An Inconvenient Transition

Robert Slivchak Environmentalist

As a child I understood that garbage and other man-made waste/pollutants don’t belong in the environment and need to be managed. As an adult, I fight with other adults who are either ignorant or for whatever reason, have their heels dug in deep and refuse to put the environment in front of any self-serving convenience. Why do some people care so much for the environment and others are completely indifferent?

I have done a variety of things over the years to raise awareness about the world’s plastic pollution crisis, via my artwork. I have created pieces with discarded furniture, fabrics including sailcloth, pleather and leather as well as reclaimed/recycled paint. I like to think that the viewer of my work would feel inspired to be more environmentally responsible by considering plastic free alternatives when making purchases. Unfortunately, there is really no true way to test and measure the success of my efforts and I’m often left with the feeling that people just don’t care. I have stood outside various big box stores and watched cart after cart being wheeled out that are full of cases of plastic bottled water and other beverages. It’s easy for me to get discouraged and it’s understandable why others would think “What difference would I make, look at everybody else”. Admittedly, my influence and audience is small though maybe that’s because the target of my approach has been too narrow. This isn’t to say that I haven’t impacted the buying habits of people in my surrounding circles, but that if I actually want to make a difference I need to dream a lot bigger. I need to stop trying to convince individuals that disposable plastics/use-once plastics are terrible and advocate way’s to take these products out of their hands, before they have the ability to litter our mother with them. If we want to fix the problem, we need to stop producing it. Well at least in theory this sounds great.

Over the last year I have been contacting various companies to ask what their environmental goals are in regards to reducing plastic packaging as well as the sale of items where there are biodegradable solutions available. I usually start off by sending a fairly candid, polite message, followed by slightly more curt, poignant messages about the dire need for change. Out of the three large organizations that I have sent various methods of correspondence to, not one has responded to my lone efforts. Understandably, no one is open to starting a dialogue with someone that is: a) A liability b) Not privy to any of the inner workings of the organization. c) Might be nuts and looking to twist their words to publicly shame them. I may or may not be nuts, but I definitely don’t want to shame a company for not making a change within their organization because I told them to, especially because I don’t understand the legal or financial ramifications of change. Also, who the hell am I to tell them what to do?! However what I do know is, change needs to happen. Anybody can see this or do a “plastic pollution” search on google. We have known about the environmental impacts of plastics for decades, there are no more excuses.

Not sure what else I could do get a response from companies, I contacted my local MP, Pam Damoff. “One voice can make a difference.” right? Well, yes and no. I asked MP Damoff to contact Canada Post (CP) for me to ask them if they have a plan to eliminate poly mailing pouches and packing slip envelopes. I also sent a note indicating that I would be happy to facilitate the connection between them and a manufacturer of a biodegradable alternative. This was the fifth attempt at starting dialogue with CP, and I finally received a response courtesy of the influence of MP Damoff. Though the response was a welcomed change from the silence of the past, the majority of the email covered other environmental, internal, corporate initiatives of CP, which in my opinion is no more than green-washing for public appearances. In response to my questions regarding an alternative to poly shipping bags and envelopes, I received the following: “As for your specific inquiry regarding our use of plastic, many of our polybags and plastic bubble envelopes contain recycled materials, and are recyclable. Our Flexipacks, which are offered exclusively to commercial customers, contain #4 recyclable plastic and post‑consumer recycled materials. We strive to use sustainable materials in our products as much as possible.” 

Regardless if the source of materials is post-consumer or not, or whether or not the new plastic products are recyclable, they shouldn’t exist because they will still end up in our forests, rivers, lakes, oceans, animal’s stomachs and in very fibres of the food we eat. To be clear, there is nothing sustainable about producing use-once plastics or the whole premise of recycling. There’s a reason why “recycle” is third in the phrase “Reuse, Reduce, Recycle”. It’s the non-sustainable last result to reduce waste that ends up in a landfill. It also assumes that people will dispose of the materials properly and that the destination facility can handle and manage the amount of material it receives. Our facilities cannot keep up with the current rate of consumption, making it so important to stop the senseless production of plastic products where there is a biodegradable, non-poly alternative available, especially for a company that distributes these products on such a large scale. Society as a whole will not change in time (or ever) to fix our world’s plastic pollution crisis. This change needs to start with the companies that put these products into the hands of the people. Knowing the environmental impacts of plastics, CP has taken the stance that their plastic products are green enough, even though they will likely end up polluting the environment. This stance of zero accountability is unacceptable and their use of the word “sustainability” is completely inaccurate/misleading.

In response to CP’s representative, I have sent two emails offering my thoughts on their environmental initiatives as well as ideas on how to gradually implement/phase in a biodegradable solution to replace their current plastic shipping materials, to build on when they’ve started. It’s been over two weeks and I have not received a response. I will update this article when/if I do. I would love for them to see this as an incredible opportunity. UPDATE: I didn’t receive a response. Likely because of my lack of influence and that it was felt that responding would be greater business risk than not. I understand their position; though certainly don’t agree with it. Maybe, just maybe my efforts will help influence others to advocate for change, build traction and open the eyes of companies that currently don’t understand the impacts they have on the environment and understand what accountability actually means.

This is not meant to be an attack on Canada Post. It just happens to be a crown corporation here in Canada and a business that I often use the services of. This company carries our countries name and I couldn’t think of a better one that could be a leader in impactful environmental change as well as be an inspiring example for others. I feel as though one day companies will be mandated to change, though when this day comes, it will sadly be too little too late.

Recently the Ontario government announced that they’re “mulling” banning single use plastics. This is a discussion that was had with the previous government though it wasn’t executed on. I really hope that this one sticks and doesn’t go the way other green initiatives have, once power changed hands.

Over the last year our province (Ontario) has taken itself off of the world stage as an environmental leader. We are now a non-player in environment and climate protection. I want to help change this and I hope my efforts will encourage other readers in Ontario to feel the same way. Solutions and suggestions are always more effective than complaints, inflammatory remarks or baseless blanket statements no matter what the topic is. Regardless of your political affiliation and the semantics of labels, it’s hard to argue that the environment isn’t changing and people need to help if our government won’t. We need to quit squabbling about things that don’t matter, band together and focus on what’s important for the future of Canada and planet earth. Before you pull out your sword, please understand that I don’t subscribe to the left or right because I think it’s ridiculous for anyone to walk through life thinking everything’s black and white. I understand that our economy is resource driven and simply flipping the switch from petroleum based products to environmentally friendlier alternatives would be devastating for us. However, we need to work together and start executing on initiatives to start this transition.