With Canada’s single-use plastics ban on track for 2021, a new federal science report aims to back up the landmark move with hard evidence that plastics are critically damaging the country’s environment.
The official document, a “Draft science assessment of plastic pollution”, is a joint effort from Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada that looks to summarize the current state of science around plastic pollution on the environment and human health to inform decision-making.
There are several key findings in the assessment, such as the the fact that Canadians dispose of more than 3 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, recycling just 9% of those items. In terms of actual litter, the assessment found that 29,000 tonnes of plastic waste wound up in Canada’s forests, beaches, streets, parks, water and air (shedding from textile fibres) in 2016 alone.
That year, an estimated 9% of plastics were recycled, 86% were landfilled, 4% were incinerated for energy recovery, and 1% were released directly into the environment.
“Science confirms that plastic pollution is everywhere and is negatively impacting our environment,” announced Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, in a statement. “This assessment will inform our decisions as our government follows through on our commitment to ban harmful single-use plastics as soon as 2021 because Canadians expect us to,” he added.
The plastics ban, if introduced, would occur under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which first demands a scientific assessment of the problem. The list of specific items to be banned is still being worked out with scientists.
Other findings in the assessment include the fact that Canadians use up to 15 billion plastic bags every year and close to 57 million straws every day.
The assessment also delves into the issue of plastic pollution’s impact on water, noting that in 2018 Canadians removed over 116,000 kg of litter (most of which is plastic) from shorelines across Canada through the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup.
In terms of macro- and microplastic pollution in Canada’s water, the assessment looks at a number of sources, including littering, agricultural and biosolids pollution, transportation spillage, and wastewater effluent. Microplastics have been found in many species, including invertebrates, fish, turtles, mammals, and birds.
“Given the large volumes of effluent water leaving a WWTS, even a small fraction of microplastics remaining in the effluent water after treatment can translate into high absolute numbers of particles being released to the environment,” states the new report, referencing a wastewater study led by Fionn Murphy, a researcher at Denmark’s Aarhus University, in 2016.
Drinking water treatment plants, on the other hand, appear to be providing a solid barrier against the introduction of waterborne microplastics in drinking water. The assessment, however, notes that further research on the subject is required, primarily because standardized methods for quantifying microplastics in water are lacking.
A draft version of the new plastic assessment was released January 31, 2020 and will be open to public comment until April 1.