House of Commons - Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development
May 8, 2019
Thank you for the invitation to speak with this committee today. I would like to applaud you for being leaders in our national community by making space for this discussion.
I am Dr. Love-Ese Chile, I am a Researcher and Consultant at my company Grey to Green Sustainable Solutions. Over the last 7+ years I have been building my expertise in Sustainable Science, Green Chemistry, and Biodegradable Plastics. My research explores the science and develops the technology that will help sustainable plastics circulate within our local economies. In my work as a consultant, I spend a significant amount of time bringing greater understanding to stakeholders about the role of sustainable plastics. I have worked with non-profits, and businesses and give many public lectures about how we can collectively take steps forward to reduce plastic waste by making more conscious decisions about plastics.
You have heard many voices in this Standing Committee. Voices that talk about the benefits of plastic use and how they have supported the huge advancement of our society and will continue to support us in the future. You have also heard about the devasting environmental crisis that has been caused by the unfettered discharge of these materials into our ecosystems.
What we are all here for are solutions.
How can we start to turn the tide on plastics? We know that complete plastic bans or switching over all our plastic use over to alternatives will not be the easy solution that they’re touted to be. Many groups are here talking about their one piece of the puzzle and wondering how they can all come together to make the whole. I urge us to think about this problem in the opposite way, what is the system we envision and how can we align the pieces to make this happen.
This is a conversation I have often and where I like to centre myself is in the tenants of sustainability. Sustainability is complex and it is very situation dependent. That “there are no one-size fits all solutions” has already been said in these discussions. We need to understand that plastic is a human-environment system, and that at the core of plastic pollution are our social and cultural practices. We have many technologies in our tool-box, both established and new, different types of plastics, recovery options and metrics, that we can use in a variety of situations to make sustainable plastic choices. This will make up the bulk of my remarks today.
First, I think it is important to take a step back and clarify exactly what we are talking about when it comes to “plastics”. One thing I say in my lectures is that “All plastics are polymers but not all polymers are plastics”. Polymers are the long chain molecules that make up plastics. However, the term “plastic” is a description of behaviour, that has become synonymous with the materials that we use every day. But there are many types of behaviour that polymers can show.
Plastics: are deformable, can be heated and remolded. Rubbers and elastics can be deformed but their molecular structure makes them unable to be reformed when broken. Resins, adhesives and lubricants are stuck in their structure and can’t be reformed either. Very few of these materials are recyclable and they have little value at the end of their life. This means that conversation about “plastic” pollution should be extended to encompass all “polymers.”
Even if we now only focus on the plastic polymer products there is another level of complexity when it comes to the length of use. Conversations are very much focussed on single use products and packaging – these are used for less than one day for example, often in contact with food and other organic matter making useful separation difficult (e.g. food service items, agricultural mulch, food packaging).
We can then think about short term use products and packaging – for example used for less than one month but used multiple times. These are often in contact with liquids, gels, powders (e.g. shampoo containers, cleaning supplies, toothpaste).
Then we have consumer products – used for 1 month +, every day products (e.g. tooth brush, clothing, storage containers, outdoor furniture).
Then finally we have advanced engineering plastics – used in long term, highly durable and very targeted applications (e.g. plastics used in computers, automobiles, high tech devices, medicine).
Now we have four types of plastic polymer products that have different technical requirements, they have different interactions with consumers, and need different ways to manage their waste. To truly change the conversation on plastics we need reframe the way we value our resources and to improve the systems that handle them.
I mentioned that we have many tools in our toolbox, these include circular economy, bio-economy, sustainable materials management, zero waste, life cycle analysis, cradle-to-cradle design, industrial symbiosis, compostable and biodegradable plastics. These tools can be used in combination and by themselves in different scenarios to trace out the most sustainable course of action.
However, we need to be aware that the system we currently operate in is not perfect and what is sustainable today may not be what is sustainable tomorrow. And what we demand of producers and users will also change.
A framework we are all familiar with is the 5 Rs, Reduce, Reuse, Recirculate, Recycle, Recover.
Reduce is the first and hardest. But as I said our social and cultural norms are at the centre of plastic pollution. Zero waste initiatives and problematic plastic bans challenge this core assumption, that we need all these things. We need to support these steps and make policies that harmonize the conversation across the whole country. So that all Canadians and business operators know that this is now what we call normal.
Reuse, advocating for repairing, redesigning products to their components can be reused, implementing recycled content targets. All these will help maintain the value of our resources for longer and build the end markets we need to make these options economically viable.
Recirculate, designing our industries and logistic systems into a circular economy. Industrial symbiosis is taking the waste from one process and feeding it into new manufacturing processes, to close-the loop.
Recycle, not just the convention mechanical recycling, also advanced chemical recycling that takes material back into feedstocks for us to use again. And, biological recycling, composting and anaerobic digestion. Difficult to separate mixtures of organic and plastic waste can be utilized to create a useful soil amendment or energy.
Recovery, the bottom of the waste hierarchy, but useful in the short term to help reduce landfill volumes by generating energy from currently unrecyclable waste.
Another tool in our box is one that I haven’t heard discussed much in this committee is the idea of the bio-economy. Stemming from a desire to separate our plastic production from consumption of fossil resources. This has led to development of bio-derived plastics made from biological feed-stocks which can be designed to be biodegradable and/or recyclable. There are many voices in this conversation, some with vested interests in the status quo, and this can then feed into the discussion into whether compostable or recyclable “better”. My view is that both have a place (if supported by development of infrastructure and open communication between producers, consumers and policy makers).
It is true that the first generation of compostable materials on the market were not designed with collaboration by those managing waste. So, we have confusion by end-users who don’t know how to properly separate and collect compostable plastics. Lack of transparency and information surrounding biodegradation of compostable materials, has meant that compost generators do not want to accept these products in their processes. By choosing to acknowledge that there is space for compostables, we can build the infrastructure these products need to allow them to reach their environmental potential and develop the stringent monitoring of the products that are sold on the market.
I will close by saying that sustainability in inherently complicated. Sustainability for food packaging will look different to sustainability for toothbrush manufacturing. It’s important to have a clear vision for what we want our plastics economy to look like and an understanding of the positive and negative impacts of the different plastics that are available. This is so we can develop a roadmap for the short, medium and long-term that will help us to reach our zero waste goals. To support this, we have many tools that we can lean on to help us make all our plastic sustainable and to maintain the value of these useful materials.
Thank you again for this opportunity to speak. I look forward to answering any of your questions.