Planet vs. Plastics: Working to ensure a win for the planet and all who live here!

By Jane McArthur, Toxics Program Director

I am always happy to share good news – and to highlight the value of our collective advocacy. This time, the good news is about the volume and enthusiasm for action on plastics by many members of the CAPE community. And at the same time, we are cautiously optimistic about the impending global plastic treaty and action on plastics in so-called Canada.

If ever there was an issue that showed the interconnectedness of all things the problem of plastics is a prime example – seen through a planetary health lens the plastics crisis shows how human health and the health of our planet are inextricably linked.

Earth Day’s theme this year was Planet vs. Plastics and the date aligned with the fourth set of International negotiating sessions for a Global Plastic Treaty. Canada was host to these meetings and advocates seized the opportunity to shine a light on the actions necessary to ensure that the planet wins in the end. 

Not surprisingly, among the many hands on deck for these efforts, the CAPE Community stood up, took action and raised their voices in asking Canada to highlight health and justice in global treaty and domestic actions on plastic pollutants!

Dr. Lyndia Demis talking in a video webinar

As AQME’s Dr. Lyndia Dernis proclaimed in a press briefing on April 11th ahead of the negotiations, “We are facing a real health crisis.” She asserted that we need the Government of Canada to act “to restrict plastics production, eliminate toxic additives in plastics, and take IMMEDIATE action to protect the health of those most at risk.”

The continually growing body of evidence of harm from plastics compels us to act. Plastics and their components harm human health through every stage of their lifecycle. People are exposed to plastics and their toxic components in many ways, with varying effects and outcomes at different stages of life, from prenatal exposure to conception through adulthood. 

Negotiators in Ottawa came in agreement that we need an end to plastic pollution. But how to get there while resisting the fossil fuel and petrochemical-producing states blocking progress on this issue was a challenge to making advances. 

Profile photo of CAPE Board Member, Dr George Kitching

As Dr. Dernis and CAPE Board Member Dr. George Kitching said in their OpEd published April 30th in the National ObserverFor decades, plastics companies have been greenwashing their way out of meaningful action while they profit from the ever-expanding production of plastics. Despite marketing plastics as recyclable, the reality is more than 90 percent of plastic ends up in landfills and incinerators, parks and public spaces, waterways and oceans, and even the human body.”

The reach of plastic in our lives is immense – and is truly at the scale of a planetary health crisis.

CAPE BC’s Dr. Sharon Dodd wrote in an April 23 OpEd “I am especially concerned about the serious health hazards of plastics on human health, in addition to the harms of plastic on all the ecosystems in the world.” As Dr. Dodd explained the implications are also social and legal ones. “The harms of plastics on human health are an issue of human rights and environmental injustice. The adverse health effects of plastics affect those living in communities near fossil fuel extraction sites or those working in plastic production, due to air and water pollution.”

Children, racialized and Indigenous people, women-identifying persons and workers disproportionately experience the adverse health outcomes of plastics. The toxic chemicals associated with plastic from cradle to grave also increase the vulnerability of communities disproportionately impacted by climate change effects. Concern about chemical additives begins even before the plastics, products and packaging are created. Frontline communities and workers experience harmful exposures at all stages of the plastic lifecycle.

Photo of CAPE Board Member, Dr. Sehjal Bhargava speaking at a press conference in Ottawa

Board Member Dr. Sehjal Bhargava joined allies at a press conference in Ottawa on April 25th powerfully illustrating her concerns. “In family medicine practice, my patients include pregnant people, and children of all ages. These children are growing up with unprecedented exposure to plastic and its by-products, introducing risk factors and impacting health through the lifespan in ways that are not fully yet understood. But the evidence we do have is grim.”

Karen Wirsig from Environmental Defense Canada and MP Julie Dabrusin holding a box labelled "80,000+ Letters" with Lisa Gue from David Suzuki Foundation standing behind

The critical messages delivered by CAPE physicians and the broader CAPE Community were a key part of the widespread actions taken – from the message of connections between exposure to plastics and their chemicals with human health and justice to CAPE’s online action added to other ENGOs actions and the delivery of 80,000 signatures to MP Julie Dabsusin calling for action on plastics, to Toxics Director Jane McArthur’s CBC live interview on the connections to plastics with Aamjiwnaang First Nation; to the press release regarding the ongoing legal action on listing plastics as toxic under CEPA – CAPE spoke out and will continue to hold Canada accountable for its role in taking action on the human health and social justice consequences of plastics.

Our voices matter and they made a difference! 

CAPE joined 113 organizations, civil society groups, and frontline communities in an open letter in solidarity with the Aamjiwnaang First Nation community. The letter addressed to Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault, called on the federal government to take immediate steps to address dangerous VOC emissions from the nearby Ineos Styrolution plastics plant. On May 17, Minister Guilbeault issued an Interim Order to the petrochemical industry in Sarnia, Ontario, responding to the significant danger to human health of volatile organic compounds, including benzene, originating from these facilities.

Facebook post of photo of group of people at Aamjiwnaang First Nation, holding banner: "Let Aamjiwnaang breathe! Shut Ineos down"

CAPE also joined over 6 million health professionals in an open letter that was presented to Treaty negotiators in Ottawa. The message that “A Treaty that protects the planet is also a Treaty that protects our patients” was delivered and we will continue to push to see this in the eventual international legally binding agreement.

Nations must agree on a global plastics treaty by the end of this year. The next round of negotiations is scheduled for November 2024 in Korea. A strong global agreement is needed for health and justice and we will not allow industry interests to weaken the treaty!

In the meantime, we need to keep shining a light on the connections between pollutants from plastics, human health and environmental justice. Visit the plastics section on the CAPE website for updates and if you haven’t yet sent a letter to key Ministers responsible for action on plastics in Canada, it will take you less than a minute to do by clicking here.

Let’s continue to stand together to ensure the Government of Canada takes action to limit the production of plastics, including immediate action to address toxic additives (e.g. phthalates, bisphenols, PFAS, flame retardants, and heavy metals), and to protect the health of those who stand to experience the greatest harms.

In the battle of Planet vs. Plastics we will keep working to ensure a win for the planet and all who live here!