Executive Summary – Global Marine Plastic Pollution: Sources, Solutions and Canada’s Role

(Disponible en français : Résumé – La pollution plastique des océans dans le monde : les sources, les solutions et le rôle du Canada)

Plastics have become ubiquitous throughout the global economy and in our daily lives as a result of their useful properties and low cost. At the same time, the durability of plastics combined with poor waste management has resulted in an estimated 60% of all plastics ever produced accumulating in landfills and the environment, where they can last for hundreds of years. As plastics break down, they form microplastics – tiny plastic pieces. Microplastics can accumulate persistent pollutants while they circulate in the marine environment and can enter the human food chain through seafood, sea salt and drinking water. Because ocean currents distribute lightweight plastic debris far from its source, the environmental quality of one nation can be negatively impacted by plastic litter originating from other nations.

Strategies being deployed around the world to curb plastic waste and marine plastic pollution include:

  • restricting the use of harmful or problematic plastics;
  • requiring producers to be responsible for their products through end-of-life;
  • implementing consumer information campaigns, including encouraging reduction and reuse;
  • incentivizing recycling through deposit return schemes or by requiring minimum recycled content in plastic products;
  • promoting innovation, such as in designing products for reuse and recycling; and
  • supporting improved waste management infrastructure in developing countries with high plastic leakage into the environment.

As is the case in many countries, Canada’s largest single category of plastic waste is packaging. The increasing volume of single-use plastics, including plastic packaging, is problematic as these products are only used briefly, rarely recycled and prone to becoming litter. The majority of Canada’s plastic waste ends up in landfills, with only 9% being recycled. Recycling plastic waste is often not the most economical choice due to a number of factors: contamination of plastics sent for recycling, logistical challenges in sorting various types of plastic; the inclusion of hard-to-recycle plastics in the waste stream; the use of dyes and additives in plastics, which limits the use of recycled resin; limited markets for recycled plastics; and the low cost of petroleum products used in manufacturing conventional new plastics.

As a contributor to the global problem of marine plastic pollution, Canada has a role in addressing its root causes. Canada used its Group of Seven presidency in 2018 to advance the Ocean Plastics Charter, which promotes cooperation among governments and businesses and contains targets to reduce the flow of plastics to the environment. Prevention is key: reducing the amount of plastic waste generated in the first place is the preferred approach in the Canada-wide Action Plan on Zero Plastic Waste – Phase 1.

Read the full text of the Background Paper: Global Marine Plastic Pollution: Sources, Solutions and Canada’s Role

Author: Sarah Yakobowski, Library of Parliament