It’s difficult to imagine our society without plastics, a marvel of adaptability. They can be lightweight, flexible, sturdy and inexpensive to produce. What’s not to love? Without plastics, certainly, we would not have some of the most important medical devices and supplies in existence. But without plastics we also would not have plastic pollution in all the world’s major water bodies and growing garbage patches in all of the oceans.
It’s a hell of a trade-off.
And for those of us who try to do the right thing environmentally at least part of the time, it’s disturbing and disheartening.
From the time it began appearing in mass production around 1950 to 2017, 9.2 billion tons of plastic is estimated to have been made. More than half of that since 2004. In 2020 alone: 400 million tons of plastic.
These statistics are from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), an environmental advocacy partnership with a mission to inform, enable and inspire nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.
That’s a tall order.
UNEP monitors the state and health of the planet, ensures that science remains at the center of decision-making processes, and that environmental rule of law continues to underpin global environmental governance.
This goal has been in place for five decades, yet the plastics industry is on pace to reach more than 1,100 million tons annually by 2050. That’s just a blink away.
I was among the naive population who believed until recently that we were making great strides in recycling plastic, even though we could remove only limited types from our local waste stream. Surely, other parts of the country and the world were recycling those butter bowls, right?
Much to my dismay – No!
The UNEP estimates that of all the plastic discarded so far, some 14 percent has been incinerated and less than 10 percent has been recycled.
I happened onto a podcast called Planet Money produced by National Public Radio (NPR). An episode titled “Waste Land” details the horrific story of how myself and most other Americans were duped.
In the 1990s, a major recycler decided he would allow customers to recycle two types of plastic: milk jugs and soda bottles. This sounded familiar, as milk jugs were the first items to be collected for recycling here in the county on any regular basis.
More recyclers began trying to remove milk jugs and soda bottles from the waste stream, and all over the country these other plastics – all with recycling symbols and numbers – began filling recycle bins. Why??
Because of “The Great Plastics Lie.”
It was recently revealed that only a tiny portion of plastics are recycled because of the costs involved. It’s much cheaper to just make a new article from virgin oil. That has always been true, and the plastics industry has known that.
The NPR reporter found a man who had retired as the top lobbyist for the plastics industry. She also found archived documents from DuPont Chemical Company and the lobbying group, Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI). It was 1973 and the environmental movement was in full swing. Plastic trash had caught the public’s attention and the industry’s image was taking a hit. DuPont demanded that SPI do something to counteract.
The result was $35 million (in 1970s dollars) dedicated to “advertise their way out of it.” Commercials with an environmental message were created and aired. As the reporter was told by the retiree, “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not gonna be as concerned about the environment.”
Along with the advertising message was a plan to stamp every plastic item with a recycling symbol, even though it was known at the time there was no way this could be accomplished. The plastics industry now, of course, says the symbol was meant only to help sort plastic, not to mislead the public.
And plastic is more popular than ever. Phillips/Chevron is said to be constructing a $6 billion plant in Texas, and plastic production is expected to triple by 2050.
However, plastic is again coming under fire for showing up in places that it shouldn’t – including our bodies in particulate form – so the public relations effort is back on.
The plant manager for that Texas plant has a new plan: by 2040, they will recycle all of the plastic they make.
The American Chemistry Council, the modern lobbying group for the plastics industry, has promised that this time will be different and “failure is not an option.” However, as long as selling new oil is the ultimate goal of oil companies, failure seems more likely than success. Big oil generally gets what big oil wants.
On an individual level, we can do only so much, but we can all do something. I recently ordered laundry detergent sheets, and after a couple loads I’m pleased so far. Buh-bye, huge plastic jugs! I’ve also tried shampoo and conditioner bars. I will either make my own electrolyte drink or buy powdered Gatorade mix this summer. Other buying habits will be scrutinized.
Just a little effort by many could make a difference. Please join me.
Lori Freeze is news editor of the Leader. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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