On garbage politics about ocean plastics

This morning on my Twitter feed I came across a ridiculous Tweet by the Green Party of Canada about their #RefuseSingleUse campaign against single use plastics. 

As an environmental policy type, I was offended by this tweet because it is so insulting to the intelligence of Canadians. Honestly, what were they thinking when they wrote this tweet and what was Ms. May thinking when she retweeted it on her Titter feed? The rest of this blog post will discuss this tweet and how the good policy intentions of the #RefuseSingleUse program can be spoiled by linking it to a narrative that is easily disproved. This is important because this sort of misinformation undermines attempts to address real policy challenges in the environmental field and undermines the credibility of the people making a good case about single-use plastics. 

Let’s start with the obvious. There is simply no way that the tweet from the Green Party represents anything approaching the truth. Consider that there are 40 million Canadians and only about 25% of them live on a coastline. If the tweet is true that means the 75% of Canadians living inland somehow are still significantly polluting the oceans with their plastic. Doing the math let’s consider what this means for Ontario. 

Virtually the entire population of Ontario is separated from the oceans with the vast majority of Ontarians living in the south with all those rivers flowing towards the Great Lakes or the St. Lawrence River. If 14 million Canadians live in Ontario and, according to the Green Party, use 100 kg of plastic a year that represents 1.4 billion kg of plastic a year. Let’s assume the “much” in the tweet represents 20% – 40%. That would mean that if “much of that ends in the ocean” then over a million kg/day from Ontario alone would be expected to be flowing down the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean. Add to that unobserved mound of Ontario plastic the plastic from the 8 million of so Quebecois who live near the St. Lawrence River and for that tweet to be correct we would need a daily float of plastic with a mass of over 1.5 million kg flowing down the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic.

I live in the lower mainland along with 2.76 million of my peers. I simply can’t see about 110 million kg of plastic flowing from the Lower Mainland into the Salish Sea every year either.  

So when the Green Party of Canada says “much of that ends in the ocean” what they really mean is an infinitesimal percentage of the plastic used by Canadians ends in the oceans. Admittedly, that line doesn’t make good copy, so they decided instead to say something they must know is not strictly true in order to create a buzz. This completely undermines their credibility among thinking Canadians. Do they honestly think an Albertan or reading that tweet will do anything but laugh at the idea that they are contributing significantly to ocean plastic by using a straw in Strathmore?

The reality of oceans plastic is that it is mostly an issue caused by developing nations. A recent study identified that 93% of the trash from 57 Rivers studied comes from only 10 rivers, with the biggest of those being the Yangtze. So if you really want to clean up ocean pollution, a reasonable way to do so would be to invest money in improving waste management programs in these identified watersheds. Another thing we understand is that a lot of that plastic comes from single-use water containers. The reason these communities use so many disposable water bottles is that they don’t have clean and safe potable water supplies. If you really want to reduce the number of single-use water bottles in Asia and Africa then helping supply safe, potable water to thirsty communities would be a great start. 

Now supplying Asia and Africa with clean water and improved waste management facilities might be a hard sell so what else could we do? Well 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage patch is from fishing fleets abandoning old nets. If you want to protect sea turtles then setting up a program to prevent fishers from dumping their old nets at sea would make a huge change to our oceans as well.  

Let’s be absolutely clear here. Canadians can still do better. On World Cleanup Day clean-up crews found thousands of coffee cups and water bottles on Canadian beaches. That demonstrates that Canadians have to work harder to keep our own backyard clean. However, concerns about turtles should not be argued as a reason to ban plastic straws in Alberta. 

To go back to the #RefuseSingleUse program. There are lots of really good arguments against single-use plastics. A lot of the time they are unnecessary and wasteful. Personally, our family has bought a number of reusable straws to allow my kids to drink their fun drinks with less mess. We also bring our own reusable cups to the coffee shop and use reusable water bottles when we are out-and-about. The only single use water bottles in our house are in our earthquake readiness kit where I have enough bottles of water to keep my family alive for a week because I live in an earthquake zone. That being said, should we end up at Tim Horton’s on a sunny Sunday I don’t begrudge my kids a smoothie out of a one-use cup with a straw.

