United Nations / YouTube Plastic Ocean 1560770832.jpg...
United Nations / YouTube

Canada is the latest country to join the still small but expanding movement to phase out or ban single-use plastic—plastic that gets carried from rivers into oceans, killing sea creatures, altering their habitats, and causing an overall blight to the environment. And plastic is not biodegradable, which means it will be with us for thousands of years.

On June 10, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to phase out single-use plastic as early as 2021. Canadian government figures show that each year, Canadians throw away 3 million tons of plastic waste, and one-third of the plastics used in Canada are for single-use or short-lived products and packaging.

Besides the obvious negative effect that plastic waste has on the environment, Canada’s move also is born of necessity: Many developing nations that once accepted imports of recycled plastic waste are now closing borders to the garbage or sending it back to the country of origin if the waste is too contaminated.

Of course, Canada is not alone in tossing plastic. “Globally, one garbage truckload of plastic waste enters the ocean every minute, and that amount is increasing steadily,” according to a statement on a Canadian government website, a statistic echoed by the World Economic Forum and Greenpeace. Countries around the world produce roughly 300 million tons of plastic each year, and only 10 percent to 13 percent of that gets recycled.

The World Economic Forum describes the heavy price paid across the globe of a throwaway society:

The worldwide total volume of plastic has reached 8.3 billion metric tons, the equivalent of more than 800,000 Eiffel Towers, according to a 2017 article in Science Advances. Of this enormous amount, 6.3 billion metric tons have been disposed as waste. …

The biggest problem is that plastic does not biodegrade easily. It stays around for thousands of years. Slowly, it leaks chemical substances that are harmful for the environment, for animals and for people.

In marine areas, many mammals, fish and birds suffer from ingesting plastic or becoming entangled in plastic materials. More than 90% of all birds and fish are reported to have plastic particles in their stomach. In this way, toxic chemicals accumulate and pass through the food chain.

No surprise: The U.S. is much worse about throwing away plastic than any other country. Americans threw away 34 million tons of plastic waste in 2015, the most recent figures available. So consider accepting the challenge from environmental groups of avoiding single-use plastic for a plastic-free July.

According to 2015 figures from the Environmental Protection Agency:

While plastics are found in all major MSW [municipal solid waste] categories, the containers and packaging category has the most plastic tonnage at over 14 million tons in 2015. This category includes bags, sacks and wraps; other packaging; polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and jars; high-density polyethylene (HDPE) natural bottles; and other containers. …

Plastics are found in nondurable products, such as disposable diapers, trash bags, cups, utensils, medical devices and household items such as shower curtains. The plastic food service items are generally made of clear or foamed polystyrene, while trash bags are made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or low-density polyethylene (LDPE). A wide variety of other resins are used in other nondurable goods.

Bans against plastic bags and other items in U.S. cities and states and in countries around the globe take many approaches, but they concentrate on plastic straws, plastic bags, plastic plates and cutlery, and single-use plastic containers such as soft drink or water bottles.

In the U.S., three states have plastic bag bans: California, Hawaii, and New York (New York’s goes into effect in 2020). Four states, Delaware, Maine, New York, and Rhode Island, have mandatory recycling or reuse programs. Nearly 200 cities also have banned or taxed plastic bags. The National Conference of State Legislatures has a roundup of what states are doing to cut down plastic bag use.

Just to be ornery, 10 states—Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, and Wisconsin—have preemptive bans on banning plastic bags, passed by (no surprise) Republican legislatures. Too bad, since 10 billion plastic bags are used worldwide every week.

Globally, plastic bags are banned or taxed in 32 countries, although sometimes enforcement is spotty. The European Union Parliament voted in March to ban 10 single-use plastics that most often end up in the ocean, including plastic cutlery, plates, and cotton-swab sticks, by 2021. Member states will have two years to implement the directive once it is published in the official EU rulebook.

