It is hard to imagine our lives today without plastics. We’ve become dependent on them in most aspects of our lives. Nonetheless, plastics pose one of the greatest ecological threats we face today. Plastic pollution, especially marine plastic pollution, is doing incredible harm to our planet.
Plastics are incredibly durable synthetic materials that can take hundreds of years or more to break down. In 1950, approximately 1.5 million tons of plastics were produced worldwide. By 2015, plastics production had increased to a whopping 322 million tons. Forty percent of all plastics produced are used in packaging alone. Roughly half of the plastics produced in any given year are disposed of after only one use. Less than 20 percent of plastics are recycled. Consequently, about 35 million tons of plastic pollution is created each year, of which between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons wind up in the world’s lakes, rivers and oceans either as macroplastics or microplastics.
Macroplastics are pieces of plastic 5mm or larger in diameter. They enter our waterways and oceans through litter, direct dumping or inadequate waste management. Single-use plastic bags are arguably the most harmful of macroplastics in a marine environment. Worldwide we use some 500 million of these bags every year with devastating consequences. I’m sure we’ve all seen photographs of plastic bags in the stomachs of whales, sea turtles and sea birds.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic less than 5 mm in diameter, such as microbeads, fibres from synthetic fabrics such as polyester, and degraded macroplastics. These enter our waterways though our sewage systems. Even jurisdictions with sewage treatment systems aren’t able to remove all microplastics. A number of studies have found the presence of microplastics in the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and as far north as the Arctic Ocean. They pose a threat to all levels of sea life. In fact, recent studies indicate that microplastics may even pose a greater threat to marine life than macroplastics. A 2018 study found microplastics in the stomachs of a majority of certain species of fish in North Atlantic waters. We’re poisoning an important part of our traditional food supply.
Clearly, we need to stop the flow of plastics into our waterways. But how can we do that? Sigrid Kuehnemund, a member of the St. Mark’s parish community in St. John’s and Vice President, Ocean Conservation of World Wildlife Fund Canada, offers seven very simple ways we can make a significant difference:
- carry a water bottle and coffee cup;
- drink tap water;
- carry a reusable bag for shopping;
- shop in bulk;
- say no to plastic cutlery and plastic straws;
- pick up litter, especially near beaches, waterways and shorelines; and
- let the provincial government know that you support a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags.
As a people baptismally bound to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth, Anglicans should be front and center in the effort to stop this desecration of our planet’s oceans and waterways. But are we? Have we eliminated bottled water, disposable coffee cups, cutlery, plates, plastic straws and single-use plastic bags from our parishes, our homes and our lives? Are the loudest voices calling our provincial government to ban single-use plastic bags church voices? If we’re to take creation care seriously, we need to petition all levels of government and society as a whole on behalf of our planet. But, before we can do that with any integrity, we need to take a long hard look in the mirror and address our own contributions to plastic pollution.
Father Mark Nichols is the Associate Priest at St. Mark’s. This post was originally published in the November 2018 issue of Anglican Life.