As awareness about plastic pollution grows, and more and more people become determined to help solve this serious and complex problem, it is imperative that the newly converted make an effort to fully understand the mammoth undertaking they hope to join.
Good news is found in the progress made by a well informed community of scientists, and conservationists who have recently been joined by legislators and manufacturers in calling for a steep reduction in the production and consumption of plastic worldwide.
Sadly, what threatens this progress most is a growing chorus of misdated support for false solutions. While those touting waste-to-energy solutions and eager to do “something useful” with waste plastic no doubt believe they are helping the cause, they are in fact in opposition to those who, after decades of tireless devotion, are finally finding reason to hope.
Plastic pollution is a threat that, at the very least, rivals climate change in terms of its impact on future generations. There are those, including myself, who would argue that because of its potential to infiltrate and disrupt natural cycles on macro- and microscopic levels, it is far, far worse.
From the depths of the ocean to the tallest peaks on our planet, remnants of plastic degradation and the chemicals associated with making them are found. That pile of marine debris neatly confined to the outline of a former seabird, chemicals used to make Teflon in the bloodstream of polar bears, polyester fibers in the guts of amphipods who, as denizens of the Mariana Trench, live as far from humans as a creature can get.
These are all examples of the horrifying impact our lust for plastic is having on the environment. Does it make you feel better to learn that your own guts and lungs are being invaded by micro-plastics, that your children and grandchildren are ingesting and breathing in these particles? I think not.
Plastics have fouled our planet to the extent that, in the very near future, we will no longer be able to describe a single square acre or cubic meter of it as pristine. No amount of converting waste plastic to energy or picnic tables will change that.
In fact, because the economics of these strategies demand a steady stream of waste plastic, buying into them only serves to hasten this horrible while outcome undermining the consensus building for true solutions.
At every stage of its manufacture, use and disposal, plastic damages the global ecosystem. It is made from fossil fuels via processes that emit significant amounts of carbon, and it becomes a fossil fuel in waste-to-energy schemes, leading to carbon emissions that often surpass coal burning with Hawaii’s own H-Power a prime example.
Creating a post-carbon economy requires a clear understanding of the relationship between plastic, fossil fuels and climate. The groundbreaking Center for Environmental Law report titled “Plastic and Climate, The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet” provides a comprehensive and sobering analysis of this nexus.
Its conclusion? We will never meet our climate goals by reducing our consumption of fossil fuels alone. We must also significantly reduce the manufacture of virgin plastic.
If we can agree that a steep reduction in the manufacture of plastic is a non-negotiable component of our strategy to end plastic pollution, what do we do with the plastic that already exists and will get spit out through ongoing manufacturing processes until mandates and redesign initiatives kick in?
We must also significantly reduce the manufacture of virgin plastic.
The answer to this question lies in a thorough understanding of what happens to plastic in the environment.
Micro-plastic particles in the air column above the Swiss Alps got there the same way they ended up in the livers of fish living in the Great Lakes — through wear and tear and exposure to natural elements.
Every time you drive your car down the road, wash your polyester clothing, or turn a screw into some plastic lumber, you are creating plastic pollution.
Even more disturbing is the fact that such pollution occurs passively, without anyone having to do anything except think it’s cool to turn waste plastic into something useful. Doubters need only inspect the bright orange cones found on paved surfaces statewide and ask themselves where the missing bits and pieces went. For maximum effect, do this at the hottest time of the day when the cones are off-gassing toxic fumes.
Relinquishing control of plastic waste we can take hold of and putting it back into the environment as part of a plastic landscape that will degrade into irretrievable particles is nothing short of crazy.