Keeping the plastic guys honest on litter

You will be pleased to hear that there is at least one thing we agree with the Canadian plastics industry on: that litter is a people problem, not a litter problem. Changing Canadians’ behaviour towards the materials they have used is a major educational challenge.

The plastics industry has been on the receiving end in much of the discussion concerning litter in recent years: an empty plastic bag struggling in a tree being a hard image to eradicate. So the industry recently mounted a web-based campaign aimed at presenting what it sees as “the facts about litter.” [1]

Unfortunately, it omitted all mention of marine litter, focussing only on litter audits in Canadian cities. Canadians (and others) are littering the oceans as well as the land.

turtle eating plastic bags1 300x225

Marine litter not discussed

Perhaps the plastics industry didn’t want to draw attention to marine litter in its campaign, or felt that the “facts” on marine pollution are still not sufficiently clear. Maybe it considered marine litter unrelated to the focus of its website: ostensibly the “plastic bag issue.” But you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The CPIA website (in theory, all about bags), frequently throws in references not to paper bags but to paper products in general. The cumulative effect of this is to smear  the paper bag by association. We can play that game too by saying that plastics packaging now represents almost half the packaging (by weight) that Ontario householders send to the dump.[2] Factual, but not exactly fair to the recyclers of PET and HDPE bottles.

So if the plastics industry wants to talk about bags, let’s stick to bags, and in the absence of further marine litter information, to city litter audits. CPIA is correct in saying that bags in general are a small fraction of overall city litter (about 3%) and that plastic retail bags, in particular, are a small portion of that. Paper retail bags are even less.

In the interest of openness and transparency, however, the plastics industry may wish to update its website with the findings of the most recent Toronto litter audit. This shows that plastic retail bags, in particular, have jumped to 80% of the retail bag litter category, with plastic-based bags in general now representing over 70% of all city bag litter [3]. The moral of this story is that Canadians need to clean up their act and CPIA needs to clean up its website.

litter graphic





[2] Stewardship Ontario 2011 Data (Table 1: Generation and Recovery): Plastics packaging sent for disposal (193,282 tonnes) as a percentage of all packaging sent for disposal (418,854 tonnes): 46%.

[3] Toronto Litter Audit, Appendix A  (2012):


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John Mullinder

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)
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