Here’s why new worldwide regulations cutting the amount of plastic waste are crucial. Developing countries that once accepted imported recycled plastic waste are no longer doing so, have instigated stricter rules when plastic garbage is contaminated, or are sending it back to its countries of origin, mainly the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

In May, at a meeting on United Nations-backed conventions in Switzerland, 187 nations agreed to control the movement of plastic waste between national borders. The countries agreed to add plastic to the Basel Convention, a treaty that regulates movement of hazardous materials from one country to another, to limit the effects of plastic pollution around the world. The new rules dramatically restrict international trade in plastic waste to prevent plastic dumping.

Given the attitude of the Trump administration about all things environmental, it’s no surprise that the U.S., the world’s largest exporter of plastic waste, was not one of the co-signers of the new amendment to the Basel Convention. Starting in 2021, the U.S. will have fewer options to legally dispose of its plastic garbage. China stopped accepting such plastic waste two years ago, and the developing countries that take it now, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, will need a specific agreement.

As Kate O’Neill, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote at GreenBiz:

The United States signed the treaty in 1989, but never ratified it and is not bound by the treaty’s terms. However, Basel Convention member countries cannot accept any restricted waste imports from the United States unless they have reached a bilateral or regional agreement that meets Basel’s environmental provisions. …

The new plastics restriction allows less-wealthy countries to exercise their sovereign right not to accept materials they are ill-equipped to handle.

If avenues for disposing plastic waste are being cut off, what are Americans to do? Use less plastic. A lot less.


The nonprofit Plastic Free Foundation started in 2011 in Australia and now has programs in more than170 countries. It runs an ongoing campaign to get people to drastically cut down the use of plastic altogether and has issued a challenge for a Plastic Free July. For one month, the organization invites people to go plastic-free/low plastic to “choose to refuse” to use single-use plastic. Obviously, the group hopes for a wide buy-in—and that people develop permanent habits.

The website (the group promises a new, improved website soon, with more tips) offers some practical suggestions on how to cut down, if not totally eliminate, the use of plastics in many areas of life. “Imagine a world without plastic waste. That’s our mission—to build a global movement that dramatically reduces plastic use and improves recycling, worldwide,” the site says. You can register to sign up for the challenge, whether it’s for a day, a week, or the whole month, or “from now on.” You can also take a “Pesky Plastics” quiz to measure your current plastic-free habits.

Some suggestions are easy:

  • Always have reusable bags available for shopping—and not just for groceries. (Shouldn’t this be a total no-brainer by now?) Carry a few in the car for an unexpected shopping stop.
  • Make do with reusable containers for leftovers, such as saved and cleaned glass jars and lids or reusable storage plastic containers, instead of plastic wrap.
  • Carry a reusable water bottle instead of buying a new plastic bottle of water.
  • Take a reusable cup to coffeehouses instead of getting a new one to throw away.
  • Tell servers at restaurants NOT to bring straws in drinks. Bring reusable containers with you for leftovers instead of getting a plastic “doggy bag.”
  • When shopping, look for products wrapped in paper rather than plastic.

Other suggestions would take more effort and might run into some regulations on food packaging:

  • Line a garbage can with layers of newspaper instead of using a plastic garbage bag.
  • Use a folded newspaper to pick up dog waste.
  • Take your own small reusable containers when making purchases at delis, butcher shops, and fish shops. (That’s going to mean a learning curve by the sellers.) The group warns of the need to tell the seller what you’re doing so that they don’t put the item in plastic first. This may work fine at a sandwich shop but could be harder in a grocery store, although some might be fine wrapping meat or fish in paper.
  • Buy items in bulk and share with friends or family.

“Remember, it is a challenge, not a competition,” the website says. “The challenge is intended to make you think about all the single-use plastic you consume every day.”

When Donald Trump is replaced by a Democrat in the White House in January 2021, whoever that president is can correct some of the damage he and his administration have caused by reinstituting environmental regulations, rejoining the Paris climate accord, reissuing car mileage standards, and taking countless other climate actions to help the environment. While those actions are absolutely necessary at the macro level, it’s up to individuals to do what they can at the micro level.

Like using a lot less plastic.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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