The proportion of single-use food and beverage packaging litter picked up on Canadian shorelines nearly doubled last year to 26.6 per cent from 15.3 per cent as lockdowns and shuttered restaurants encouraged people to opt for more takeout and individually packaged foods.

HALIFAX: Like many during the coronavirus pandemic, former Nova Scotia politician and lifelong environmentalist Megan Leslie is having a tough time avoiding single-use plastics.

“I try hard,” says Leslie, a full-time environmental steward since taking over as president of World Wildlife Fund Canada in 2017. “It has been harder in the pandemic.”

It’s anything from no longer being able to use her reusable mug on the rare occasions she goes out for coffee, the plastic wrap on cucumbers, or deliveries groceries packed in plastic bags during early lockdowns when less was known about the virus.

“As an individual consumer, I look at the plastic in my recycle bin – and in my garbage because not all of it is recyclable – and I’m still shocked by what I see,” she says. “And I’m one person who’s trying hard.”

The latest annual “Dirty Dozen” report on litter from Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup – a partnership created by WWF Canada and fellow conservation not-for-profit Ocean Wise – reveals COVID delivered a triple whammy on efforts to contain and clean up single-use plastics.

The proportion of single-use food and beverage packaging litter picked up on Canadian shorelines nearly doubled last year to 26.6% from 15.3% as lockdowns and shuttered restaurants encouraged people to opt for more takeout and individually packaged foods.

The conservation program’s volunteer shoreline cleanup efforts saw a 70 per cent plunge in participation as COVID restrictions mandated physical distancing and limited gathering sizes.

Those who did turn out for solo and single-household events when cleanups resumed after a four-month hiatus spotted masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) on their hunts for litter for the first time in the group’s 27-year history.

Volunteers had to pencil in the PPE they were finding on the checklist data cards as they gathered trash. The category was added this year.

Topping the list of most common litter in Canada, once again, was cigarette butts. The discarded cigarette ends are made of small plastic particles that take decades or more to decompose.

Tiny plastic or foam was in second place, followed by food wrappers, paper, bottle caps, beverage cans, plastic bottles and plastic bags.

Leslie says not all litter is advertent.

“People think, ‘What’s happening here? Are people just dumping garbage in the ocean?’” she says. “Hey, we’ve all been to Point Pleasant Park when the wind is high and the garbage bags are actually blowing inside out.”

That’s known as leakage in industry lingo. “We put something in the recycling bin and it falls out of a truck, or somewhere in the waste management scheme it escapes,” says Leslie, a two-term Member of Parliament for Halifax who served as deputy NDP leader. “We have to be really careful about where we put our garbage and our recycling and making sure it’s actually getting into that waste stream.”

The “Dirty Dozen” list and organized shoreline cleanups are aimed at drawing attention to litter and its deleterious impact on the environment.

That sort of awareness on the part of the public can put pressure on corporations, leading to changes like the single-use plastic bag ban in Nova Scotia and other parts of Canada.

“Consumer demand matters a lot,” says Leslie from Toronto, where she’s now based. “People have been up in arms about why cucumbers are wrapped in plastic.”

Repurposing Plastic

Breaking corporations and consumers of the single-use plastics habit will take time. Candy bar wrappers, cling film, and baggies are convenient and cheap.

Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has noted that only nine per cent of plastics are being recycled. Ottawa estimates that’s the equivalent of three million tonnes of plastic worth $7.9 billion being thrown out every year.

Companies around the Maritimes have found ways to recycle or repurpose milk jugs, bags, and other plastics that would otherwise be destined for the landfill.

LakeCity Woodworkers, a not-for-profit that provides employment services for people with mental illness, branched out into plastics in 2019. The new venture turns plastic bags and other recyclables into outdoor furniture such as Adirondack chairs and picnic tables from plastic lumber supplied by GoodWood Plastic in Stewiacke.

Sophie Eld, the new executive director at LakeCity Works, says a single picnic table can repurpose 10,000 plastic bags. “It was a twofold initiative for us,” she says. “One was to create opportunities for the people we work with, people living with mental illness. The other element is the environmental impact and wanting to be part of the solution.”

With soaring lumber prices, furniture made from recycled plastic is getting more affordable. Another feature of the COVID-19 era is that it’s easier to disinfect than wooden furniture.

Around five workers are making a little over a hundred pieces of plastic furniture a month, says Eld. “Given seasonality, I think we could say we build around 1,000 items per year at the moment and we’re growing.”

In Chester, Sustane Technologies Inc. has built a plant to repurpose nearly 90 per cent of garbage. At its prototype factory, bags of trash are broken down and separated to be turned into biomass fuel pellets, synthetic diesel, and recyclable materials.

The start-up has a long-term agreement with Chester to take the bags of trash destined for the dump. That’s happening now on a trial basis and the plant is close to completing a testing phase that would pave the way to replicate the factory in other markets, says Kevin Cameron, Sustane’s vice president of business development and government relations.

“Nova Scotia is the gold standard for recycling,” he says. “But blue bag programs are being challenged. There aren’t great markets right now. It’s been three years since China, which was the primary buyer for plastic waste, has said no.”

Saint John-based Inteplast Bags & Films Corp. has been recycling plastic bags from Sobeys, Atlantic Superstore and other retailers for more than 25 years.

Canadian sales manager Terry Ricketts says the single-use plastic bags produced in the factory are 45 per cent recycled plastic.

With a plastic bag ban in Nova Scotia, Inteplast has lost customers here, but still sells to other parts of Canada and the United States.

For Maritimers, plastic Sobeys bags have long had many more lives after carting home groceries. The possible uses are varied, such as cleaning up after pets, lining a garbage can, or waterproofing a leaky pair of rubber boots. Since the ban, consumers have called Ricketts to ask if they can buy a case of bags.

She says the company is still waiting to learn whether Prime Minister Trudeau will impose a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags.

Sobeys was the first national grocer to ban them.

Inteplast now supplies Sobeys with reusable bags, also made of plastic. “We supply them, but we’re not making them,” says Ricketts. “We’re importing them from Asia – and so is everybody else. They call them fabric, but it’s a type of plastic. If more people understood these bags are just a different kind of plastic, I think they would embrace locally made.”

The company makes a heavier duty version of its plastic bag that’s certified in California as reusable, she says. “We believe that’s a model that could serve Canadians.”