Photo: Shen Molloy (left) and Adam Cheeseman (Director of Conservation at Nature NB) bag trash following a beach clean-up.

Plastic Pollution and the Atlantic Provinces

JULY 17, 2020 — It’s no secret that plastic pollution is a major environmental concern facing our world today. All of the plastic that has ever been manufactured is still present today somewhere on Earth, either in landfills, at illegal dumping sites, or as part of the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch1. Similar amounts of water-borne pollution exist even closer to home, with an estimated 1.8 million pieces of trash laying on the bottom of the Bay of Fundy2. Campaigns like the one to end the use of plastic straws have seen success the world over, but straws are just one small piece of single-use plastic that people may encounter throughout their day. Others include to-go cups and containers, product packaging, and of course: plastic shopping bags.

Legislation limiting plastic bags is slowly being introduced in jurisdictions around the world, from individual municipalities to entire countries, but there’s always room for improvement. This is what Dalhousie University Master of Resource and Environmental Management candidate Shen Molloy is seeking to address in her research.

Shen, with the guidance of her research supervisor Dr. Andrew Medeiros, has designed a survey to better understand public perception of plastic bag bans in Atlantic Canada. Currently, there is a ban in place on Prince Edward Island, bans coming later in 2020 for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland & Labrador, but no plans for a ban in New Brunswick. Shen hopes that the results of this research will be used to make recommendations to legislators on the importance of taking action against plastic pollution.

“I hope to gain a better understanding of how people are feeling about the ban and what their concerns are surrounding single use plastic and future legislation,” said Shen. “I want to know: do people want this bag ban? Do people want more plastics banned as well? The two provinces that I’m really interested in are PEI and New Brunswick. On PEI, has the ban gone over well? How can it be improved? And then how can we use what I find and apply it to future legislation that will be hopefully implemented elsewhere (i.e. New Brunswick)?”

The survey gives respondents the opportunity to reflect on what they’re already doing, what they’d be willing to do, and what they’d like legislators to know. Shen hopes that this inspires respondents to also make more eco-conscious choices going forward.

Shen Molloy

Photo: Grad student Shen Molloy is hoping to influence legislation with her research into plastic pollution in Atlantic Canada.

Moving to a Reduced Waste Lifestyle

If you’re looking for ways to further reduce the amount of waste that you create in your life, Shen has a few tips. The easiest place to start? Your kitchen.

“The first thing you should do is go through your garbage! Put on rubber gloves, stick your hand in there, and take stock of what type of waste you are producing. There are so many kitchen alternatives that you can switch out, like beeswax wraps for plastic cling wrap, for example. Or purchasing a water filter because there are way too many single-use plastic water bottles out in the world. Little switches like that are super easy to do.”

Shen acknowledges that moving toward a zero waste lifestyle is a difficult adjustment, something that may be frustrating to some and insurmountable to others. But she was quick to share some information that might illustrate the severity and ubiquity of plastic pollution in our everyday lives: the presence of microplastics in the air, in our water, and even in the food we eat.

“People may eat a credit card’s worth of plastic each week,” said Shen, citing a study commissioned by WWF and conducted by the University of Newcastle, Australia3 4. This study was an aggregation of over 50 studies about the ingestion of microplastics and has for the first time shown that the average human intake of plastic each week is 5g, about the amount of plastic in a credit card.

Microplastics find their way into our environment through plastic pollution. Plastic bags, cups, packaging, and more make their way into our waterways. Tossed in the current, the plastic gets shredded into small, almost microscopic pieces, but never fully breaks down. That plastic finds its way back to us in many ways. Eliminating the production of plastic from the beginning is the easiest way to reduce the amount of plastic present in our environment. Plastic bag bans are just one of the many ways that governments can begin to take action.

Garbage Collage

Photo: Much of the trash pulled from New Brunswick beaches is single-use plastic and discarded fishing gear. (Lewnanny Richardson)

Single-use Plastic and COVID-19

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light just how much the world relies on single-use plastic and other disposable materials. Measures to curb the spread of the virus have led not only to increased cleaning and sanitization — often with disposable wipes — but also to grocery stores banning reusable bags and coffee shops banning travel mugs. But until there’s a vaccine, living with COVID-19 is the new normal, and Shen says that it’s important that we don’t back slide into old bad habits.

“Dr. Robert Strang [Chief Medical Officer for Nova Scotia], recently said that he doesn’t foresee reusable bags being an issue. As long as you wash your hands and you maintain your physical distance5, we will be fine. Hopefully we can get back on track to using reusables again because we sort of fell off there a little bit.”

Get Involved

Shen’s survey is open until the end of August 2020, and she’s looking for responses from anyone and everyone about their habits and attitudes about single-use plastic and plastic pollution. You can fill out the survey here.

Please note: the survey is available in English only.

  1. National Geographic. “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” National Geographic Resource Library. Retrieved 31 July 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/
  2. Tutton, Michael. “1.8 million items of garbage strewn over Bay of Fundy bottom, study estimates.” CTV News. Retrieved 31 July 2020, https://atlantic.ctvnews.ca/1-8-million-items-of-garbage-strewn-over-bay-of-fundy-bottom-study-estimates-1.4686095
  3. Colbert, Yvonne. “Should you use a reusable shopping bag? Government, stores have different answers.” CBC. Retrieved 31 July 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/reusable-shopping-bag-covid-19-1.5518765
  4. The University of Newcastle, Australia. “Plastic ingestion by people could be equating to a credit card a week.” University News. Retrieved 31 July 2020, https://www.newcastle.edu.au/newsroom/featured/plastic-ingestion-by-people-could-be-equating-to-a-credit-card-a-week
  5. WWF. “Revealed: plastic ingestion by people could be equating to a credit card a week.” WWF.org. Retrieved 31 July 2020, https://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/press_releases/?348337/Revealed-plastic-ingestion-by-people-could-be-equating-to-a-credit-card-a-week

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