Did you know that Canadians use up to 15 billion plastic bags a year and around 57 million straws daily? Did you know more than 29 000 tonnes of plastic find their way into the natural environment every year? Did you know more than 80% of plastic litter in the ocean comes from microplastic, microfibres and single-use land plastic that we often overlook? Well, having backgrounds in environmental chemistry and sustainability, I am not too shocked by these data. However, these data do serve as reminders that we need to become more mindful of our plastic waste. With Canada’s one-step closer to zero plastic waste by 2030 and Liberals’ single-use plastic ban coming into effect in 2022, it is a good time to reflect and see what we can do.
First, let us review the different types of plastic in the market.
Types of plastic (Plastic Resin Code): We’ll have to talk about this one.
1. PETE, or Polyethylene Terephthalate
PETE is commonly found in recyclable household plastic containers. The plastic most impermeable to carbon dioxide, it accounts for around 30% of the plastic bottle market. Soft drinks, juices bottles, and edible oils containers are composed of this plastic. The next time you pick up a Pepsi, Coca Cola, or water bottle, look for PETE symbols on the plastic bottle.
2. Polyethylene HDPE, or high-density polyethylene
Polyethylene is divided into two categories: HDPE (high-density polyethylene) and LDPE (low-Density polyethylene). Despite being non-heat resistant, HDPE’s low cost and resistance to breakage makes it ideal for plastics of all kinds including detergent bottles, motor oil bottles, and insulation for houses. Most grocery bags belong in this category.
3. Polyethylene (LDPE: low-density polyethylene)
LDPE, a type of polyethylene, is not heat resistant. LDPE often has high transparency, making it prevalent in applications requiring clarity such as grocery sacks and plastic films.
The six-pack ring that will be banned belongs in this category.
4. Polyvinyl Chloride-PVC
As a plastic that is highly permeable to oxygen and water, PVC is versatile and used in many plastic materials. It is mostly commonly seen in water pipes, LP records, and vinyl car tops. However, did you know blood collection bags are also made of PVC? You could test your friend on a trivia night with this fun fact!
PP is a special type of plastic possessing excellent barriers and heat resistant functions. It is found in plastic liners to keep perishable food fresh and dry. Polypropylene makes up most of plastic straws and takeout plastic containers on the market.
PS is the oldest plastic polymer ever invented by Eduard Simon in 1839. Having a relatively low melting point and being an inexpensive material to produce, it is manufactured at several million tonnes per year. Uses include rigid plastic of all kids including disposable cutleries and polystyrene foams.
The last categories have many different types of plastics. Examples include plastic Nylon Polyamide-PA (found in some clothing etc.), polymethylmethacrylate (e.g., contact lenses), Polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon), and rubber etc.
Recycling, banning the use of disposable plastic utensils, what is the big deal?
Out of 7 categories, most recycling centers only accept Plastic resin code 1 and 2 (PETE and HDPE), the regular coke, detergent and fuel bottles. Some also accept plastic resin code 5 (polypropylene-PP) but only about 3% of PP get recycled. So, most of these plastics go into the landfill instead of being recycled. Every year Canadians generate more than 3.2 million tons of plastic wastes, but only about 9% of plastic gets recycled. This is a very small number compared to 86% of Canadian plastic that ends up in the landfill. The remaining 5% are combusted to release more carbon dioxide and other toxic substances into our atmosphere -a silent killer to the ozone layer that protects us from the harmful UV radiation. What a waste! It is no surprise that Liberals want to put an end to these single-use plastics as soon as possible.
What can we do?
1. Be aware of what goes where.
Under the new source-separation system started on April 10, Edmontonians need to start understanding what goes where. There are six categories. Three common categories include: food scraps, recycling, and garbage. Everyday plastic wastes can either go into the garbage or recycling bin. The difference between the two is whether it is clean and whether it contains food or not. Usually for those disposable food containers such as foils, wraps, cutleries, and Styrofoam (in plastic resin code 5 and 6) we toss them into the garbage. On the other hand, the plastic containers such as detergent bottles, milk jugs and stretch plastic bags (in plastic resin code 1, 2 and 4) can go to the recycling bin.
2. Clean and dry items before recycling
While virtually all plastic can be recycled, the economic and environmental cost is extraordinary for soiled plastic compared with clean plastic. Soiled plastic has to be washed and dried before you can chop and re-melt it. This cleaning process can require gallons of water. Even worse, sometimes this soiled plastic can damage machines, significantly slowing down the sorting process. In fact, some Alberta Municipalities have rejected selected plastic packing for recycling. They find these plastics better suited for landfills. In Fort Saskatchewan, the rate of dropping off recyclables tripled in 2019 due to sorting and cleaning of plastic.
So the bottom line is clean and dry recyclable plastic items before putting them into the recycling bin.
3. Recycle, reuse and reduce.
Cliché, but valid. Recycle, reuse and reduce is still very true in today’s world of plastic use and disposal. Recycle clean acceptable forms of plastic whenever possible. Reuse plastic bags, bottles, containers, and clothing made of plastic. Reduce the use of plastic by bringing your own bags and containers for shopping.
Last, but not least, take your old batteries, furniture, and other kinds of appliances to the Eco station. Recycling and reducing our plastic waste starts with one step at a time. We can significantly reduce our plastic waste and use if you join in.