Last week, we received an email from three grade 8 students from Brampton, ON. They are working on a school project where they need to in someway make an impact on their community and they chose to focus on the environment, specifically the harmful effects of plastic. The goal of their project is to spread awareness to other elementary school students in hopes that they can make a difference locally.
Here is part of their email, "Over the last few weeks, we have conducted research on this issue and have become more aware of the long-term effects of plastics on the environment, however, we would also like to interview someone from your campaign to gain a greater understanding of these impacts on Canada’s biodiversity. We hope that you may provide us with some insight into the topic, as it is beneficial to hear the opinions of people who are knowledgeable about the topic."
Sound familiar? This is exactly what we also aim to do through our campaign! We thought what better way to continue this conversation than to make their questions and our responses into a blog post.
Q. What strategies are most effective when trying to spread awareness regarding our topic to keep people interested? A. Our experience has been focusing on the positive. People are constantly bombarded with the negatives surrounding the plastic crisis that it can cause "eco-grief". We like to change that and share "eco-joy" instead. Our whole campaign focuses on what businesses, organizations, people, etc. ARE doing for the environment rather than what they aren't. By doing this people can feel connected to the actions people are doing in their community and feel more empowered to make a change.
Q. How will the current situation with the environment change in the coming years if there is no improvement in the amount of effort put into reusing and recycling?
A. This is a tough question, I think there will be more plastic pollution found in our environment, which is concerning because we are already seeing so much of it. The concentration of microplastics in the Great Lakes is increasing, the great Pacific plastic patch is growing, and we are seeing more animals with microplastics in their systems. I think the number one thing to remember is the first "R" in the "Three R's", which is reduce. The fact that plastic spills while its in transport on the ocean is inevitable, people not disposing it where it should also happens so I think we need to start by reducing the amount of plastic we use and sharing that with our close circles of people to spread the word.
Q. What would you say is something that people are usually surprised by when it comes to plastic and the environment?
A. That it never goes away. We hear about plastic breaking down and people usually associate that with it eventually going away, but it doesn't. It simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics. Microplastics are plastics that are smaller than 5mm in diameter and they can be from plastic breaking down, plastic that was created to be small, or synthetic fibres from clothes when they are washed. Which poses a concern to the environment when they are not disposed properly. Q. How do you think everyday citizens can contribute to reusing and recycling items such as plastic in their everyday lives?
A. When people approach us and they're overwhelmed as to where to start we first start by telling them that even one small step makes a difference. Then we share with them the "Big 5", which is always bringing a reusable water bottle, utensils, food container, bag, and coffee mug when you leave the house. This covers the basics to get started. And from there we tell people to start thinking about one area in their home at a time to reduce plastics. The kitchen is a big spot. If we can start to rethink how we use everyday items, we will be able to divert many plastic products from recycling or worse, the landfill. A couple things we like to share is reusing plastic frozen berry bags and milk bags for snacks or keeping other items in the freezer; checking out second hand stores for zero-waste items, you don't need the fancy new items, buying second-hand is even more sustainable than buying new; and saving old glass jars that food come in (think jam jars and pasta jars) to keep using them for containers or extra drinking glasses. I think being creative by thinking outside the box of how we normally use items can really make an impact!
Q. What do you think is Canada’s next steps in reducing plastic? A. The federal government announced that they are banning harmful single-use plastics in 2021. We are excited to see what will come from that, but also understand the challenges this could have on small businesses. This is something we are starting to share with businesses who we want to Take the Pledge. We are helping them get started and preparing now so they are not overwhelmed with getting rid of banned single-use plastics in 2021.
There are a lot of new inventions being created using waste by-products from agriculture and the paper industry to start creating alternatives to plastic. Just recently I heard of an start-up working with corn leaves to create a plastic-like product as an alternative to traditional plastic. Additionally, Domtar the paper plant in Espanola has found a way to use lignin pellets (a bioproduct in the paper process) to create a bioaltnerative to plastic.
Overall, I think more and more Canadian's are becoming aware of the harm single-use plastics have on the environment, our health, and animal health but are still struggling with the idea that all the responsibility is currently on them for making an impact. With this ban, Canadians will have less pressure on them to make changes to reduce plastics. My favourite quote is "we don't need a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly." The government will make changes but for now we like to tell people the small changes they are making do matter.
Thank you Ayman, Lucy, and Mithria for your thought provoking questions! Let us know what you would have added in their questions or in our response.