Canada’s Story of Plastic and unwanted fossil fuel expansions in 2021

2021-08-03

 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

THE DISCONNECTION

I watched as remnants of my glittery eye-makeup—captured and floating in beads of tap water—roll towards the drain at the center of the pure-white, ceramic sink. This can’t be good, I think. I imagined where those bits of makeup would go: down the drain, through the pipes, through the water treatment facility, and into the Fraser River. Eventually, those fragments of plastic that once promised to make my eyes ‘sparkle’ will join the ocean.

Who’s responsible for plastics?

Me: “What image comes to mind when I say ‘plastics’?”

My friend, Dion: “Bottles on the ground, surrounded by dirt, garbage all over, at music festivals, on hiking trails.”

Me: “What do you think about it?”

Dion: “It bothers me, especially on hiking trails. They’re not going to decompose, it’s going to harm the environment, and it’s such a preventable thing, just carry it with you until you reach a recycling bin.”

Me: “Is that where it ends?”

Dion: “For the consumer, yes, I think so.”

Are plastics a consumption problem?

The City of Vancouver aspires to be the “Greenest City” in the world by 2050. Before COVID-19, businesses and residents were on a roll to zero waste.

Plastic straws? Banned. Plastic bags? Banned. It’s not just Vancouver, too. Other cities and countries around the world, such as Seattle, Hamburg, Kenya, and Taiwan are taking similar actions. But what if the problem isn’t nearly as simple as our consumption of plastic straws, bags, and other ‘single-use’ products?

The Story of Plastic (2019) goes deeper, beyond the story of consumption and ‘waste management’, to show us the cost of plastic, who pays, and who gains. It connects the stories of locals in different parts of the world “trying to bail out a bathtub with a teaspoon while the tap is on full blast” (metaphor), to illustrate a clear image for cause and action. It reveals the root cause of our modern plastic problem as one we are all only too familiar and empathetic with: fossil fuels.

HOW PLASTIC IS THE GOLDEN CHILD OF OIL & GAS

Vivian: “Gas is so expensive these days. It cost me $60 CAD to fill half a tank.”

Justin: “Yeah, it’s crazy.”

Me: “I have something un-useful to say…”

Collective sigh.

The myth of cheap and abundant fossil fuels

The truth is that consumers pay an insanely low price for fossil fuels at the gas station. In Canada, the price of gas today (July 19, 2021) is about $6 CAD per gallon ($1.581 per liter). Gas in the Netherlands is priced closer to $10.50 CAD per gallon ($2.754 per liter) for the same day. The true cost of gas, including air and water pollution, respiratory illnesses, oil spills, and reduced crop yields—which are ‘externalized’ and thus borne by the public—is more than triple the price paid at any U.S. gas station. Canada is not far off.

Okay, so drivers don’t pay anything close to the true cost of extracting, refining, transporting, and burning fossil fuels. But there is a group who pays even less while profiting immensely from pollution: Petro producers.

Each year, the Government of British Columbia gives away hundreds of millions of dollars worth of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, with most of the amount going to producers. In 2017-2018, subsidies totaled at least $830M CAD. While we were distracted by COVID-19 in 2020-2021, the provincial government quietly handed a contentious $1.3B CAD to oil and gas, more than (and counterproductive to) the $1.1B CAD pledged to fight climate change. Despite BC’s image as the greenest province in Canada and Vancouver’s Greenest City aspirations, BC is second only to Alberta in provincial handouts to the fossil fuel industry. And these amounts are in ‘subsidies’ alone; fossil fuel companies also get immense financial and operational support, including royalty credits, loan guarantees, equity injections, and more.

On a federal level, Canada is among the worst offenders of all OECD countries committed to G20 (intergovernmental forum working to address global economic issues including climate change) in giving support to fossil fuels. We ranked 11th (last) place for both “Scale of support for oil and gas exploration, production, refining, and transportation” and “Progress in ending support for fossil fuels”. In 2020 alone, we spent 18 billion in subsidies and other forms of financial support on the fossil fuel industry. On a per-capita basis (subsidies relative to size of population), Canada is the largest G20 supporter of international public finance for oil, gas, and coal projects around the world, outsizing Korea, Japan, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Germany, France, USA and India.

Globally, subsidies to fossil fuels are consistently in the trillions. The latest numbers available are estimated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to be $4.7 trillion USD for 2015, and $5.2 trillion USD for 2017, including the externalities of fossil fuels mentioned earlier. For some perspective, both amounts are more than what the world collectively spent on education for the same years.

