Unloading groceries last month at home, I was struck by the sheer volume of plastic I had purchased.
Aside from the plastic bags I bought — I forgot my reusable ones at home — almost everything I unpacked was wrapped in packaging.
There were hard plastics, like milk jugs and laundry containers; soft packaging for mushrooms and cucumbers; cardboard with plastic windows; and crackers wrapped in plastic before being shoved in a box.
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On the spot, I decided to track my family’s plastic consumption. I piled up all that packaging and vowed to collect all of our plastic for the next month.
It started out as a small pile of items next to my recycling bin, but by week’s end it grew to fill an entire blue box.
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The next week, I transferred it to a Rubbermaid tub (also plastic), and by the third week I had to take over my wheelbarrow.
By the time I was ready to show the TV camera my haul, it had grown to fill most of the back of my minivan.
Plastics have become a dirty word recently.
Single-use plastics are set to be banned across the country by 2021, and judging by media reports, the oceans and beaches are choked with plastic.
Marine biologist Elaine Leung has witnessed the damage first-hand.
“I’ve seen sea lions strangled to death on fishing line,” Leung said.
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“I’ve seen albatross chicks being fed plastic by their mothers and watched them die a painfully slow death because their stomachs are full of plastic.”
As the amount of plastic waste grows, developing countries have said they are fed up with dealing with the pollution we create. As I write this, containers of Canadian trash are set to land in Vancouver for disposal after the president of the Philippines demanded we take it back.
But the simple fact remains: we can’t live without plastic. The question is how much of it do we really need.
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Environmentalists are urging consumers to throw out the old idea of the three R’s — reduce, reuse and recycle — and instead adopt the five R’s: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle.
The key to the five R’s is that recycling is the last item on the list.
Nada, a new grocery store in East Vancouver, is unique in terms of its packaging: there is none.
More than 800 items are for sale and all of them are sold package-free. Customers are urged not only to bring their own bags but their own containers for things like olive oil or laundry soap.
Nada co-founder Brianne Miller says one of the store’s key goals is to convince people it isn’t as hard to use less packaging as people think.
“It is often easier on the wallet, and remember this is how our grandparents shopped. My grandma had the same cloth flour sack for 40 years,” Miller said.
The good news is that most of what was in the back of my van is recyclable in Vancouver.
Metro Vancouver set a goal of reducing the amount of household garbage we throw out by 80 per cent by 2020. The numbers aren’t quite that good yet, but we still manage to divert 65 per cent from the landfill. The key is to separate it all first.
Dave Lefebvre from Recycle BC was kind enough to help me sort through my pile of trash. We quickly filled three blue bins. The tricky items are all the soft plastics that make up so much of the daily amount of plastic we all use.
Things like bread bags can be recycled but not curbside. Other soft plastics like Ziploc bags don’t have a recycling program as of yet, but recycling depots will take them.
Currently, a company in Delta is testing re-use for the items. The best thing to do is collect and store them, returning them every so often at a place like the Vancouver Zero Waste Centre.
“We don’t ship plastic overseas for recycling,” Lefebvre said. “We have companies in B.C. that turn the plastic into products that can be re-manufactured.
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“The key to all of this is the system we have in place in B.C. Companies that manufacture and sell packaging in this province are required to deal with it at the end of its life.”
By the end of our sorting, I was left with two plastic containers of salad dressing I forgot to wash, one contact lens container (not considered packaging), and a piece of unidentified material that if recycled would have contaminated the waste stream.
Consumers in Metro Vancouver, and around B.C. for that matter, need to know the vast majority of plastic we use can be recycled, but it will take some effort to make sure it gets in the right place.
The best advice, though, is still to use less of it in the first place.
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