The looming threat of plastic pollution is one of mankind's greatest challenges. With more than 381 million tons of plastic produced worldwide each year,1 it's no surprise the waste ends up in our soil, lakes, rivers and oceans, as well as in the bodies of humans and wildlife.
The durability of plastic is what makes it popular for use in so many products. But its strength and durability also mean that it doesn't break down in the environment. It's estimated that a plastic bottle can take 450 years to break down in a marine environment,2 while fishing line can take 600 years.3 But even then, it never goes away. It simply breaks down into smaller pieces that may persist in the environment forever.
These tiny pieces of plastic, commonly known as microplastics, may be eaten by fish and other marine life. This can cause a lot of suffering if the plastic builds up in their bodies over time. When a whale found malnourished and dying off the coast of Norway had to be put down, an autopsy revealed 30 plastic bags and a large amount of plastic packaging waste in its stomach and intestines, which was causing blockages and pain.4
Microplastics that bioaccumulate in the food chain and are eventually consumed by humans (the average person ingests about 100 plastic particles each year from shell fish alone) can cause a lot of health problems in people, too. As in the environment, plastic does not break down in the human body, either.
Many of the chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics are also known to disrupt embryonic development, dysregulate hormones and gene expression, cause organ damage, and have been linked to obesity, heart disease and cancer.
One of the greatest sources of plastic pollution is single-use plastic found in food packaging. An investigation by CBC News Marketplace explores the role supermarkets play in fueling plastic pollution, as the majority of food products are continually wrapped in toxic, nonbiodegradable plastic packaging.5
Why Buying Plastic-Free Is so Difficult
The featured film highlights two families and their attitude toward plastic (one family tries to avoid it, one doesn't) when it comes to buying food. The two families agree to participate in a social experiment where they switch places to see how the other side lives when it comes to addressing plastic pollution.
About 95 percent of what we buy contains some form of plastic packaging, says Jessica and Jonathan, who have an infant child name JJ. The couple live in the north end of Toronto, Canada, where they shop at No Frills, a discount grocery chain owned by Loblaw Inc., a Canadian supermarket chain with stores located in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.
The film follows the family up and down the aisles of their local No Frills grocery store as they shop for food, paying particular attention to how much of it comes packaged in plastic. The couple, who grocery shop about twice a week, say they used to use reusable bags, but don't anymore. "We never bring reusable bags," says Jessica. "We did before. But then we just stopped" says Jonathan. "We got lazy," says Jessica.
Western Nations Are Dumping Their Plastic Problem on to Poorer Countries
Plastic is cheaper and more convenient, say the couple. And they're right. Supermarkets and their suppliers have come to rely on plastic because it's cheap and durable. But "cheap" is relative. The true cost of single-use plastic on human and environmental health is astronomical, and the burden of that cost is unevenly distributed.
Some of the world's largest plastic producers often ship their waste to other countries to be recycled. Both the U.S. and Canada, as well as several other countries, were shipping large portions of plastic waste to China, which would buy it, recycle it and make new products. But last year China announced that it would no longer accept plastic waste imports in an effort to protect the environment and human health.
Since 1991, nearly half the world's plastic waste has been sent to China.6 Since China decided it no longer wanted to be the "world's garbage dump,"7 experts say there may be an estimated 111 million tons of plastic with nowhere to go by 2030. The U.S., Britain, Germany, Japan and Mexico were among some of the largest exporters of plastic waste to China.8
Instead of dealing with their own waste, many Western nations have been dumping (literally) their plastic problem on to other countries with little to no environmental regulations on how that waste is processed and disposed of. In the first six months of China banning plastic waste imports, nearly half of plastic waste exported from the U.S. for recycling was shipped to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. John Hocevar, Oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, says:
"Instead of taking responsibility for their own waste, U.S. companies are exploiting developing countries that lack the regulation to protect themselves. The average person when they put a piece of plastic in a [recycling] bin, they assume it is being recycled, not being shipped to China or now to Southeast Asia, where it will possibly be incinerated or landfilled."
The film shows exclusive footage provided to CBS News Marketplace by Greenpeace of heaping piles of plastic waste in Malaysia. The footage is recent and was taken about an hour outside of Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur. Hidden within the mounds of plastic waste is plastic trash from some of Canada's popular stores and grocers, including a bag from Sobeys, a milk bag from Nova Scotia dairy Scotsburn, a burger bun bag from Ben's Bakery and a birdseed bag from a company in Ontario.
The most ironic part about Canadian companies dumping their trash abroad in places like Malaysia, is that nothing about their marketing suggests they are participating in such an environmentally destructive practice.
One of Sobeys' most popular commercials drives home the slogan, "Delivering you the future." One of Scotsburn's advertisements says, "Our products meet our family." These feel-good (and misleading) slogans convince consumers they care about people and their health. But that isn't exactly the case.