Subsidies for fossil fuels mess with the dogmatic forces of supply and demand, keeping prices artificially low and demand artificially high. This keeps people and economies ‘locked in’ to burning fossil fuels and influences the direction of investment and innovation. In other words, so long as fossil fuels continue to be falsely understood as ‘cheap and abundant’, people will continue to use and build infrastructure around it—to our own detriment. Good for the pockets of a few people, not so good for everyone else, our health or future.

There are places where fossil fuel subsidies go to consumers. But today, at least in BC, they go to producers more than anyone else. The BC and Canadian public do not benefit from the government’s intervention in the energy (and increasingly, plastics) market via subsidies nearly as much as they would with alternatives—like supporting a transition to sustainable energy—no matter where you’re looking: jobs, job training, or gas prices.

The future isn’t yesterday

“You know, the t-shirt you’re wearing is made from fossil fuels, right?”, a favourite line used by Right-wing and ‘Libertarian’ YouTube-journalists to ‘troll’ young people against fossil fuel expansion.

“Yes, I know that polyester t-shirts are made from petrol, although this one is actually cotton, which is not without its own environmental footprint… but thank you for that,” I want to say to the man who audaciously shouted the unoriginal line at my sister during a Vancouver protest opposing the Coastal GasLink and Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion.

Yes, we live in a fossil-fuel based world, and our t-shirts are a product of that world. But does wearing a t-shirt produced from fossil fuels invalidate the need for a just and low-carbon future? Does it justify more pipelines? Hardly. There is a heavy case to be made against Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s repeated assertion that “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there”.

Three years ago, I was driving down Burnaby Mountain in a hand-me-down Toyota Corolla when I stopped at a red light at an objectively ugly, large intersection. The sound of repeated car-honks woke me up from my after-work daze and caused me to panic and look around in the car mirrors thinking I’d done something wrong. And then I saw the commotion.  

On a platform in the middle of the intersection, towards my left, was a large crowd of Simon Fraser University (SFU) professors, staff, and students—most still wearing their backpacks—holding up signs in protest of the Kinder Morgan (now Trans Mountain) Pipeline. In fact, laying somewhere in my bedroom was a neon-green pamphlet handed to me from the organizers to attend.

I felt proud of them but upset at the circumstances that brought them to stand in the middle of this grey and ugly place, not least in 5 o’clock traffic. I even thought it ironic how people like myself, driving combustion vehicles on high-carbon infrastructure, encouraged the protestors.

I get it, though; it’s about the bigger picture. I honked my horn.

Petro’s hopes and dreams

Cities and entire countries are shifting to less oily, more sustainable energy sources, like hydro, nuclear, wind, and solar. Renewable energy now makes up one third of global installed power generation (electricity) capacity, with net annual additions of (new) power generation capacity from renewables surpassing that of nonrenewables (coal, oil, natural gas) since 2012. Contrary to what we might assume, oil companies are not scrambling from the projected decrease in demand for their gasoline and jet fuel—yet. That’s because they’ve already found what they think will be a lifeline for oil and gas: increased plastics production.

99% of plastics are produced using petrochemicals, which are chemicals derived from fossil fuels. The main source of plastics are chemicals derived from crude oil (the heavier stuff) and natural gas (the lighter stuff). We extract ethane from crude oil, and propane from natural gas, which are then ‘cracked’ under heat and pressure to form ethylene and propylene, and then polymerized to become the better-known polyethylene and polypropylene (think plastic Coca Cola bottles and similar single-use packaging).

Petro profiteers are cranking up marketing efforts to move fast moving, packaged consumer goods and single-use packaging through emerging markets like China and India. The plastic entering these countries are not driven by demand, but by supply. 

As a result, plastic production is set to quadruple by 2050.

Many places in the target market of increased production have no way of dealing with the exorbitant amount of plastic waste that is mostly coming from product packaging designed to be ‘thrown away’ (into the environment).

The worst offenders driving the global plastics pollution crisis are fast-moving consumer goods companies: Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Unilever, Mars, Inc., Mondelez International and Procter & Gamble.

