How parenthood made this new dad reconsider his plastic consumption and our culture of convenience

·4 min read

When Stuart Gillies became a father, life got a lot busier — and immediately, he and his wife began to rely on whatever was most convenient.

"It became quite clear that we craved convenience. Convenience was on the top of our list of what we needed in the world at that particular time," he said.

Suddenly, the couple from Squamish, B.C., were launched into a world of disposable diapers, food, clothing and other products.

And with that new reliance came a concern fuelled by their newfound roles as parents.

"We had our child and it became very relevant… our impact on the future and what kind of world we are living for the next generation."

So, Gillies began a journey to better understand his contribution to plastic pollution — a journey that's been documented in the new film Creatures of Convenience.

Gillies wanted to learn what consequences his lifestyle of convenience was having on the planet and how he could alter its trajectory.

"It's the way our society is kind of set up. We're kind of guided to have convenience and businesses want us to have convenience because then it feels good to us as human beings," he said.

"And I think the impact of our convenient lifestyle isn't necessarily always obvious."

Watch Creatures of Convenience on CBC Gem:

A lifetime of consumption

At the beginning of the documentary, Gillies estimates what a lifetime spent using and consuming his daily products would amount to.

As the numbers began to add up — including 375 T-shirts, 563 toothbrushes, 9,125 loads of laundry and 19,150 takeout coffees — the impact of his lifestyle of convenience becomes more obvious.

In B.C., more than 40 per cent of plastic is used only once, according to CleanBC.

Between individuals, businesses and industry, Canada generates the highest amount of plastic waste per capita in the world, according to the Oceana Canada advocacy group.

Every year, each Canadian produces almost 700 kilograms of plastic waste — equivalent to 96 trash cans, says Anna Posacka of Ocean Wise's plastics lab.

"In the beautiful place that we live in… it's easy for us to not feel as connected to this issue and to fully appreciate the amount of litter we produce every year and the damaging effect it has on our ecosystem," Posacka said.

Much of that plastic waste, she says, either winds up in our landfills or our oceans. Worldwide, Oceana Canada says, around eight million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year.

"We're putting these things into our environment and that is our life. We can't exist without it, said Momme Halbe, who produced Creatures of Convenience. "And if we're choking the environment, especially our oceans, with plastic, we're ruining our resources."

CBC/Shawn Foss
CBC/Shawn Foss

Non-standardized recycling guidelines

One of the biggest challenges to recycling that Gillies and his team discovered wasn't necessarily consumer apathy, but rather consumer confusion.

Across Canada and across B.C., waste-sorting guidelines differ between municipalities.

Even standard recycling bins in an office or on a street corner can stall a willing recycler as they question where to throw the lid, cup and sleeve of their takeaway coffee.

"There's a lot of confusion," says Halbe.

So, while convenience is leading to increased plastic pollution, making recycling more convenient could be the answer to encouraging more people to adopt a lower-impact lifestyle, he says.

CBC/Shawn Foss
CBC/Shawn Foss

Make small changes

For Gillies, it was important to focus not only on the problems but also the simple solutions.

For example, he often found himself purchasing single-serve yogurt for his daughter. But each container became one piece of daily waste with no reusable capacity.

"If you give your child yogurt or if you have yogurt every day of your life… if you multiply that, that's pretty crazy," Gillies said. "That was really alarming when we were making those calculations."

So, instead, he began to purchase large containers of yogurt and served it to his daughter in a reusable cup.

Gillies says he understands that committing to reducing your plastic pollution footprint can feel overwhelming and unachievable. But the trick, he says, is to not strive for perfection.

"I think what we've realized as people and humans in our family is that we're not perfect and we're just trying to do a little bit better," he said.

"Change one thing in your life and start there."