Canada issued a ban on the manufacture and import of plastics in December of last year. By December 2023, all non-reusable plastic materials such as checkout bags, cutlery, and foodservice ware can no longer be purchased or sold.
Though Canadians throw away over three million tons of plastic waste every year, only nine percent of plastics are recycled and repurposed properly.
Without the option of non-reusable plastics, landfills will naturally be less cluttered and that percentage will rise.
I had doubts about the differences a ban would really make. It seems like such a small step. What about the growing carbon emissions, countless plant and animal species going extinct, and record-breaking forest fires?
Dr. Jeff Lewis is a professor at VIU with a PhD in Earth and Ocean Sciences. I asked him for his opinion on the plastics ban.
“Yes, it will make a difference,” he said. “But not if we stop there.”
Lewis explained that people need to become more “acclimatized to change.”
He said that little plastic is recycled because of the costs required of companies and businesses. There are no models to support the costs and because of that, businesses won’t change on their own.
The ban forces them to.
Coffee shops like Starbucks and even small businesses have started using paper straws, or have gotten rid of unnecessary extra plastic items altogether. Many grocery stores have already stopped using plastic bags and have paper and/or reusable bags available for purchase.
But sometimes reusable bags aren’t sustainable either.
After Walmart stopped using plastic bags, customers who got groceries delivered found their reusable bags were piling up by the dozen. Walmart would simply use new bags for each delivery. One customer acquired nearly 300 bags over six months.
The complaint found its way to Twitter, asking if Walmart could develop a program where workers come to the houses and pick up the old bags to actually make them reusable.
Restrictions like the plastics ban move us toward changing our behaviour, but we still have to use common sense. Sending 300 “reusable” bags to one customer is not an option.
There’s another, more personal, question in all of this:
Are we aware of how much we consume?
Rob Greenfield—a great name for this topic—wore his consumerism for a month to create a clear, visual representation of what we take for granted everyday. The trash suit weighed 75 pounds, which is actually less than the average monthly waste a person creates.
Five pounds a day adds up quickly.
“I didn’t realize that I was also going to feel the weight of our consumerism,” Greenfield said in his TED Talk in 2022.
With all this in mind, Dr. Lewis encourages us to look back to what we used to do before humans became so heavily reliant on single-use products.
He suggests we use what we already have.
Our Tupperware containers, our reusable water bottles, our pots and pans and knives—we need to take care not to lose them and clean them carefully instead of throwing them out.
We must get back into the mindset of sustainability, and companies must start manufacturing goods that can last more than a year of wear.
“If we’re going to restart everything, why don’t we restart with climate change in mind?” Dr. Lewis said.
Having more glass and metal containers is a good start, but the ultimate goal is clear:
Which is exactly what VIU’s Eco Club recommends.
I spoke with Kyle Wickland, executive of the Eco Club, about where the problems lie in Nanaimo and what students can do to help.
He explained that some of our solutions often only replace the problems. They don’t truly fix anything.
Switching from plastic to paper, for example, isn’t much better for the environment. The greenhouse gasses emitted from US pulp mills and paper manufacturers in 2015 alone accounted for 20 percent of pollution in the US.
In fact, many paper straws aren’t compostable anyway. If the straws are not labeled as compostable, they are still garbage just like plastic straws.
But details, right?
When asked for some insight on what Eco Club does to help our local environment, Wickland explained that consistent action is difficult to organize but when they can get together, every little thing counts.
“We try to implement direct action. We do litter pickups… Clothing swaps, other sustainable initiatives to directly influence the [Nanaimo] campus and the environment itself,” he said.
But it’s not often enough. Even their litter pickups on the beach and in parks only happen around twice a year. It’s something they hope to do more of in the future.
The Eco Club alone cannot solve all the sustainability issues of VIU, much less the world. But what they hope to bring is awareness to students about the reality of our polluting habits.
Wickland has seen this in action. The club’s events around campus and their posts on Instagram make people think. It encourages them to continue the conversation.
“It takes a lot of energy and commitment to make a change and to realize what you’re doing is not working,” Wickland said. “People like the status quo. There’s a lot of anxiety moving to something else.”
These concerns are why it’s essential for governments and students alike to become more involved. The more that people discuss, the more likely we’re all able to transition into an era of consuming less.
Dr. Jasmine Janes is a professor at VIU teaching conservation biology and terrestrial ecosystems.
She confirmed how I felt about the value of communication and found BC and Canada to be a leader of change.
Due to the scientific nature of climate change and global warming, many people remain ignorant of what any of it really means. We seem to follow this rule of “what we can’t see can’t hurt us,” when in reality, our actions are more impactful now than ever.
But Dr. Janes and I have hope.
With the increasing demand from environmentalists and scientists alike, we will adapt.
“There’s a huge difference now in values with how people are being raised,” she said. “People now are born with eco-anxiety. That was only starting to become a thing when I was going through school.”
We are making progress in our education systems, but certainly not enough.
No matter what plastic alternatives we use, “depending on what it is or where it’s made, we’re still having an excessive carbon footprint,” Dr. Janes said.
In 2007, Canada’s carbon emissions were its highest ever at 17.38 metric tons per capita.
The very next year, the BC government implemented a carbon tax in an effort to reduce emissions. They set a goal to have emissions down from 2007 levels by 16 percent in 2025, and 80 percent in 2050.
The carbon tax keeps increasing, and we all see the cost of gasoline going up. With the annual tax rebate system, however, most families earn back enough money to make up for the carbon tax.
Recent data has the country’s carbon emissions at the second lowest they’ve been since 1995. Though there was pushback, Canadians adapted to the change. We can continue to adapt in the future.
Of course, changing attitudes must be met with changes in our actions.
Dr. Janes believes we should be “modifying our behaviours” to use less of our resources.
Being from Australia, she urges us to pay particular attention to our water consumption.
“Here, people are very liberal with their water,” she said. “Water is very expensive [in Australia] and it’s a precious commodity if you’re always in drought.”
She explained that in Australia, people put buckets in their showers to collect water for their gardens and potted plants as they wait for it to warm up.
According to Dr. Janes, humans look for signs of success; we feel better when we make “small incremental [changes] that are easy” and work to our benefit.
“You get to tick the box and say, ‘I did it! I did what I said I was going to do,’ and consider that a success.”
We may not individually be able to save every endangered species or exist solely on solar energy, but we can drive less and use less plastic.
It’s not only about finding alternatives to our energy and products. It’s about finding alternatives to our lifestyles.
Because our lifestyles are what’s really unsustainable.
Of course, there’s no easy fix. Especially when we are so used to doing things a certain way that it feels impossible or overwhelming to change what we’re comfortable with.
But as Dr. Lewis said, we need to make sustainability the norm.
What if those wealthy enough to have a manicured lawn had a garden instead, with families tending to vegetables and flowers rather than mowing their grass every two weeks?
If people were forced to hand over half their paycheque for a full tank of gas, would they take the bus instead?
The 2,800 or so vehicles that park on VIU’s campuses every day are mostly single-occupant. VIU even cites its pay parking as being a deterrent to students driving to school alone instead of carpooling, busing, or bicycling.
There is some political action—carbon taxes and plastic bans—but it’s up to us. And we’ve proven we can do it.
So, save your plastic wares. Reuse your bags. Give things you don’t need to someone else who does. Learn about the recycling signs and what they really mean, and bring a garbage bag on your walk to the beach.
We need to keep changing. Our climate depends on it.