Currently, 9% of all oil that is pumped from the ground is used to make plastic. This is a small component of total oil use, but not insignificant. On the projected trajectory that profiteers are banking on, plastics production will increase to 45% of total oil use by 2040—making it the largest single component of all oil use. If we trust Petro’s trusted BP (British Petroleum Company Limited) reports more than the International Energy Agency (IEA), that number is estimated to be closer to 95%. Perhaps it is wishful thinking on both ends, but neither outcome is advantageous for any society when we have only 8% remaining of the carbon budget for 1.5°C of global warming (estimated to be used up in 10 years without significant social change).

All this to say, we cannot afford to be pumping that much GHGs (greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere for plastics—or anything else for that matter, but especially not for unnecessary use-and-dump plastics—nor can we afford to churn out that much plastic into existence, with no conceivable way of dealing with it. 

The cost of externalities for each ton of plastic produced is at least $1000 USD. The cost of plastic that ends up in oceans is even higher, at a marine ecosystem value loss of $33,000 USD per ton. With 8M tons of plastic being dumped into oceans each year, that’s $2.5 trillion per year in marine plastic pollution alone.

40% of global plastic ‘demand’ is currently from plastic packaging.

Media misdirection

In the Story of Plastic (2019), we witness clips of representatives from the American Chemical Council (ACC)—beneficiaries of plastic production—making classic public relations (PR) moves to misdirect the media.

Plastics are not the problem, they say, littering is. Plastic waste is not the problem, they say, waste management is. We are not the problem, they say, countries in Asia and the global south are. Plastics are easily recycled, they say, we can solve our plastics problem by recycling. How reassuring if these assertions were true.

The truth is that plastics—at the current rate and scale they are produced and consumed—are not manageable, no matter where you live in the world. Recycling them releases toxic pollutants into the air and into estuaries and other bodies of water that join the ocean; burning them for ‘energy recovery’ is a recipe for sustained plastic waste demand. Plastics are an unmanageable waste, and it’s about time that we see and call efforts to increase its ubiquity for what it is: Petro profiteering. 

WHY IT MATTERS

Plastics are detrimental to human and environmental health. We cannot separate our plastics crisis from the problems causing climate chaos because of its material relationship with fossil fuels. We don’t need plastic-wrapped mushrooms held in single-use plastic containers. We don’t need tiny sachets of shampoo and conditioner. None of these make our short-lived lives any better or more convenient, but their impacts extend beyond us and last—well, forever, since plastics do not biodegrade. Do petrochemical companies care? Nah, but they’ll pretend to. Why should we care?  

Human development on the line

The Planetary Boundaries framework is widely used in environmental sciences to quantify and provide measures to define the ‘safe operating space’ for humanity within the earth system. For each planetary boundary, there is a critical threshold based on earth’s biophysical systems and processes, beyond which human development suffers. In other words, once we exceed these thresholds, we are threatening the extraordinarily stable (Holocene) state of the earth, under which people can live and thrive.

At the time of writing, July 2021, at least four of nine total planetary boundaries have been crossed, two of which are considered ‘core’ boundaries. Surpassing one—any one—core boundary can, on its own, knock Earth out of its currently stable state and put immeasurable stress on civilizations.

We have exceeded critical thresholds for core boundaries Climate Change and Biosphere Integrity. Our plastics crisis just so happens to be bound up in both.

Plastic production and pollution exacerbates climate change and biosphere collapse

Marine plastic pollution (MPP) is considered a chemical pollutant or ‘novel entity’ in the Planetary Boundaries framework. What this means is that our plastic pollution problem has gotten so big and so bad that it is disrupting earth system processes, such as the ability of natural systems to provision food and water, regulate climate, support species, and provide cultural benefits to people.

In addition, emissions coming from the lifecycle of plastics is a cause for concern in a time of out-of-control forest fires, droughts, and human migration due to global warming. A report by Center for International Environmental Law states,

“If growth in plastic production and incineration continue as predicted, their cumulative greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will be over 56 gigatons CO2e, or between 10–13 percent of the total remaining carbon budget”.

Smaller plastics—in the form of microplastics—may also negatively impact the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon by reducing the ability of microscopic plants and animals to ‘fix’ carbon via photosynthesis, while large plastic ‘islands’ or ‘garbage patches’ in the ocean impact its ability to sequester carbon. 

Plastics are already so prevalent in the environment that in a billion years, their remains—embedded in the rocks and everything else remaining on this planet—will be the human record. 

We need solutions.

SURFACE-LEVEL SOLUTIONS

When we saw the image of the sea turtle with a plastic straw stuffed in its nose, we were outraged. When we heard of the dead young whale who washed ashore, starved from ingesting 88 pounds of plastic bags, we were outraged. 

