UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds
Photo: Pixabay

How Canadians became so addicted to plastic

First introduced as Bakelite in 1907, fully synthetic plastics weren’t mass produced until the mid-century.

By Susan Nerberg

Plastics are here for good — and these days, that means mostly for bad. The petroleum-based polymer has exploded onto the market, invaded our lives and spewed its guts into every corner of the planet. While some call its manufacture a success story, others have declared it one of the biggest threats facing our environment.

First introduced as Bakelite in 1907, fully synthetic plastics weren’t mass produced until the mid-century. A shape-shifter, the malleable substance could be moulded into virtually any unbreakable, water-resistant form, including nylon, polyethylene, polyester and vinyl. Easy to fabricate from seemingly unlimited reserves of oil and natural gas liquids, it quickly became the ultimate convenience material for making everything from medical equipment to clothing.

In fact, more than eight billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s, more than half of that in the last 15 years alone. The synthetic material brought improvements in sanitation and enabled the distribution of clean and safe food and water. But few considered the consequences of plastic’s longevity.

It can take hundreds of years, if not longer, for the forces of nature to break down a single disposable water bottle, for example. So imagine what might go through the minds of future scientists excavating a 21st-century city a million years from now. Jan Zalasiewicz, author of The Earth After Us, speculates they’ll find evidence of fossilized toothbrushes, silicone spatulas, sippy cups and cellphone covers in the strata of rock layers.

The geologist and paleontologist also calculates that if we converted all the plastics produced over the last few decades into cling wrap, there would be enough to envelop the whole planet. And if the current level of production continues — chances are it will, considering global oil-and-gas giants have invested $180 billion since 2010 to create facilities that will boost plastics production by 40 percent over the next decade — we’ll be shouldering several layers of cling wrap by the middle of this century.

Canada's plastic index 

• Canada is the 3rd highest producer of municipal waste per capita
• 720 kilograms of waste was generated by every Canadian in 2012
• 3 million tonnes of waste plastic is created by Canada each year
• 12% or less of plastic waste is recycled in Canada
• 200,000 tonnes of plastic waste is exported from Canada annually

Source: Greenpeace Canada

This story first appeared in The Observer's April 2018 edition with the title "Addicted to plastic."

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!


Courtesy Aurora Coulthard

To those who said I'll only be respected as a minister because I'm pretty

by Aurora Coulthard

A young ministry student says Christians, both within and outside of the United Church, have discouraged her from following her call.

Promotional Image


Editor/publisher of The Observer, Jocelyn Bell.

Sharing a meal with friends is a radical act of gratitude

by Jocelyn Bell

"I’ve begun to consider that regardless of how I’m feeling on Thanksgiving Day, the very act of preparing and enjoying a feast is an expression of gratitude in and of itself."

Promotional Image


Meet beloved church cats Mable and Mouse

by Observer Staff

They're a fixture of Kirk United Church Centre in Edmonton.

Promotional Image


September 2018

Period poverty is a serious issue in Canada

by Angela Mombourquette

The high cost of menstrual products means many Canadians go without. Activists are seeing red.


October 2018

My church was literally dying, until we returned to prayer and confession

by Connie denBok

"No magic formulas. Just grace emerging through weakness."


October 2018

4 Canadians with disabilities on the challenges they've faced in the workforce

by Diane Peters

Of the 14 percent of people in Canada with a disability, only half are employed. Companies are losing out.

Promotional Image