Sunday, April 7, 2019

There is not a Great Future in Plastics


“Plastics - There’s a great future in plastics”

This famous line from the 1967 movie “The Graduate” was meant as advice to a clueless college graduate.

It’s apparent now that we were all clueless about the future of plastics 42 years ago. The future of plastics is here and it ain’t great.

Plastics are ubiquitous. Everything comes in plastic: wraps, containers, jars, bottles, packaging.  Plastics are light weight, moldable into almost any shape and size and made into just about any product – cat toys to car bumpers, and zillions of other things.

Plastics are cheap to synthesize, especially today with the price of oil still low by historic standards.

Many types of plastic are almost indestructible. Oh, you can break them down into tiny pieces, but they never, ever go away.

Discarded plastics are found all over the world. Recently, researchers found microscopic plastic fibers in sea creatures living at the bottom of the Mariana Trench 36,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Plastic debris are found on even the most isolated deserted islands throughout the world.

I suspect that a million years from now, humanity’s presence on Earth will be defined by plastic residue encased in a layer of sedimentary rock.

Recycling was supposed to be the answer to plastic pollution, but that is easier said than done. As I said, plastics are very cheap to make, far cheaper than the cost to recycle them. The reasons that make plastics tough are the very reasons they are hard to reprocess.

Until recently, when we threw our plastic into the recycling bin, it would end up in giant bales shipped to China. Now China isn’t taking the stuff and there is little market for it domestically. Many municipalities cannot afford the increasing costs to get recyclers to accept their plastic, so an increasing volume is now going to landfills. On top of that, most of us don’t recycle. Too “inconvenient.”
We are also seeing the same thing with glass, paper and other materials by the way.

In the overall scheme of things, I’d rather have plastic in landfills than in the bellies and bloodstreams of life all over the planet (including us), but that’s not a solution either.

Reusable grocery bags and refillable water bottles are good individual practices, but they do not even begin to make a dent in the plastic waste problem. 

It’s easy to say we should do our best not to use it, but a quick trip to the supermarket makes that idea laughable. You name it – juice, eggs, milk, cold cuts, cakes, bread, salad dressing – they all are either wrapped or contained in plastic.

But is the problem really plastic itself? Or is it a symptom of our culture and our economic policies?

Our capitalist economic system requires that businesses make a profit, which requires costs to be kept low. Plastic containers are cheap, light and durable, saving transport costs and increasing the amount of product that makes it to market. But once the product is sold, the business is no longer responsible for the packaging. It’s our problem to get rid of the packaging, not theirs.  What if it wasn’t?

If businesses were responsible for their packaging, cradle to grave, that could incentivize them to switch to other materials. Of course, going this route would be a logistical nightmare. But it’s a thought.

Consider that even though alternative energy industry subsidies are being phased out, alternative energy is now economically self-sustaining.

Maybe we should be incentivizing startups to find new ways to reprocess plastics with tax breaks and subsidies. There are all sorts of successful experimental processes to break down plastics into raw manufacturing materials or even fuel.
These processes just need to be scaled up, which takes investment.

Maybe we should lobby retailers and manufacturers to move to different modes of packaging. Imagine if Walmart told all its suppliers to switch to non-plastic or biodegradable containers.

Imagine if everyone in Westborough wrote to the CEOs of Stop and Shop and Roche Brothers demanding they sell products which minimize plastic containers.

Imagine if Westborough, which implemented a regulation banning plastic bags, did the same with plastic containers and soda cups (and straws).

We are way past the point where we can afford to be clueless about the myriad impacts of plastic on the planet.

We need to incentivize solutions. It’s time we, as a community, started to think bigger than reusable shopping bags.