In response to growing concern over the state of our oceans and marine life, people all around the world have been pressuring corporations and governments to deal with marine plastics pollution. Entrepreneurs and regular people are coming up with creative solutions to address marine plastic pollution.

While I agree with the importance of celebrating successes in the ‘gloom and doom’ of much of today’s climate and environmental discourses, I think that it is equally important to be critical of what we consider as success, for there are ripple effects to every action taken and highlighted. Whenever we promote a certain type of solution, we are setting precedent for what may come next.

For every effective solution that exists for marine plastic pollution, there exists an ineffective, false, or misleading solution somewhere else. If the production of plastics is the root cause of plastic pollution and fossil fuel expansion, then we need to address that. That is ‘turning off the tap’.

What follows are solutions that do, sound, and feel good, but don’t actually address the root cause of our plastics crisis.

Ocean clean-ups

Ocean ‘clean-ups’ are and should be understood as a desperate last measure. We cannot efficiently or effectively capture plastics that are deteriorating into microplastics, and most definitely not while a garbage truck full of plastic waste gets dumped into an ocean, every minute of every day. How much clean up do we need? How many years? How many people, ships? What about the trash that doesn’t float to the surface? Ocean clean-ups may be a solution, but it is no where near being the solution.

Single-use alternatives

In response to the plastics crisis, some businesses have opted for paper in the place of plastic, or easier-to-recycle types of plastics in place of other plastics. Restaurants in Vancouver increasingly give out wooden cutlery, paper straws, and paper takeaway boxes. Although the production, manufacture, and transportation of these materials release considerably more carbon emissions, their end-of-life is much less problematic than that of plastics, which have no end-of-life. These measures are necessary as replacements for single-use plastics. But ultimately, we need to scrap or ‘replace’ the idea that single-use anything for non-essentials is convenient or even sustainable if we are to address the most pressing problems of many of our lifetimes (climate change and overconsumption). That goes for bioplastics, too.

The age-old promise of plastics recycling

This one is trickier. BC is a leader in plastics recovery and recycling. But for the rest of Canada (which recycles a mere 9% of its plastic waste) and the world, especially in places where there is no infrastructure developed for recycling, recycling plastics come at a human and environmental cost. As is well documented, the global north—Canada, US, Europe, etc.—have been shipping our plastic waste to developing countries for years, for them to deal with

“The entire economy around recycling is possible because we have poverty”, says Shibu of Thanal Trust, an environmental education and conservation organization in Kerala, India. 

‘Recycling’ frequently requires the people doing the recycling to take a lighter to the piece of plastic they mean to identify, sniff the fumes it releases, and then sort it to a pile in the 83 different categories of plastics. Plastics incineration or so-called ‘energy recovery’ sites are even more grave, endlessly pumping immense amounts of ‘fly ash’ and toxic gases like dioxins, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (BCPs) into the air, causing workers and surrounding communities to suffer from adverse health effects like infertility, hormonal disruption, dermatitis and various cancers—or, ‘externalities’. 

Plastic China (2016) shows us what happens to people and plastics after we toss the bottle in the recycling bin. China—a country that industrialized in what is equivalent to the blink of an eye in the course of human history—took most of the world’s plastic waste before banning all further imports on July 27, 2017.

And as pointed out in the Story of Stuff (2019), most plastics cannot be recycled, due to the mixing of materials and the way they are designed to be thrown. Even when they are ‘recycled’, most can only be downcycled once before ending up as a less-usable form of plastic trash. 

BETTER SOLUTIONS

So, what can we do?

I don’t know about you but I find living in an era of human-induced global warming and simultaneous climate change denial utterly exhausting. As a result, I’m often tempted to choose the most radical option when it comes to solutions; let’s just get it done, I’ll think. But something I learned recently is that radical isn’t always the best—or even effective. Sometimes, radicalism—in its idealism—fails us through its neglect of the realities of others. 

In the global momentum to break free from unhealthy plastic and fossil fuel production and consumption habits, it is important to remember the people who will be affected by this necessary change. Because more than anything else, the fossil fuel and plastics industries are global problems. Their scale and effects are borne on a global level, even if we might be privileged to not see those effects on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, when we talk about ‘solutions’, we must consider and address their unintentional effects on ‘others’. 

If plastics are a global problem, and we can’t keep shipping them to China et al., then what are our options, as Canadians and as global citizens?

