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Our Plastic Problem: Single-Use Plastic and the Microbead Ban

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On January 1, 2018, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act banned wash-off toiletries and cosmetics containing microbeads from stores in Canada! Now microbeads are listed as a toxic substance. This historic decision means Canada is joining the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Britain, and Taiwan to address the global microbead problem. So why is this ban so important?

Microbeads are a form of single-use plastic that is a growing and preventable problem in marine ecosystems. In 2014, it was estimated that there were 5.25 trillion plastic particles, weighing a total of 269,000 tons, floating in the sea (Xanthos and Walker, 2017, p.17). This marine plastic has been proven to have an effect on over 700 species, from the smallest plankton up to the largest whales, including fish consumed by humans (Xanthos and Walker, 2017, p.18). United Nations Environment Program recognizes the growing concern that microplastics will enter the human food chain when we eat marine-sourced foods and will have harmful effects on human health (2015). Microbeads have also made their way to freshwater systems. In 2014, an area of the St Lawrence River was found to have over 1,000 microbeads per litre of sediment (CBC News, 2014). It is estimated that in 2014, about 10,000 kg of plastic microbeads were used in the manufacturing of toiletries in Canada (Government of Canada, June 2017). Now we have insight into the problem, so how does regulation of plastic waste really work?

There are a variety of laws and regulations around the world that address plastic that ends up in the ocean. Most of these address macro-plastics, for example, yogurt containers or plastic wrap. Nova Scotia has been leading the country in waste diversion because of the four-bin waste system. Waste management is also part of waterfront development, but these policies, like so many others, are just for macroplastics (Pettipas, Bernier & Walker, 2016, p.119). The hazards of microplastics have only emerged in recent years and the Canadian ban is an essential step toward a global solution. Awareness of the problem is a great first step, so check out this free Green Schools Ocean Plastic Support Package for a variety of educational resources for different learning levels. Nova Scotia schools can request a virtual visit from your local Green Schools Engagement Officer and we can speak to students and staff about how we can all protect waterways from single-use plastics. You can also connect with the OCEARCH education team to learn more about oceans and human impacts with STEM connections for grades three to eight.

The discussion about using plastic is extremely prudent in Halifax today because the municipality is currently facing a decision about what to do with waste plastic bags. In July 2017 China announced it would no longer be accepting film plastics for recycling, creating a problem for communities like Halifax which had been shipping recyclables overseas. The Halifax Regional Municipality has over 300 tonnes of plastic film including grocery bags and food wrap (CBC News, January 5, 2018). Although the Province of Nova Scotia has a ban on plastic film going to the landfill, the Department of Environment has granted a temporary exemption for Halifax to dispose of this plastic film in a landfill in West Hants (Alexander Quon, Global News, January 5, 2018). With this temporary exemption, there is a temporary destination. Now is the time for recycling innovation so there will be a new destination for these recyclables. Might it also be time for all of us to make everyday changes and use less plastic? At the beginning of December 2017, Halifax municipal councillors voted yes on a motion to begin a discussion on banning plastic bags (CTV Atlantic, December 7, 2017). This could be the next step to minimize our waste, protecting our oceans, and take collective action to waste less!  

~Amber McMunn
Engagement Officer, HRM

Works Cited

CBC News. (September 26, 2014). “Plastic microbeads polluting St. Lawrence River, McGill researchers find.” Retrieved from

CBC News. (January 5, 2018). “Halifax told it can dump film plastics in landfill, but will burn them instead.” Retrieved from

CTV Atlantic. (December 7, 2017). “HRM passes motion to consider ban on plastic bags.” Retrieved from

Government of Canada. (June 2, 2017). “Microbeads in Toiletries Regulations.” Canada Gazette. Retrieved from

Pettipas, S., Bernier, M., and Walker, T. (2016). A Canadian policy framework to mitigate plastic pollution. Marine Policy, 68: 117-122. DOI:

Quon, A. (January 5, 2018). “Nova Scotia says HRM can dump film plastics in provincial landfills.” Global News. Retrieved from

United Nations Environment Program. (2015). Plastic in Cosmetics: Are we polluting the environment through our personal care? Retrieved from

Xanthos, D. and Walker, T. (2017). International policies to reduce plastic marine pollution from single-use plastics (plastic bags and microbeads): A review. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 118(1-2): 17-26. DOI:

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