Behind Our Addiction to Plastic

Plastic is everywhere, from lifesaving medical devices to electronics, toys and bottled water. But so is the waste of plastic and there is growing concern about its potential impact on the health of people and our planet. Some believe we are reaching a tipping point as more and more plastic ends up in our landfills and in our water systems.

Mosaic recently had the opportunity to sit down with Philip Yan, one of the four founding partners of Red Propeller. It’s an innovative social enterprise birthed in Ontario with a mission to recycle plastic in a way that benefits both the environment and those with barriers to employment. They started with Project Get Reel, to recycle VHS tapes, and recently expanded to include child safety car seats.

We learned that the recycling process is very labour intensive and realized we can use that to create jobs, to help some of the marginalized people who have a barrier to employment to actually be able to work.

We learned that the recycling process is very labour intensive and realized we can use that to create jobs, to help some of the marginalized people who have a barrier to employment to actually be able to work.

MOSAIC: For years, you and your wife Amy Cheung, owners of Genesis XD, a marketing a design firm, have done creative work for a variety of clients, including CBM. Now you are also involved in social enterprise and creation care. How did that all start?

PHILIP: The starting point for me was not so much because of the environment, it was about concern for the poor. Many years ago,
I was introduced to the issue of homelessness. I got to know more about the issues behind it and have friends who are homeless. It’s quite a journey; it’s not an easy thing. Homelessness is a lot more than poverty by itself.

We became involved in KLINK Coffee that uses a unique brand of coffee to sell and support associated projects that help people who come out of prison to find jobs. It’s difficult to get a job once you have a record…a lot of these people end up on the street. We learned a lot through this experience working in a non-profit environment and wanted to run a different kind of social enterprise, a for-profit business, with the same mission to help the marginalized.

For months we did a lot of brainstorming. One of the partners, an expert on recycling, talked about the issues he faced and the VHS tapes and other media (CDs, DVDs, records) that nobody was recycling. We dug into the numbers and found that in Ontario, in the peak seven-year period of the 20-year history of tapes, at least 2.26 billion VHS tapes/cassette tapes were bought; and because there is no program to recycle them, they are all going into the landfill.

We also learned that the recycling process is very labour intensive and realized we can use that to create jobs, to help some
of the marginalized people who have a barrier to employment to actually be able to work, to help them to regain their life. We have hired one person who is legally blind, one person who is autistic, one who has pretty challenging health issues, another with psychological problems. All these people we work with – we look at their needs and schedule around them, not the other way around. They love working here. We got an award last year, Employer of the Year, from the Ontario Job Opportunity Network.

MOSAIC: How big of a problem is plastic in our world?

PHILIP: Plastic is one of the big problems to our environment. It’s destroying our world. It’s filled the oceans, the fish eat plastic, and

we eat the fish. Plastic is flooding everywhere and we only recycle about 5-10% of it, globally. In the documentary Plastic China it talks about how some of our plastics are sent by container to China and then people from villages sort those plastics, flood the rivers with plastic, burn the plastics, exposed to the fumes – it’s a horror story. Their kids have cancer, entire villages are polluted, crops are not growing and the people are dying, and that’s our issue. It’s our North American lifestyle that affects them.

Plastics can be highly recyclable, if you can sort it right. At Red Propeller, we dismantle our plastics on site and send it to manufacturers so that they can create new material. We have started a second project, recycling child safety car seats. We are the only one in Canada with an environment license that is doing this right now. 1.3 million kids live in Ontario, and they will use one to three different car seats in their lifetime. A conservative estimate is that we throw away a quarter of a million car seats each year in Ontario. They end up in the landfill – that translates to filling the Rogers Centre 7 1⁄2 times every year. This is just in Ontario…and think about bicycle helmets and other plastic things we use and throw in the garbage.

MOSAIC: What is one practical step that you can suggest to someone, to become involved in creation care?

PHILIP: Well, understanding is actually very important. There is lots of information out there, but we just don’t care enough to listen to it. I think what we should expect is a change of lifestyle. It’s the way we live, that we purchase, and the way that we deal with our excessive materials – sometimes we over buy and just throw them away, don’t even bother to find a way, just convenience. There are people actually mad at us for charging them for recycling. They say, ‘What can you do to stop me from putting that in the landfill?’

‘Nothing,’ I say, ‘because it’s not based on what I need, it’s based on what you feel is right.’ So lifestyle change is by knowledge…
and recognizing that God cares about poverty, cares about our community, cares about all of his creation…this is our responsibility, to be the steward, because our stewardship of the environment came all the way before the fall. It’s right in the beginning, when Adam got the first job, to name and take care of creation. That’s our very first job; we’ve forgotten about that. We need to go back to that, to look at what we are destroying, what we need to do, how we can do it. We’re not going to solve everything, but if everybody can just change a little bit in our lifestyle, change a little bit in the way we do things, I think the world will be in a better place.

We have to believe in the collective power. It’s not one person that tries to save the world, it’s many people doing one step. That‘s a billion steps and if we do two steps, that’s a billion times two. I think that’s the idea we need to work on.