The Number One: Phase-out government subsidies to fossil fuels, starting with those that go to producers

Our current energy and plastics markets are heavily distorted by government intervention in the form of subsidies and other financial support. Phasing out Canada’s public funding of fossil fuels stops unfairly tipping the scale in favour of oil and gas. This should be a no-brainer. It makes absolutely no sense to be touting climate action on the one hand while continuing to support the extraction and export of fossil fuels on the other.

When we get rid of the mechanisms keeping the cost of fossil fuels artificially low, we stop disincentivizing the use of alternative materials, energy sources, and recycled content.

This isn’t an un-Canadian solution, either; Albertans whose lives and livelihoods are entrenched in the fossil fuel industry need a way out, too. Anyone who’s been to ‘Beaver Creek’ in the Tar Sands knows there are no beavers swimming there. Phasing out subsidies to fossil fuels frees up significant resources for innovation, jobs, jobs training and more. An article written by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (think tank) shows just how much opportunity there is for a just transition for all Canadians—not just Albertans—who might currently depend on the oil and gas industry (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. What Canada’s fossil fuel subsidies could pay for. Image from IISD, 2020.

While ‘phasing-out’ subsidies might sound like a cop-out on serious climate action, it may be the more effective—and thus preferred—approach, to immediately ending subsidies. In countries where governments took radical action to end subsidies all at once, and where social compensation programs were not adequately delivered alongside subsidy reforms—such as in Ecuador—citizens-led protests broke out against reforms that are beneficial in the longer term.

Canada can take a lesson or two from other countries’ attempted to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies; first, phase-out subsidies, which will gradually raise the price of gas (rather than doing so overnight); second (and simultaneously), concentrate social benefits on key constituencies (such as oil and gas workers) who would otherwise oppose such changes.

Stop developing new fossil fuel infrastructure

Less ‘cheap’ oil, less plastic. Petro companies already face overcapacity in their fossil fuel infrastructure that ‘fuels’ their need to increase plastics demand to keep profits high. If Canada is to meet its emissions targets, our government should probably stop helping Petro companies develop expensive infrastructure that are financially irresponsible and that take us further and further away from reaching those targets.

Canada is expected to lose money on every single one of those “173 billion barrels of oil” moving through the highly contested Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) (a national megaproject).

Governments exist to serve the public. Yet the political parties we vote into power consistently background public interest—such as preventing further climate change and related costs—in favour of private interests and the sustainability of their own political powers. Call them out; vote them out. 

There is currently only one political party in Canada (and BC) that even remotely addresses social and environmental justice in the ways we need to have them addressed. In response to people telling me that I am just ‘wasting my vote’ in my (electoral) riding by voting Green, I always say: “if i have any hope left in our political system, I’m going to vote ‘just’ to change the statistics, so others may have hope, too”. 

End the production and use of single-use, disposable plastics

At the time of writing, 27 members of the $35 billion Canadian ‘big plastics’ industry are suing the Canadian federal government for its inclusion of “plastic manufactured items” on the list of toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) on May 12, 2021. 

The three top producers of plastics in Canada—NOVA Chemical, Dow Chemical, and Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil, who together make three quarters of all plastic polymers produced in Canada—joined with other manufacturers to form the “Coalition for a Responsible Use of Plastic” in response to the CEPA’s listing, claiming that plastic is not the challenge, but post-consumer plastic in the environment is. Classic. Nah, we covered this. As reflected in a statement from Karen Wirsig in a joint press release from environmental groups across Canada,

“Big Plastic likes to pretend that plastic waste is someone else’s fault: consumers, litterers and municipal waste management. But the real issue is that there’s already too much plastic and the industry wants to prevent the government from doing anything about it.”

Plastic bags, straws, cutlery, coffee stir sticks, six-pack rings, and take-out containers… you name it; they make it. Canadians don’t want it. In fact, fewer and fewer countries do; the European Union, Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, and China are all banning single-use plastics

Banning single-use plastics is a start for many places around the world and tells the fossil fuel industry that we’re tired of paying for their exploitation and trash. If our federal government stands its ground to ban nonessential single-use plastic products, beginning with the six types of plastic products to be banned by the end of this year, plastics producers lose one market. If every country in the world passes such a ban, then plastic producers lose their entire single-use consumer market. That would be a huge win for oceans, climate, and people. 

