The world is confronting a huge plastics waste problem. All sectors of society – including unions – need to be part of the solution.

The scope of the problem

Enormous plastic waste dumps have been found in oceans, along beaches and waterfronts. In the urban areas and the countryside across the world, littered plastic waste often covers the landscape. Plastic overflows from landfills and its toxins seep into the soil and water supply.

Plastic garbage waste causes hundreds of thousands of deaths of marine animals (fish, turtles, otters, and other animals choke on plastic; birds are strangled by it). When plastic breaks down in cold water, it releases chemicals that affect their development. These same toxins can leach into the soil when plastic disintegrates. Toxins from plastics have been found in human tissue across the globe.

Approximately 100 million tonnes of plastic are produced annually. Plastic – which is derived from fossil fuels – has multiple uses but is often used only once for products and packaging. In Canada, only about 10 per cent of plastic is recycled, because it is often cheaper to throw it away. Other plastics are too complex to effectively recycle and instead end up as garbage.

Employers and governments must do more

There are solutions. Number one is to cut back on the plastic we consume by using products that are as free from plastic and plastic packaging as possible. We can also demand that manufacturers and retailers eliminate it completely. We can support industries, restaurants, producers that use non-plastic products (e.g., paper-based containers). We should also demand that employers and governments intervene more proactively in this crisis.

In October 2020, the Canadian government committed to a pathway to achieve zero plastic waste in Canada by 2030. The first step will be banning various single-use plastics by the end of 2021. The federal government has also allotted money to fund technologies to improve plastic recycling capability. But much more must be done.

CUPE locals, part of the solution

CUPE passed Resolution 40 at National Convention in 2019, calling for a ban on single-use plastics across the country. Many CUPE locals have responded.

For example, CUPE 389 in British Columbia has helped ban all plastics from the school’s cafeteria. Plastics have been replaced by biodegradable cutlery and cardboard plates, containers, and cups.

Health care workers from CUPE 8920 in Nova Scotia provide its members with reusable cloth grocery/tote bags to replace single-use plastic bags.

The regional office that services CUPE 5144 in Rimouski, Quebec, has banned plastics by substituting reusable water containers for plastic cooler jugs, removing coffee vending machines previously equipped with plastic disposables, and using wooden stir sticks or stainless-steel spoons.

Actions taken by CUPE locals go a long way to keep plastic waste out of the environment, helping to preserve marine life and keep our waters and soils cleaner, while cutting health risks to animals and humans.