Waste And Pollution
Our habits of careless wasting are proving to be harmful to our environment. The “out of sight, out of mind” perspective is difficult to break free of - however, our waste contributes to climate change in all its forms, and if we are to reduce emissions and conserve animal species, we need to consciously reduce our pollution of the environment as well.
Organic waste is broken down and decomposes in landfills, a process which produces methane, a potent GHG. In Canada, this effect accounts for 20% of our national methane emissions (1). The Commission for Environmental Cooperation has concluded that food waste is a major contributor to climate change, suggesting roughly 396 kilograms, or 873 pounds of food waste is produced per person every year (2). Reducing food waste reduces greenhouse gas emissions and your carbon footprint, and has financial benefits: wasting less food can save you $1,400 a year (3).
But climate change is not just about global warming - it also refers to large-scale change of Earth’s landscape and ecological diversity. Pollution from humans has found its way into every niche of our environment - when Victor Vescovo completed the deepest ever submarine dive, on May 1st 2019, he came back with reports of plastic bags and candy wrappers at the bottom of the Marianas Trench (4). Our waste travels faster than we do.
Plastic pollution is an urgent global issue. The foreword to the UN’s 2018 report on single-use plastics presents a dire picture of how humans treat the natural world, stating that we treat our oceans as a “dumping ground, choking marine life and transforming some marine areas into a plastic soup” (5). Plastic waste also clogs drains in our cities, leading to floods and infectious disease and, furthermore, plastic waste is in the food chain, as it is consumed by livestock (5). Thankfully, many nations are now acting to combat this problem, by introducing bans on single-use plastic products and/or fines for using those products (5).
Marine plastic pollution has increased by ten times in the last forty years, which has had a negative effect on roughly 267 species. The species that have been negatively affected include 86% of marine turtles, 44% of seabirds, and 43% of marine mammals; recent studies have begun to show that freshwater birds are also impacted by pollution at similar rates (6,7). Another side effect of our plastics crisis are microplastics, which have recently been gaining a lot of attention. These are plastic particles less than 5 mm in size, that originate from either direct manufacturing or the breaking down of normal plastics (8). Microplastics have infiltrated nearly all natural ecosystems, and are worrying because of their ability to alter the chemical makeup of the environment, the toxic effects they expose organisms to, and the rate that humans are consuming them (8,9).
Deloitte & Cheminfo Services find in their 2019 report on Plastic Management that in Canada around 3,268,000 metric tons of plastic are discarded each year, and only about 9% of that, or 305,000 metric tons, ends up being recycled (10). Some (4%) is incinerated, and the remaining 87% is left to sit in landfills; approximately 1% of our total plastics discarded each year are released into the environment (10). The unrecovered plastic represents a waste of $7.7 billion every year (10). Thankfully, initiatives are popping up all over the country to ban these plastics from use. Provinces such as B.C., Quebec, and P.E.I. have even implemented strategies like restrictions and/or have fully banned single-use plastics, and on the national level, the Federal government has announced plans to ban single-use plastics nationwide by 2021 (11).
Another concerning part of our plastic crisis can be seen through wastewater. Roughly 80% of our global wastewater is re-entering the oceans without treatment, allowing heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and many other pollutants to completely contaminate our marine ecosystems (6). A particularly gripping issue in Canada is tailings ponds, a side effect of processes such as removing bitumen from the oilsands or mining minerals, like copper or gold, from ores (12). Contents of Alberta’s tailing ponds are seeping into nearby rivers, making them environmental hazard that is reaching across our land and water. Tragically, these ponds are responsible for the deaths of thousands of birds each year who mistakenly land in their waters (12).
From the evidence outlined above, it is clear that waste management and reduction are essential to a comprehensive climate action plan.