Please Keep Your Garbage Out of My Patch


Please Keep Your Garbage Out of My Patch

In recent months, ecotourism operators, working with Indigenous Nations, removed 130 tonnes of garbage from British Columbia’s coastline. This garbage consisted mainly of plastics. On October 7, the federal government, following up on a January 2020 commitment to ban harmful single-use plastic, announced that it will prohibit grocery checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, plastic cutlery and certain food takeout containers. The government plans to do this by the end of 2021, through regulations under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999.

The ban on single use plastics is one element of Canada’s proposed integrated approach to address plastics pollution.1 It follows the release of the Government of Canada’s Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution Report (“Report”), which anticipates an increase in physical effects of macro- and microplastics if steps are not taken to reduce them in the environment. The Report has identified a potential link between plastics pollution and climate change.2

The problem of plastic pollution in the ocean is not something new; but the awareness of it has been increasing steadily in the last decade, particularly with the advent of reports of ocean garbage patches.

First “discovered” by a sailor in 1997, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which covers an area three times the size of France and consists of plastics and other debris concentrated by ocean currents into a swirling vortex of trash, is the largest of a number of such patches.

These concentrated areas of marine debris, consisting of microplastics, along with larger plastic items such as fishing gear, are one symptom of a broader issue: the use of the ocean as the world’s cesspool.

The ocean garbage patches are an example of the classic “Tragedy of the Commons” first described by the biologist Garret Hardin in 1968. Reacting to pollution, he wrote: “Prohibition is easy to legislate (though not necessarily to enforce); but how do we legislate temperance?”3

The nature of the world’s oceans as a “commons” is undisputed. Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which has its genesis in a declaration of the General Assembly of the United Nations that the seas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction are the common heritage of humankind. Part XII of the Law of the Sea Convention deals with the protection and preservation of the marine environment.

Canada has also adopted many elements of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (“MARPOL”). MARPOL Annex V prohibits the discharge of garbage into the sea, including the discharge of plastics as well as mixed garbage containing plastics.

As with all international conventions, signatory states must implement their commitments through domestic legislation. Canada’s Oceans Act is aimed at implementing aspects of the Law of the Sea Convention, while most aspects of the MARPOL Convention are implemented domestically under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001. In addition, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, prohibits the disposal of materials at sea without a permit, and the Fisheries Act regulates activities which may cause damage to fish and fish habitat.

Although Canada’s population is small, it has the longest coastline of any country in the world. The impending ban on single-use plastics is another step by Canada to prevent plastic pollution. It will eliminate, through legislation, the potential for certain plastics to end up in the ocean.

The prohibition of these plastics in Canada, however, is not a panacea for ocean garbage patches. It will take a global effort, consisting of both legislation and temperance on all our part, to prevent the ongoing concentration of plastics in the ocean garbage patches by ensuring plastics do not enter the oceans in the first place. We must all keep our garbage out of the common patch.

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  2. Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution, October 2020, at p. 80, |
  3. Science, 1243 Science 164 (3859) 1243-1248. |