One Word: “Plastics”

sifting sandMr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
~The Graduate, 1967

Plastics appear to be the modern-day bugaboo for most environmentally minded people. Recycling is a pain, but plastics have allowed us to preserve food and other perishables safely and even provide protection for us against the elements and disease. Nonetheless, plastics are an insidious menace in the environment.

We’ve all seen the photos of sea gulls, seals and sea turtles tangled in deadly plastic, or read about the volumes of plastics found in the bellies of whales. Both plastic trash and microplastics are a danger to animal life when released into the environment.

One interesting attempt to rid the oceans of microplastics in Oregon was reported by Jack Fisher, “With the guidance of Seaside-based conservation group Sea Turtles Forever, volunteers gather to clean the sand using unique screen filtration systems (that) look like a cross between a medical stretcher and a flour sifter. Dirty sand is piled on a sheet of fine mesh stretched between two long poles, and the mesh catches plastic and other foreign material while allowing the sand to fall through. According to Ward, a static charge in the mesh can catch plastic particles as small as 100 micrometers across … The result? An area of silky, pure sand free of plastic litter — especially the tiny bits that pose a threat to wildlife.”

Zoë Schlanger reports, “Although microplastics have been popping up everywhere from the waters of Antarctica to our table salt, the idea that it could blow in the wind or fall as precipitation back down to Earth is extremely new. The main mode of microplastic transport, as far as we knew as recently as last year, was water. It had already shown up in drinking water a few years prior. But microplastic in snow suggests something different: Microplastics carried by wind, and settling out of the air along with the frosty flakes.” In other words, microplastic pollution is world-wide.

Sifting the sand at all the beaches across the world is, of course, impractical. However, many other options exist. Clearly, avoiding the dumping of plastics into the environment to start with is primary. But plastics are not inherently evil. Researcher Judith Thornton, quoted by Lloyd Alter, makes the case that “wrapping fruit and vegetables in plastic is a good thing because it slows biological decay, and therefore prolongs shelf life and minimises food waste.” Thornton demonstrates that the CO2 emissions from food waste far exceed those of plastic, and “the fact remains that most of us rely on supermarkets for at least some of our fruit and veg, and if we want to eat anything out of season or food that isn’t grown in the UK it is likely to need packaging in order that the product gets to us in good condition…: Food production makes up a significant proportion of global GHG emissions. Plastic packaging doesn’t.”

Starre Vartan reports, “What goes into the recycling bin doesn’t always get recycled. Fewer and fewer facilities are able to process anything other than #1 and #2 plastics, so why do all those other plastics have recycling symbols on them? … The rest of the plastics dutifully placed in the recycling bin — including yogurt cups, plastic cutlery, to-go containers from restaurants, cosmetics packaging, and shipping materials — are likely getting incinerated or landfilled. And they may even be messing up the recycling sorting system on the way there.”

Laura Parker reports on an “… old school concept that dates to the turn of the last century — returnable, refillable containers. The idea was introduced to the world by Coca-Cola in the early 1920s, when Coke was sold in expensive glass bottles that the company’s bottlers needed back. They charged a two-cent deposit, roughly 40 percent of the full cost of the soft drink, and got about 98 percent of their bottles back, to be reused 40 or 50 times. Bottle deposit programs remain one of the most effective methods ever invented for recovering packaging.”

I remember the advent of anti-littering campaigns when I was a kid: the crying Indian on TV and Lady Bird’s “Keep America Beautiful” campaign. Roadside beer cans were the worst. It took a while, but we did finally learn to recycle them, once they were made of aluminum rather than tin.

Lloyd Alter discusses an article by Steven Perlberg, “The real carbon footprint of beer is in the manufacture of the container, and the choice isn’t between a new can or a new bottle, but between a refillable bottle, like most of the world has, and the disposable container that Americans have been trained to use.”

“Canned beer became the American standard with the completion of the interstate highway system, which let brewers build massive centralized breweries and ship the stuff all over the country by truck. But you couldn’t do that with returnable bottles, as the distribution and handling of bottles was a local business. So the brewers took their huge savings from their massive, efficient beer factories and put it into advertising and price cutting, and put almost every local brewery out of business.”

“In fact, using a refillable bottle uses 93% less energy than making a new container. And the washing water? it takes between ‘47 percent and 82 percent less water than is needed to manufacture new one-way bottles for the delivery of the same amount of beverage.’ “

“We have been trained to throw things away and pay taxes to have other people take them away and separate them and recycle them instead of returning them. It goes back to the sixties, a shift from corporate responsibility for dealing with containers to “convenience” and citizens responsibility to pay for that, and we all fell for it. That’s why recycling continues to be bullshit. “

Maybe we need a new strategy. Perhaps we should work on our wasteful production processes whose pollution is sent out into the environment. Similarly, we each need to look at how we dispose of all our wastes, not just plastics. Those plastic straws don’t just decide to seek out the ocean, all of us allow them go there.

“In the meantime, enjoy the winter wonderland. And maybe don’t eat the snow.”
~ Zoë Schlanger

Additional information:
Lloyd Alter, Canned Beer vs Bottled Beer and the Fallacy of False Choices, August 16, 2013, TreeHugger
Lloyd Alter, Plastic Waste is a Problem, But Wasting What the Plastic is Wrapping is Many Times Worse, February 13, 2020, TreeHugger
Jack Fisher, Sifting Sands: Volunteers Take on Microplastics at Oregon Coast, January 28, 2020, Oregon Public Broadcasting
Laura Parker, An Old-School Plan to Fight Plastic Pollution Gathers Steam, February 24, 2020, National Geographic
Zoë Schlanger, Yes, There’s Microplastic in the Snow, December 13, 2019, Quartz
Steve Tarlton, Plastic Panic, November 7, 2019, Writes of Nature
Starre Vartan, Most Plastics in Our Recycling Bins Aren’t Getting Recycled, New Report Finds, February 24, 2020, Mother Nature Network (MNN.com )

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