We will likely continue to need, use, and produce plastics where they are invaluable, such as in medical care, and where it makes sense; BP’s predicted trajectory does not make any environmental or economic sense for the majority, no matter how plastic producers spin the narrative. 

Environmental groups are currently calling on big plastic to drop their lawsuit against the Canadian government, which the plaintiff (the group suing) hopes to have heard in Federal Court this Fall. 

Make producers pay for their trash

The costs of plastic waste collection, disposal, and recycling are high. Many of us are currently indirectly ‘subsidizing’ plastic producers by paying municipal taxes that go to taking care of their waste.

Extended producer responsibility means that we ‘internalize’ the costs that plastic producers have historically ‘externalized’ to the public and municipalities. Plastic waste collection, recycling, sorting, etc. goes on the bill of its producers. Companies like P&G, Coca Cola, etc. would have to pay something like a hefty environmental fee for every product they produce and sell—because that is the real cost of ‘management’. 

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) incentivizes corporations to collaborate, innovate, and redesign products and systems to use and produce less plastic and plastic waste. 

Move toward a circular economy with a lot less waste

‘Waste’ is an entirely invented concept. Waste does not exist in nature—not in ecosystems, cycles, or processes. And no other species on the planet produces waste the way that humans do today; the linear pattern of consumption promoted to consumer societies under the idea of “convenience” is by no means a natural phenomenon. In fact, people once had to be ‘taught’ how to create garbage. 

Marketing companies in the ’50s, ’60s and 1970s ‘trained’ the consumer class how to dispose of things through television and magazine advertisements promoting like-magic convenience and a focus on pricing. Under the image of a Scott brand, pink, all-plastic cup, found in a ‘60s magazine ad, we see the caption, “This plastic cup at ‘toss away’ prices makes paper cups strictly old-fashioned!”

The good thing is, we are beginning to see alternative delivery systems and smaller scale business models for necessities like groceries (Community Supported Agriculture or CSA food distribution), personal care items (refillable shampoos, soaps), and innovative waste-to-input manufacturing processes (taking ‘waste’ products and using them in place of raw materials to create new materials). 

We may be a ways from zero-waste, but we certainly can be a lot less wasteful in an economy that doesn’t just make, use, and throw away. This goes for more than just plastic.

CONCLUSION

We’re having a hot summer in BC. At the time of writing this article, there are 275 active ‘wild’ fires burning across the province. This number was over 300 some weeks ago. You probably guessed it, but scientists are pointing to climate change for the longer and more extreme dry seasons, which, when combined with years of successful fire suppression, make forests more prone to burning and burning for longer. Since at least the “Holy Shit Fire” of 2003, named by Parks Canada firefighters for the reaction it provoked from flown-in senior government bureaucrats when they saw the fire, BC fires have been hot, intense, and volatile.

As climate change reaches BC’s doorstep, and developing countries stop taking Canada’s trash, what will Canadians do? 

REFLECTION

When I started this project, I did not anticipate writing a piece that would ultimately be about fossil fuels. After scouring documentaries, reports, and news articles for clues on how to frame our plastics crisis, I ended up here. I did not write this to vilify the fossil fuel industry just because. We can acknowledge the role that fossil fuels played in modernization or urbanization (whether we view either as a desirable outcome or not) without feeling like we need to succumb to ‘locking in’ a future of thus more GHGs and climate instability. I think the case against plastics and fossil fuel expansion is strong, and I have alot of hope for what comes next.

I hold onto whatever emotions I felt when I first saw the images of the sea turtle, the whale, the burning forest, and the smoggy courtyard void of children playing. Those feelings remind me of what we are losing every time we give up—and we do, or at least I do, sometimes.

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop,” economist Herb Stein famously postulated. While big plastic busies away at spinning up marketing ploys and media tales in service of ever-more plastic, its opposing process—the #BreakFreeFromPlastic movement—grows bigger and more powerful each day. And dare I say that momentum is contagious.

PERSONAL NOTE

Prior to writing this article, I read Sustainability: A History. Currently, I’m reading a book called Global Warming & The Sweetness of Life. Before taking on this project, I took “Introduction to Environmental Science” as my exit course to years of undergraduate education. After several years of reading and writing about the internet, media and culture, these books/courses remind me of why they matter at all; there is so much at stake in the stories we choose to tell. And I have this burning intuition that there is something common being said between all three texts, but I just can’t quite pinpoint it yet. I think I am getting close to it, though.

Sicellia Tsui, Riipen Intern for The Starfish Canada