Inayat Dhaliwal has been a hydrogeologist for five years and now is the executive director of Plastic Free-YYC. PHOTO: Inayat Dhaliwal

Inayat Dhaliwal leads by example.

As the executive director of Plastic Free YYC, she uses a water bottle — forgoing disposable plastic ones — buys sustainably sourced clothing brands and carries reusable bags to the grocery store.

“I think that, to make an impact, everybody has to adopt changes as much as they can into their own lives,” she said. “If we all do a little bit or as much as we can do, that’s a step in the right direction.”

As a hydrogeologist, she knows the significant impact of single-use plastics in Calgary’s waterways and sees the urgency of reducing plastic waste.

Dhaliwal joined Plastic Free YYC to advocate for and encourage Calgarians to educate themselves about reducing their own plastic waste. But the group is concerned Calgarians may not realize how much damage plastic can cause to the ocean.

With minimal exposure to the ocean, it’s harder to see a direct connection to the habitat destruction and biodiversity loss driven by increased plastic consumption.

“As we are in a landlocked city, it’s kind of hard for them to understand why it’s important to us as well because we’re not anywhere near the ocean,” Dhaliwal said.

Plastic waste in Calgary

According to the City of Calgary Waste Management and Recycling Facility website, over the last 50 years, Calgary has collected 30 million tonnes of trash, which includes single-use plastics that can’t always be recycled.

In the future, the city estimates it will need more landfills. Creating those as a solution in a span of 25 years will cost $1.5 billion to buy land, enable protective systems, maintain daily operations and long-term care, according to the City of Calgary.

Christina Seidel, executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta, works with lobbying the government and various stakeholders in order to get the message across about improving waste management, advocating for actions and activities that lead to less waste, including a circular economy.

A circular economy revolves around the idea where nothing is wasted but rather reused and repurposed to create and contribute to another product.

“The most important thing, honestly, that any citizen can do is to try to avoid buying or consuming anything that you don’t need,” Seidel said.

Reimagining the local impact to our oceans

The Canadian government estimates only nine per cent of plastic waste is recycled. Most of it ends up in landfills or the natural environment and waterways, according to a government website.

Israel Dunmade, a professor of sustainable engineering at Mount Royal University, said that has an impact on species at home in and around the water.

“We affect aquatic organisms … because some of these plastics don’t break down when they get into the water system. After a long time they are like small beads,” said Dunmade, adding marine species mistake the tiny bits of plastic for plankton.

Along with creating waste management issues here, the day-to-day activities of Calgarians can have a major impact on the world’s oceans — but Dhaliwal said this may be difficult to visualize.

In order to increase relatability, Plastic Free YYC shares statistics and facts to help Calgarians grasp why protecting the oceans from plastic is important.

“One of the key facts we share is that the corals in our ocean are responsible for 80 per cent of the world’s oxygen and that’s more than the forests globally,” Dhaliwal said.

Dhaliwal said people who attend the group’s events and campaigns have been supportive. She said she believes this is due to the focus on plastic waste.

Solution in innovation

One thing the Recycling Council of Albertawants to change is how products are packaged, said Seidel.

“We need to design things, both products and packaging, so that it inherently reduces the waste to start with so that you don’t create waste that you don’t need to create,” she said. “There’s no justification to actually have more generation of plastic waste and, in particular, single-use plastic waste.”

Aside from avoiding plastic altogether as a solution, MRU’s Dunmade believes research can help find alternatives to it.

“Innovation is the key to solving plastic problems,” he said.

Increasing dialogue between Calgarians

In partnership with the Recycling Council of Alberta, Plastic Free YYC is introducing the ‘Pathways to Plastic Free’ webinar series.

Dhaliwal encourages individuals wanting to get a general overview of the impact of plastic on the environment through lifestyle changes to check out the series.

Dhaliwal said there is more work to be done to tackle the plastic problem and will take a collaborative approach from individuals, businesses and all levels of governments.

“I think that Calgary does have the ability to be a single-use plastic free city.”

Canada has pledged to ban single-us plastics within the next 10 years.

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