguous. They come with other residual pros and cons. Materials that are labeled “biodegradable” or “compostable” are designed to be disposed as trash. If not properly disposed of, these products emit methane, which is counter-intuitive to their initial purpose. 

Public knowledge regarding new products needs to be shared, and local disposal systems need to create space for the efficient decomposition of plant-based materials. We need to take the pressure off the individual and put it on lawmakers and corporations instead.  

Although both provincial and federal Governments have proposed the banning of single-use plastics as early as 2021, we cannot afford to have our consumer consciousness stay idle. If we are aware of our consumption of plastics and the debate around the alternatives, then we can have an informed opinion on what steps the government must take to meet the Paris Climate Agreement goals. It’s your right to protect yourself and your wellbeing, and that intrinsically relies on the wellbeing of our environment.  

If you want your voice to be heard, please visit https://cleanbc.gov.bc.ca/plastics and take part in this important survey.  

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