A Planetary Crisis, Part 1

Is The Planet Becoming A Landfill?

By Sarah King, Greenpeace

garbage on beach

It’s hard to believe that summer is drawing to a close but there is still time for some last beach visits and cottage missions to soak up every last ounce our short but sweet Canadian summers. There are few things more serene than sitting on the bank of a rushing river, gazing out into a deep blue lake, or listening to the ocean waves crash into the sand. But beneath the surface of our waterways, lakes and oceans, and spilling onto our shorelines, is an environmental problem that has people around the globe sounding the alarm about what will become of the wildlife and people that call these places home.

The UN has dubbed plastic pollution a planetary crisis. And when you see the images flooding the news and social media, it’s clear why. From the now infamous video of a turtle with a straw in its nose, to beaches so laden with trash that sand can’t be seen, one wonders if our blue planet is becoming one giant landfill.  

The culprit? Single-use, throwaway plastics – products and items we encounter every single day like plastic bags, cups, wrappers, containers, straws, forks and bottles. Items we may only use for a few minutes and then dispose of, destined for landfill, recycling, incineration or as pollution, depending on how it’s disposed of and the waste management systems in your community.  Billions of these items are produced every year, joining the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic that has been created since the 1950s.

In Canada, we produce the equivalent weight of 140,000 garbage trucks of plastic waste each year. Of the plastic waste diverted for recycling, only about 10-12% is actually recycled. Globally this number drops to about 9%, with the rest of the plastic ending up in landfills, incinerators or the environment, especially our oceans. In fact, a garbage truck load worth of plastic enters our oceans every single minute. And about 5 trillion pieces of plastic are currently floating around our seas.

One in three sea turtles, nine in ten seabirds and over half of all whale and dolphin species have eaten plastic. From Arctic sea ice to Antarctic seawater, from the deepest ocean trench to the most remote islands, plastic is somehow everywhere. Because it takes hundreds of years to break down but over time breaks apart into smaller and smaller pieces, our oceans and many large lakes are becoming plastic smoothies, too difficult to filter out its original contents.

Recycling isn’t going to stem the flow of plastics into our environments, and cleaning it up isn’t possible. What we need is to stop creating throwaway plastic in the first place, create more sustainable and healthier product delivery systems and communities, and hold plastic producers and polluters accountable for the mess they’ve made and for the limited options we’re given as consumers to make better choices for our families and our planet. We need to imagine a plastic-free future, and build a global movement of people saying enough is enough to our disposal-centric systems and plastic pollution.

You can join this growing movement. Here are three things you can do to help reduce our collective plastic footprint and create positive change in your community:

1. Reduce your own plastic footprint by bringing your own bags, water bottles, cutlery, straws and containers for grocery shopping, day trips, work, takeout meals and daily routines.

2. Ask your favourite coffee shop or restaurant to ditch throwaway plastic. For tips on how to approach a business, download Greenpeace’s Toolkit for a Plastic-free Future.

3. Lead or join a Plastic Polluters Brand Audit on global coastal cleanup day, September 15th, to help investigate the companies responsible for the branded trash in our green spaces and on our shorelines. Consult the Toolkit on how to host your own community brand audit or write to actsofblue.ca@greenpeace.org to get information about one near you.

Publisher’s Note: Sarah King is the head of Oceans & Plastics at Greenpeace Canada with a MASc, Environmental Applied Science and Management.