By: Tracy Hucul, Executive Director, Green Action Centre

We have become quite good at filling up our blue box. We rest a little easier knowing we’re doing the right thing. But do you ever wonder where that plastic in your blue box goes?

We tend to not think about this, but in fact most of our disposable plastic doesn’t get recycled. It ends up in a landfill, or worse; it ends up in our oceans, streams and rivers. The disposable plastic we use today will continue to exist long after you and I – and our children – are gone. It’s true; plastic breaks down into tiny pieces, but it never really goes away.

Every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck full of plastic goes into the ocean. Globally, we consume over 563 billion single use plastic bottles every year. It’s harming our water, our wildlife and our health. Birds are eating it, fish are eating it, and now we’re drinking and eating it too.

Our use of plastic has skyrocketed due to its convenience, but that convenience comes at great cost. If we continue on the path we’re on, by 2050, just over 30 years, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

We need to act now. We need to decide to refuse and avoid disposable plastic.

The good news is that our use of plastic is simply a habit, and fortunately, our habits and attitudes can change.

Most of us learned about the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Green Action Centre started out as the Recycling Council of Manitoba over 30 years ago, before recycling was the norm. However, we know that due to an insatiable reliance on plastic, recycling is not enough any more. We need a different approach. We need to turn our efforts to the top of the waste reduction hierarchy, and focus on prevention. To break free from plastic and the devastation it’s inflicting on our planet, we must concentrate our efforts as individuals on prevention, and look to recycling as our last resort when we can’t refuse, reduce or reuse something.

Green Action Centre is ready for this challenge. We’ve turned our attention to the growing plastic pollution problem and will work with students, shoppers and businesses to reduce their use of disposable plastic. We’re starting with single use plastics like straws, cutlery, bottles and bags – the kind of plastic we use once and throw away. The kind of plastic we can most easily avoid or replace with more sustainable products.

Shifting individual mindsets to reduce and refuse plastic products, is not some outlandish, unattainable dream; it’s entirely possible. Sure, we have busy, on the go lifestyles with too much work and too many things to do. This constant rush through each day and desire for convenience has led to a plastic frenzy. However, we can easily reverse this by simply making an effort to be mindful. We must think about the impact of the plastic we use daily, whether we actually need it or not, and whether there is a better alternative.

Every disposable plastic bag you take, plastic bottle of water you drink, straw that ends up in your drink, or plastic cutlery that is packed up with your take out lunch, is simply a routine. It is your habit as well as the habit of the business, or person, giving it to you.
When we decide to slow down just a little and consider our actions before we take them, something miraculous happens. We start to feel empowered. We see that we have some control in this world. We realize we can make a difference. We also notice that as our small actions accumulate, they start to have a big impact. Other people notice and start to change too. This domino effect impacts how businesses operate, as well as the kind of restrictions government have, leading to stricter policies and legislation.

Thanks to Plastic Free July, which began in 2011 in Australia, governments, businesses and media have stepped into the ring and plastic bans and restrictions are on the rise. The movement has engaged non-profits and citizens across the globe, educating people about the seriousness of our plastic problem and mobilizing people to act. Countries like France, Germany and Belize have stepped up, and Britain has just announced their ban on plastic straws.

Montreal is the first major Canadian city to announce a plastic bag ban. In Manitoba, Norway House, Thompson and The Pas have single use plastic bag restrictions, with Winnipeg experiencing traction on the plastic bag debate too. Students from West Kildonan Collegiate’s Sustainable Living Academy recently started an online campaign to #banthebag in Winnipeg. They’re lobbying the City of Winnipeg and their petition already has over 5 000 signatures. These kinds of efforts are critical as they draw attention to our reliance on disposable plastic, help encourage individuals to act, and send a signal to government that people care and want change.

During the time it took you to read this article an alarming 4 more garbage trucks full of plastic went into the ocean. Yes, plastic is convenient – but it never goes away. As a society, we no longer have the luxury of acting slowly on this issue; we need a big impact now. You can start by being more mindful. For a week or even just a day, try looking at the disposable plastic around you and what you use regularly. You can’t break a habit if you’re unaware you have it.

If you’ve been thinking that someone should do something to fix our plastic problem, remind yourself that you are somebody, and you can do something. Ultimately, government needs to develop a comprehensive strategy that includes implementing restrictions, requiring businesses to come up with more sustainable alternatives, and ensuring they pay the true cost of the waste they generate. This will happen a lot faster when you decide to act and take your own plastic free journey.

Here are some simple things you can do to act now:

  1. Don’t buy or drink bottled water – Whenever possible, refuse it. If you don’t already have one, get a reusable bottle you really like (preferably glass or stainless steel) and carry it with you. Make sure it’s full when you get on the bus, your bike, or into your car, and remember to refill it whenever you can. Bring it to meetings, shopping, on trips, and basically everywhere you go. If you forget it and need a drink, don’t beat yourself up when you buy that single use water bottle. Just try and remember for next time.
  2. Stop using disposable shopping bags – We really don’t need them. If you’re only buying a couple of things you probably don’t need a bag at all. That’s right, you can walk out with your items right in your hands. If you do need a bag, there are many fabulous re-usable bags to do the trick, from nylon bags that roll up so tiny they fit in your purse or pocket, to ones with flat bottoms specifically for groceries. Keep them with you and by the door or in your vehicle if you drive.
  3. Skip the straw – As soon as you order a drink say “no straw please”. If an establishment says they don’t use straws, thank them for it. Let this become your new mantra every time you order a beverage, and those around you will start saying it too. You’ll get bonus points for inspiring others to act! If you truly like sucking your drink out of a straw, get reusable metal or glass straws (they make great gifts too).
  4. Take out your cutlery – When you’re on the run and grabbing food to go, say no to disposable cutlery and packaging whenever you can. Bring your own re-usable cutlery set with you; some sets even come with chopsticks! Try to slow down and eat in too, it has a double impact of improved health for you and the environment.
  5. Educate yourself – Pay attention to the plastic packaging on the things you buy and try to select items with the least amount of plastic. Use your purchasing power to show industry you want more sustainable products and less packaging. Buying eggs? Go for the cardboard over plastic cartons. Soap? Bars are better than liquid soap in plastic bottles. Avoid coffee pods – they are an environmental nightmare. Buying things in bulk is better too – as long as you’ll use it.

If you’re ready to challenge yourself further in your sustainability quest, see our Green Living Pocket Guide! It will help you make more sustainable choices at home, in the store and on the road.