In honour of #TipTuesdays, this week’s blog post will be focused on single-use plastics and the impact microplastics have in our waterways. Single use plastics are plastics that are used once before being disposed of. They are often used for convenience in take-out food, food packaging and shopping. Once single-use plastics are thrown out they take years to centuries to break down. One single-use water bottle can take up to 450 years to break down and in the process is broken down into smaller, more detrimental pieces – microplastics.
Single-use plastics are a big source of plastic pollution and microplastics. Microplastics are pieces of plastic less than 5mm big (about the size of a sesame seed) that can easily seep into the soil, leading into waterways and polluting water sources. These microplastics can have detrimental effects on aquatic organisms posing threats to humans as well. Studies have found that microplastics have been found in the internal systems of fish, meaning as humans consume fish, they are at risk of consuming microplastics as well. This phenomenon has been well documented in our oceans, but similar processes are occurring to species in Ontario waterways, especially the Great Lakes (Brookson et al., 2019).
The threats of micro-plastics are very real and can be upsetting to hear about. However, there is good news! In 2016, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals came into full force with over 193 committed members of the UN. The sustainable development goals are a ‘call to action’ for countries to address economic, social and environmental issues the world is facing today. The Sustainable Development Goal 12 aims to ensure responsible consumption and production patterns, including substantially reducing plastic waste through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse. Many countries have already put plans into action to phase out single-use plastics. The Government of Canada announced that single-use plastics will be phased out by the end of 2021.
As governments start to make commitments to end their reliance on single-use plastics, we all have a role to play. We can all limit our contribution to plastic pollution by making a switch to more sustainable alternatives.
Here are some easy ways to limit our use of single-use plastics:
1. Always keep reusable cutlery, straws and bottles in your car or purse. We are all pretty use to hearing about how we should use reusable utensils, but the most common types of plastic waste found in waterways continues to be single-use items used for drinks and take-away.
2. Use loose tea instead of bagged. While tea leaves can be composted, most tea bags use a plastic derivative that cannot be composted. Make sure to double check the manufacture before you compost your teabag or switch to loose tea!
3. Ditch the plastic wrap. Try storing food in containers, glass jars or even beeswax wraps! Check out this website for a DIY beeswax food wrap recipe (and a vegan alternative!).
4. Switch to plastic free gum. Common gum brands contain Polyethylene, which belongs to a group of plastics used to make plastic bags and other single-use plastic goods. If you are an avid gum chewer consider switching to a more eco-friendly alternative that won't stay in the environment as long as conventional gum.
5. Try eco-friendly alternatives to balloons and glitter! Balloons often find their way into the environment, usually ending up in our waterways and impacting the species that live there. Instead try homemade confetti, which can be made from hole punching dried leaves! You can also recycle your cardboard and paper into wreaths and bunting.
6. Buy from your local farmer's markets. The season is almost over, but many farms are still cultivating their last crops of the season including broccoli, cabbage and brussels sprouts! Shop at local farms and farmers markets to avoid the plastic packaging at your local grocery store and support your local businesses at the same time.
7. Get creative! Avoiding single-use plastics can be hard, but this is an excellent opportunity to try out new DIY projects and new innovative ways to reduce your waste.
8. Plan ahead! Single-use plastics are used because they are very convenient. One of the hardest things to get used to when limiting your use of single-use plastics is always being prepared. It the beginning you may slip up but don't get discourage every effort makes a difference!
It’s important to remember that “We All Live Downstream” and the impacts of our pollution are felt by other communities, just as we are impacted by theirs. It will take collective action to reduce our impact on the environment, but it is also important to consider that it is a privilege to be able to choose alternatives to single-use plastics. Many communities rely on water bottles as their only source of potable water, including many First Nations communities, disaster zones and for other humanitarian needs. If you are in a position to limit your use of single-use plastics, consider doing so for others that do not have that option!
By Savanah Muller
For more easy ways to limit our single-use plastic and more information on microplastics check out these other blog posts!
Cole B. Brookson, Shane R. de Solla, Kim J. Fernie, Monina Cepeda, and Chelsea M. Rochman. Microplastics in the diet of nestling double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus), an obligate piscivore in a freshwater ecosystem. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. 76(11): 2156-2163. https://doi.org/10.1139/cjfas-2018-0388