Plastic problems: A return to frugality and structural changes, not a quick fix
If recycling makes you feel good, you might overlook the structural reality of our consumption and waste crisis — treating plastic as disposable instead of valuing our resources
By: Sydney Klassen-Rosewarn
Plastics were not a single-use purchase until the editor of Modern Packaging, Lloyd Stouffer, pitched the immortal material as a disposable item.
“The future of plastics is in the trash can… an everyday recurring market measured by the billions of units,” he famously addressed the Society of Plastics Industry conference in New York in 1956.
Stouffer told the players of plastic it was time to move from reusable packaging to single-use plastics.
After receiving some backlash from his address in New York, he made another notable address to the Society of the Plastics Industry annual meeting in Chicago.
“With plastics prices still moving downward, while the other materials are pushing steadily upward, the future can only be rosy,” reported Stouffer.
Stouffer was right. Consumers would embrace the idea of cheap, disposable plastics. Not only that, consumers embraced the idea of single-use items altogether.
But the future hasn’t been rosy.
In 2017, Canada’s landfills were reported as getting close to capacity due, in part, to single-use plastics. Landfills take up valuable space, but landfills also produce about 25 per cent of Canada’s methane emissions — a notable greenhouse gas. Canada is guilty of being one of the worst waste-producing countries in the world.
And Calgary is part of the problem.
In 2018, Calgary only diverted about 60 per cent of waste from landfills through residential collection systems. The City of Calgary’s goal is to divert 70 per cent of waste from landfills by 2025.
A year later, the city found that for single-family homes, the average black cart only contains 28 per cent of correctly sorted landfill items. The other 72 per cent is made up of food waste, other compostables, and, most notably, recyclable materials. Recyclables like paper, cardboard, tin cans and plastics made up 16 per cent, with 11 per cent being other recyclable items like clothing, paint, or electronics.
“Wrong items can be put into the blue and green carts and we have seen that amount increase in recent years,” says Chloe Stone. She’s a waste diversion specialist with the City of Calgary.
“There’s always room for improvement, so we can recycle and compost more, and make sure that we’re recycling and composting the right things,” she says.
This is why it’s especially important to take care when recycling and to reduce waste as efficiently as possible to ensure we don’t take up the valuable space landfills use.
But is recycling the ultimate answer?
Recycling: a feel-good outlet
Tim Taylor says, “We all feel good about recycling. I put something in the recycling bin, I’m good.”
Taylor started his own environmental consulting firm and teaches pollution prevention as a sessional instructor at Mount Royal University.
He emphasizes that when we feel good about something, sometimes that’s the end of our effort. Because we feel good about ourselves, we miss other areas where we need to take action, he adds.
But if we look at the actual outcomes of recycling, Taylor says we won’t feel good about it.
Globally, only nine per cent of our plastic gets recycled, with some countries doing better than others.
Taylor says we need to look at what the bigger problems are.
For example, provincial and municipal waste management systems focus mainly on the individual recycler, rather than the businesses, institutions, and industries that are producing the majority of plastic and overall waste.
In Alberta, more than 70 per cent of undiverted waste comes from non-residential sources such as industry, commercial operations, institutions and construction.
In some ways, Canada’s ban on certain harmful single-use plastics will contribute to that goal by limiting how companies and their outlets can sell plastics to consumers.
The ban prohibits manufacturers from importing harmful single-use plastic checkout bags, cutlery, food service ware, stir sticks and straws.
But Alison Rebello says the federal government can do better.
“This is soft … this is smaller than a baby step. Like you can go bigger, c’mon,” she says.
Rebello has volunteered with Green Calgary and is taking steps towards living a zero-waste lifestyle.
In San Francisco, these types of manufacturer single-use plastic bans have been successful. The city also rewards or penalizes businesses based on how they use their green and blue bins. San Francisco charges companies if recyclables or compostables land in general waste but gives discounts for using the city’s green and blue bins.
The result? In 2012, San Francisco set a North American record by diverting 80 per cent of its waste from landfills.
The city then set an ambitious goal of being a zero-waste city by 2020. They have not yet achieved that goal. However, San Francisco has reduced landfill waste by half over the past decade.
San Francisco has two new ambitious goals. To reduce landfill waste by another 50 per cent and reduce solid waste production by 15 per cent by 2030.
Let’s talk economy
To address the root of overconsumption, consumerism and capitalism, the circular economy regards nothing as waste, as it was before Stouffer convinced the plastic industry to capitalize on single-use plastics, marketing them as disposable.
The circular economy is about getting as much value out of resources as possible. Instead of putting resources through the extract, use, and dispose cycle, the circular economy suggests that we reduce, reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, repurpose, and even recycle.
“We live on a planet with limited resources and a growing population, putting increased demand on those resources,” wrote Stone in an email.
Stone attributes recycling to putting less stress on resources and the environment.
“We avoid the pollution caused by having to extract, mine and process new resources,” she explained.
Attitudes are changing
This is why new businesses are popping up with the sole purpose of refurbishing or reusing materials.
During the initial phase of the pandemic, John McInnes noticed the amount of waste from single-use takeout containers as more people dined at home.
To mitigate the waste coming from such lifestyle choices and situational realities, he founded Earthware. The company makes zero-waste, reusable takeout containers right here in Calgary.
Instead of asking Albertans to change their habits, he changed the product.
“The less that you disrupt what people are doing today, the better they’ll accept what you’re, what we’re, trying to do,” he says.
McInnes adds that Alberta is a leader in bottle returns, returning 84 per cent of non-refillable beverage containers in 2021. And since we’re already used to these return systems, he says we’ll easily be able to adopt business models like Earthware’s that sustain a circular economy.
“Right here in Alberta, I think we can prove that we’re one of the most environmentally conscious places in the world,” he says.
McInnes uses the same resource plastic proponent Stouffer said should be single-use but is instead adapting it for reuse.
“I do believe that the future is reuse, and I hope that we’re one of the vanguards of it,” he says.
“So much is happening today — and so much more is in prospect for tomorrow,” said Stouffer in the late 1950s in Chicago.
But now, those prospects aren’t in disposable plastics. The possibilities lie in making the most of resources.