Plastic pollution a sign of failing stewardship

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on May 17, 2018

When I was 10 years old, I’d spend hours creating posters that screamed out in bold letters: “Save the Whales!”

Chock full of whale drawings and facts about whales being at risk due to the actions of humans, I’d hang the posters at my local park with the hope that the community would, somehow, heed my Crayola-infused call to action. But my message was usually short-lived as, inevitably, after each session of postering every hydro pole in sight, rain would follow and wash away my whale-saving pleas. But the rain never dampened my enthusiasm for environmental activism.

Saving the whales was a hot topic during the 1990s, after the International Whaling Commission imposed a commercial whaling moratorium in the mid-’80s. But although whales were big news for a while, the concern was eventually overtaken by other issues. Fast-forward to 2018 when the devastating effects of plastic pollution on the health of the oceans and marine creatures has become one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. Whales are back in the news.

We live in a throwaway culture of convenience, where using plastic is embedded in our everyday life — from plastic bags and takeout containers to water and pop bottles. But this convenience has come with a cost. National Geographic reported that eight million tons of plastic is dumped in the ocean annually, with 5.2 trillion pieces of plastic currently polluting the seas. This entirely man-made issue has underlined how humanity has failed in its responsibility to be a good steward of the Earth.

I recently watched the popular BBC documentary series Blue Planet II, which chronicles the state of the oceans. It was devastating to see a baby albatross that had choked to death by ingesting a plastic toothpick and a pilot whale carrying around her dead newborn, who may have died from drinking the mother whale’s contaminated milk. Without drastic change, reports indicate there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

It’s not just the oceans and the creatures within them that we’re harming. Plastic pollution is bad for human health. When fish eat plastic, the contaminants move through the food chain — and into our bodies. Aside from food, the oceans also provide a wide variety of other benefits: they produce more than half of the world’s oxygen, they regulate our climate through the transport of heat from the equator to the poles and they provide us with ingredients used in some medicines.

At the consumer level, we have a moral responsibility as people of faith to change our habits in order to minimize plastic use. Personally, I’m making an effort to be aware of my use of single-use plastics by carrying a re-useable water bottle — working to eliminate the need for plastic water bottles completely. That’s just a start. As a society we need to rethink our use of convenience items like plastic straws and takeout containers.

At the government level, there’s even more that needs to be done. In Canada, it’s disturbing that less than 11 per cent of plastics are recycled. The system needs a major overhaul.

It’s been reported that the federal government plans to use its G7 presidency to further the fight against plastic pollution at the upcoming June meeting in Quebec by putting forward proposals for a “zero-plastics-waste charter.” This is a step in the right direction. But I’m a bit of a skeptic, given that the Liberal government gave a $35-million grant to a chemical company that makes plastic resins the day before the G7 announcement.

Apathy and convenience have led to us to this particular moment in time — and only the recognition of the world as a gift to be protected can alter the path we’re on. As Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’: “Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit. Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”

I no longer use pencil crayons to draw save-the-whale posters, but environmental stewardship remains dear to my heart. I haven’t lost my school-girl certainty that people need to be made aware of the damage we’ve inflicted on the natural world. And I believe more strongly than ever that together we have to do something about it — before it’s too late.

Food for thought before tossing that old banana

Our weekly household waste is often filled with foods that still edible. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Love Food Hate Waste)

Our weekly household waste is often filled with foods that still edible. In Canada, 40 per cent of the food we produce nationally ends up in the garbage. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Love Food Hate Waste)

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register 

It is shocking to learn that $31 billion worth of food is wasted in Canada every year. Looked at another way, what Canadians throw away is enough to feed one quarter of the world’s 800,000 hungry people, according to the United Nations.

We are a wasteful nation. About 40 per cent of food produced nationally is thrown into the garbage, according to the Toronto Food Policy Council. Half of this waste is due to shortsighted habits of consumers.

For instance, the baby spinach packaged in the too-big container I didn’t get around to finishing, or the bananas that became slightly too ripe for my liking. That may not sound like much, but a little bit wasted every day adds up to a lot of waste over the weeks and months.

How much waste? Canadian households waste, on average, $28 worth of food each week. That’s almost $1,500 per household, almost enough to feed eight starving people for an entire year, the U.N. tells us.

Pope Francis has said that “throwing away food is like stealing from the table of the poor and hungry.” He makes a sobering point as, locally, food bank usage is on the rise, helping more than 850,000 Canadians every month, according to a study from Food Banks Canada.

While food waste happens all along the food supply chain (from suppliers to retailers to consumers), it’s important to be conscious of the waste that each of us is personally responsible for — and to work to reduce it. As Laudato Si’ reminds us, we are called to be stewards of the Earth, not reckless consumers.

Changing old habits doesn’t have to be difficult. In my personal quest to become less wasteful, I’ve come across several helpful tips, such as this one from the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “The next time you make a recipe that can be easily frozen, make a double batch and donate one to your local soup kitchen.”

This tip can be modified easily to help reduce food waste whenever it looks as if you’re going to have groceries that won’t get used up. If you have too much food, make plans to share it with those less fortunate. Locally, the Good Shepherd Ministries runs a “Provide-a-Meal” program in which volunteers commit to donating one casserole per month. Over the course of the year, that adds up to more than 100,000 main course servings.

Or if you have food that’s nearing the end of its shelf life, use your imagination and find other ways to use it. For example, leftover bread can be turned into breadcrumbs; overly ripe bananas can be baked into banana bread or chopped into a smoothie; lemons that are starting to shrivel can become a homemade salad dressing, roasted with a meat dish or juiced into lemonade. Get creative and keep yourself interested in foods that, although no longer at peak freshness, are still quite edible. Continue reading