Around 20 years ago, the world first began hearing about microplastics.
When a plastic bag or bottle is discarded, with a few weeks of exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation begins to decompose it. The item starts to fragment, a process also accelerated by wind erosion, and eventually yielding small particles of one millimetre size and smaller.
These particles spread on land, wash into the sea and are consumed by various creatures — worms, birds, fish, shellfish, etc. — and some of these creatures are eaten by us. Animals ingesting microplastics may experience non-specific health effects such as reduced growth and less successful reproduction.
Where do these microplastics come from? And why are they present in such quantity?
Plastics were rare in our lives 70 years ago. Milk came in glass bottles by the quart, slightly larger than a litre, often delivered to your door. Soda pop also came in glass bottles, as did wine and beer. These containers had hefty deposits and were not carelessly discarded.
Shops wrapped meat and fish in brown “butcher paper” — which was sturdy, water-proof paper. Vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and onions were sold loose, sometimes in paper bags. Dish and laundry detergents came in cardboard boxes. I don’t remember any plastic bags in the 1950s and '60s. Groceries came home in sturdy “kraft paper” bags.
In 1968, I flew to Kenya with 110 CUSO (the Canadian equivalent of the Peace Corps) volunteers. Walking between home and work, I passed a group of small grocery stores, butcher shops plus a cobbler and a clothing store where I shopped daily. I carried my purchases home in a sturdy “kikapu” — a woven sisal fibre bag. Meat was wrapped in brown butcher paper and vegetables were tipped directly into my kikapu from the shop’s scale.
After four years of teaching medical students in Nairobi, I was hired to a similar post in England at Southampton University. I bought food at small shops near home. Vegetables went straight into my large wicker bicycle basket. The butcher’s paper-wrapped meat — he also sold French paté, German salami, Polish ham, etc. — went on top and I pedalled home.
There was little plastic to throw away. Milk was sold in pint-sized (half-litre) glass bottles, by a milkman driving a battery-powered “milk float.” (Imagine, an electric vehicle, a half-century ago!) The milkman said his glass bottles made 10 to 100 trips before breaking. Re-use was safe because glass is readily cleaned and sterilized.
We arrived in Barrie in the autumn of 1988. With no small groceries or butchers nearby, we began shopping in supermarkets. Meat and fish were pre-packaged in polystyrene trays wrapped in plastic film. The supermarket sent us home with plastic shopping bags. Suddenly, there was plastic in our lives.
Our neighbours were disposing of four to five large, black plastic bags of garbage every week.
That’s what spurred me to become a founding member of Environmental Action Barrie (EAB), now called Living Green. An early EAB project set up a monthly recycling depot downtown in what is now the Grey and Simcoe Foresters building on Mulcaster Street, opposite the MacLaren Art Gallery. We collected clean plastic bags and bottles, segregated by recycling codes. We collected enough to fill the box of a twin-axle truck, which I drove to a company in Lindsay, Ont., which made “plastic lumber.”
Several years after we began recycling plastics, the City of Barrie, and other Ontario municipalities, expanded the Blue Box scheme to include plastics. We were happy to abandon recycling, which was a lot of work. Moreover, the city targeted “everybody,” something we could not do.
Five years ago, China shocked the world by announcing they would refuse to accept plastics for recycling. Apparently, the plastics they received — film plastic and solid items — were contaminated with food waste, soiled diapers, bags of dog poop, and other filth.
Canada continued to export this material to other less fussy (more desperate?) countries. Canadians discard 3.3 million tonnes of plastic annually — 85 kilograms of plastic each! Sadly, we recycle just eight to nine per cent of this. Plastic recycling isn’t easy. Foreign material in a plastic bottle causes leaks, which is clearly unacceptable.
Plastic bags are “blown” by inflating molten plastic film with a blower to cool and solidify it. If there is any foreign material, this creates large and growing holes in the film. Machinery must be stopped, cleaned and the process restarted.
Incoming molten material is always filtered. These filters rarely need cleaning when used with virgin material. With recycled plastics, they must be cleaned or replaced daily – even hourly.
Moreover, manufacturers cannot guarantee their product made from recycled plastics is free from toxics.
Clearly, one cannot allow recycled plastics for food. Consumers probably wouldn’t trust such containers with shampoo, skin lotion or even laundry detergent.
Greenwell Plastics, a young Barrie company, is helping remedy the situation by using some of the 2.8 million tonnes of waste plastic Canadians send to landfill annually. They mould plastic “lumber” out of it – as the Lindsay manufacturer did decades ago.
However, Greenwell has a secret process. Their “lumber” emerges with a smooth, clean surface finish, despite containing impurities. Greenwell’s process causes impurities — paper labels, dirt, etc. — to move toward the centre of the moulded piece, leaving a smooth outer surface.
They make three grades of plastic “lumber” in popular sizes like 2x4, 2x6, 4x4, and others, plus custom dimensions on special order. Premium Grade contains 25 per cent landfill-destined material — standard grade has 65 per cent and utility grade around 85 per cent. The remainder is clean industrial waste.
Greenwell’s technology produces an unblemished surface, even on their least expensive utility-grade product.
Greenwell’s raw materials are largely polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which arrive “chipped" — ground up into toonie-size pieces. These are the common North American plastics with 21 million tonnes of PE and 7.5 million tonnes of PP — 55 per cent of total plastics — made annually.
Plastic “lumber” cannot rot. If your project is fastened with stainless steel screws, it can expect to survive hundreds of years. Moreover, it contains no toxic materials like those in pressure treated wood. Robins and chipmunks are safe around plastic lumber.
An ideal recycling plan would make new plastic film or bottles from waste. Greenwell can’t do that, but it helps keep waste plastics out of our oceans and our food chain.
The jury is out on whether microplastics are toxic to living creatures, including ourselves. However, it makes good sense to minimize their presence in our environment.
If you are thinking of building a deck, fence or edging some planting beds, consider using Greenwell’s locally made plastic “lumber” for the job. It saws and takes screws just like wood, and can be had in various colours, with a plain surface, a non-slip surface or a surface made to look like wood.