Editor's column: The Blob, not just cult fiction

I’m not sure if it was the image of blood dripping from a sea turtle’s nose as a group of marine biologists attempt to pull a plastic straw out of its nostril; or the video of a researcher standing in front of a whale carcass, sorting through the 88 pounds of plastic found lodged in its stomach; or news of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is basically a massive blob (1.6 million square kilometre surface area) of accumulated plastic sitting between Hawaii and California rendering that area a dead zone. The blob is one of five such plastic patches found in oceans around the world.

Anyway, something got through my entitled brain and I declared to my family that now the city’s works yard is taking soft plastics (kudos to them, by the way), we’re going to start separating out those candy wrappers and plastic bags and take them to the depot.

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I went out and bought another (albeit plastic) bin, and for the last few weeks, we’ve been tossing our soft plastics there. All was going well, I thought, until Saturday when my partner came home grumbling about how it took him 20 minutes to sort through the stinking mess. It might have been that bit of burrito that accidently got thrown in there; and, well, maybe some soiled paper; and, ya, there was that Subway wrapper.

Okay, so we have a few kinks to work out in the system, but I mention our little domestic drama because it’s but a microcosm of the challenges in recycling plastics.

Plastic can be converted into a valuable energy source, but the sorting and decontaminating is a labour-intensive job. (As my man will remind us.) That’s why a lot of Canada’s plastics are shipped to countries such as the Philippines and China, where labour’s cheap.

However, when Canada ships six dozen containers of unsorted, rotting trash wrongly labelled plastic/recyclables, things can get sticky. The containers were sent in 2013 and only now, with the president of the Philippines declaring war on Canada if we don’t take back the trash, the containers are expected to soon sail home — to the Port of Vancouver, no less. What will happen to them once they get here is unclear.

This not-so-little international drama, is not only an incredible embarrassment for Canada, it also calls into question this arrangement of having developing countries take our trash.

As countries such as the Philippines, and even more so China which actually takes most of Canada’s plastics, aspire to become world leaders, they’re less inclined to be used as  landfill sites. As well, the price of natural gas is going down thanks to LNG and fracking, which means there is less economic incentive for these countries to sort and burn plastics.

In other words, we need to deal with our own plastics. A good first step would be to buy less and ban more. A second would be to legislate plastic producers to be responsible for collecting and reusing their own product. Finally, we need to get down and sort. It may be irksome, but it’s not rocket science. Surely, we can learn to not put a half-eaten burrito in the plastic bin. And, if we can’t…

Remember that 1958 science fiction horror film The Blob, which “Eats You Alive?” Yeah, kinda like that, only there’s nothing fictitious about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

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