To summarize, no British Columbians aren’t killing our oceans with plastics, nor are Albertans, or other Canadians. Rather, Canadian solid waste practices are some of the best in the world and our single-use plastics issue is more of a solid waste and waste of resources challenge. If the Green Party wants to do a #RefuseSingleUse campaign, then that is a great idea. But do so because single-use plastics are a bad use of resources or an unacceptable stress on our waste management systems. They shouldn’t pretend that doing so in Canada will have a significant effect on protecting our shared oceans, because making that claim undermines their credibility and sets back their ability to make good environmental arguments.

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8 Responses to On garbage politics about ocean plastics

  1. Roman says:

    Hello and thanks for the article,

    I believe you misquoted the scientific american article. The study there estimates that those 10 rivers contribute more than a quarter of all plastic waste in the ocean. 93% is actually how much they contribute of total plastic waste from 57 rivers they considered in the study.


  2. Alison Malis says:

    Somehow I got on Elizabeth’s email list, and despite numerous requests, I can’t get off. Every Sunday email has some egregious factual error in it. It’s disheartening.


  3. Hugs says:

    Lovely piece. I don’t know how you filter out any mind-climbing swearwords that pop up to my mind when I read something like the above – the green straw-ban-strawman. Good work!


  4. Blair, thank you for thoughtful post regarding Plastic and the world.
    I work in the conveying industry thus many of my clients are recyclers of so called “single use plastics” it is a tough business, but in general Canada is on the right track. I am proud of the hundreds of jobs recycling creates right here in BC’s lower mainland, (and many of the jobs support people that would have tough time at other jobs). Of course there are things we can easily do better and one is relatively SIMPLE: Expanded Poly Styrene “aka styro-foam” is easily recyclable. What is important is the pure “brittle” type of “styro-foam” is 100% recyclable and can be re used and made into new products – right here in Canada! Here is the issue: for whatever reason, industry keeps producing packaging that uses “mixed degraded” forms of foam packaging that can’t really be reused. This is crazy as it is so easily fixed: A TV set packed in quality corrugated cardboard and pure EPS is a tried and true, low cost and efficient way to move a product. In fact, a BC company is at the leading edge of recycling, compressing and reselling Styrene packaging, their problem is they cant get enough of the “pure stuff”. Who knew?

    Next! The world needs Canada to be a loud voice and supporter of real solutions to plastics: Starting with lobbying the developing world (and the USA) to understand that something as simple as a Cash Refund on plastic bottles and cans would be the fastest way to immediately reduce garbage. Can you believe this? In the USA, only 10 states (I estimate 20% of the population) have proper deposit / refund systems. How incredibly stupid is that??? If any Americans read this… be ashamed, your country is just as bad as Indonesia or some backward part of China where the people pretty much toss everything in their rivers. In fact, USA, you are worse – as you know better, you just do not act!

    Finally! Lets touch on the Green Party, we have to remember that, the Greenies are now “viable” therefore their primary objective has changed – retain power and make money. Sorry, my green friends, your focus is on more political seats and getting on committees. (Translation: restaurant per diems, jaunts to warm climates for so called conferences and lifetime pension benefits). Greenies are no longer interested in facts, and common sense solutions that will help the environment or the working class. Greenies will simply spew whatever pablum they can find to grab a vote or two from a public who is generally more concerned about selfies, likes, and the best way to unlock a key to get to the next level of their favourite video game.
    USA sucks at bottle refunds: http://www.bottlebill.org/legislation/usa.htm
    Foam Only EPS recycling: http://foamonly.ca/


  5. Terry says:

    What were they thinking (the Green Party and Elizabeth May) Clearly they were not.


  6. Pingback: Why an environmental scientist is so often critical of environmental activists | A Chemist in Langley

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