UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds
Photo: Pixabay

How Canadians became so addicted to plastic

First introduced as Bakelite in 1907, fully synthetic plastics weren’t mass produced until the mid-century.

By Susan Nerberg

Plastics are here for good — and these days, that means mostly for bad. The petroleum-based polymer has exploded onto the market, invaded our lives and spewed its guts into every corner of the planet. While some call its manufacture a success story, others have declared it one of the biggest threats facing our environment.

First introduced as Bakelite in 1907, fully synthetic plastics weren’t mass produced until the mid-century. A shape-shifter, the malleable substance could be moulded into virtually any unbreakable, water-resistant form, including nylon, polyethylene, polyester and vinyl. Easy to fabricate from seemingly unlimited reserves of oil and natural gas liquids, it quickly became the ultimate convenience material for making everything from medical equipment to clothing.

In fact, more than eight billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s, more than half of that in the last 15 years alone. The synthetic material brought improvements in sanitation and enabled the distribution of clean and safe food and water. But few considered the consequences of plastic’s longevity.

It can take hundreds of years, if not longer, for the forces of nature to break down a single disposable water bottle, for example. So imagine what might go through the minds of future scientists excavating a 21st-century city a million years from now. Jan Zalasiewicz, author of The Earth After Us, speculates they’ll find evidence of fossilized toothbrushes, silicone spatulas, sippy cups and cellphone covers in the strata of rock layers.

The geologist and paleontologist also calculates that if we converted all the plastics produced over the last few decades into cling wrap, there would be enough to envelop the whole planet. And if the current level of production continues — chances are it will, considering global oil-and-gas giants have invested $180 billion since 2010 to create facilities that will boost plastics production by 40 percent over the next decade — we’ll be shouldering several layers of cling wrap by the middle of this century.

Canada's plastic index 

• Canada is the 3rd highest producer of municipal waste per capita
• 720 kilograms of waste was generated by every Canadian in 2012
• 3 million tonnes of waste plastic is created by Canada each year
• 12% or less of plastic waste is recycled in Canada
• 200,000 tonnes of plastic waste is exported from Canada annually

Source: Greenpeace Canada

This story first appeared in The Observer's April 2018 edition with the title "Addicted to plastic."


Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Justice

Photo: Courtesy of Josée Cardinal

How families cope when a loved one goes missing

by Justin Dallaire

A Quebec man went for a walk in the early morning of March 16, 2016, and hasn’t been seen since. His family, like many loved ones of the missing, finds it impossible to grieve — or give up hope.

Promotional Image

Observations

Jocelyn Bell%

Observations: Our magazine's plastic problem

by Jocelyn Bell

"While I can easily defend the use of a polybag on financial grounds, it would be unconscionable to deliver a cover story about plastics . . . in plastic."

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

United Church music director Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Today, the 28-year-old showcases her unique musical ability, performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image

Features

April 2018

10 easy ways to kick our nasty plastic habit

by Susan Nerberg

It's not as hard as you think.

Features

April 2018

Tea bags and other surprising places plastics lurk

by Susan Nerberg

Hidden plastics rarely get recycled and often can’t be reused. Here we make some of the invisibles visible.

Features

April 2018

Drag queens help church raise money and awareness

by Darrell Noakes

The event, called “Take Me to Church,” after a popular song, was a fundraiser for LGBTQ youth in Saskatchewan.

Columns

April 2018

Why Canada needs a free-range parenting law

by Pieta Woolley

Features

April 2018

10 easy ways to kick our nasty plastic habit

by Susan Nerberg

It's not as hard as you think.

Faith

April 2018

4 science-trained faith leaders share what still gives them goosebumps

by Various Writers

"This greater knowledge amplified my belief in a mysterious God who still offers so much more for us to discover."

Promotional Image