by Lisa Kaas Boyle
“You think you’re special. You’re Plastic! Made to be thrown away!”
Lotso, to plastic toys about to be incinerated, “Toy Story 3”
The Problem with Plastics
Every day, disposable plastics (bottles, bags, packaging, utensils, etc.) are thrown away in huge quantities after one use, but they will last virtually forever. Globally we make 300 million tons of plastic waste each year. Disposable plastics are the largest component of ocean pollution. While Fresh Kills Landfill in New York was once known as the planet’s largest man-made structure, with a volume greater than the Great Wall of China and a height exceeding the Statue of Liberty, our oceans are now known to contain the world’s largest dumps. These unintended landfills in our seas may cover millions of square miles and are composed of plastic waste fragments, circling the natural vortexes of the oceans like plastic confetti being flushed in giant toilets.
Plastics are made from petroleum; there is less and less available, and we are going to tragic lengths to get at it as evidenced in oil spills around the globe with loss of life and habitat. Should we be risking life and limb for single use-bags and plastic bottles that can easily be replaced with sustainable alternatives? Should we be risking our food chain as plastic fragments become more plentiful than plankton in our oceans? Should we be exposing our fetuses, babies and children to the endocrine disrupting chemicals that leach out of plastic food containers into our food and drink? These questions and their answers are exactly what the plastics lobby wants you to avoid.
Plastic Industry Tactics: Aggression and Distraction
The Plastics Industry has been forced into a new position in order to preserve its global market. It is no longer enough to pitch affordability and convenience of their products when consumers are concerned about being poisoned by the chemicals in plastics and are tired of seeing more plastic bags than flowers on the roadside.
Every legislative restriction on plastics defeated by the industry and every consumer mollified into believing that using disposable plastics is a sustainable practice means the continuation of enormous global profits for industry. The petrochemical BPA, a hardening agent used in plastics that was developed first as a synthetic estrogen, alone generates 6 billion dollars in sales for the American petrochemical industry. As preeminent endocrine researcher Dr. Frederick Vom Saal observed: “If information [about toxics in plastic] had been known at the time that this chemical was first put into commerce, it would not have been put into commerce…. but because it already is in commerce, and chemical industries have a huge stake in maintaining their market share using this chemical, how do they now respond to evidence that it really is not a chemical that you would want your baby to be exposed to? [The industry] is still in the attack phase.”
In a modern Goliath versus David story, a large American plastic bag manufacturer, Hilex Poly, recently filed a lawsuit against Chico Bags, a small American reusable bag manufacturer, for interfering with their plastic bag trade. An industry-backed group called “Save the Plastic Bag” has sued several jurisdictions in America to prevent bans or fees on plastic bags. And a plastic bag ban in the State of Oregon was recently defeated because legislators were convinced by the industry that Oregon needed to put more resources into recycling plastic bags.
Environmental Groups like the global non-profit Plastic Pollution Coalition are working to expose the myths perpetuated by the plastics industry to defend their products and refute responsibility. Here are the top myths being pushed by the plastics lobby:
Myth # 1: Recycling Plastic Reduces the Use of Virgin Plastic
Metals, glass and paper are truly recyclable; they can be remade in the same form with no new materials needed. Not so with plastic. The process of melting plastics for recycling them weakens their polymer bonds. Virgin plastic must be added to the degraded plastic to make new products. So recycling plastics just increases the demand for more virgin petrochemical product. No wonder the plastics industry pushes recycling! Plastic pollution activist, journalist and communications director for 5Gyres.org, Stiv Wilson recently conversed with Mark Daniels of Hilex Poly, the Goliath plastic bag company that is suing reusable bag maker Andy Keller of Chico Bags. Wilson confronted Daniels with the following facts and got a surprising answer:
You can’t make a bag out of a bag. At present, available technology only allows for 30% post consumer high density polyethylene (HDPE) to be added to the next generation of bag because the recycling process weakens polymer chains needed for a new bag’s structural integrity. This translates to 70% virgin material being added to the next generation of bags. Which means every time you recycle one bag, you net 3.3 new bags. And every time you recycle 3.3 bags, you will then net 10. And so on and so on to infinity. Finally, I asked him, “Mark, is it a fair statement that the product of recycling plastic is more plastic in the world, not less?” His answer, “Yes.”
Myth # 2: Disposable Plastics are Sustainable because they are Recycled
Lotso was right in Toy Story 3 when he said plastics are meant to be thrown away. Disposable plastic products are designed for a one-way trip to wasteland, not reuse or closed-loop recycling. Many disposable plastic products like disposable razors can’t be recycled because they are made of combined materials, like plastic and metal. These are “hybrid monsters” in the words of authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart who advocate design that addresses the entire life cycle of a product in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.
Plastics that are used in packaging fast foods, like expanded polystyrene, known for its Dow Chemical name Styrofoam, are made to be thrown away immediately after the food is consumed. The rare fast food container that makes it to a recycling center will most likely be segregated out for landfill because plastic attracts oil and oily food remains contaminate recycling. Even if the packaging has been washed by the consumer, the lightweight nature of expanded polystyrene makes for little product or profit from significant recycling efforts.
Others disposable plastics such as plastic trash bags, diapers and feminine hygiene products are obviously intended to go straight to the dump. The same holds true for plastic bags that contain greasy take-out, plastic plates, straws, the plastic filters in cigarettes, and plastic utensils.
Plastic bags are notoriously difficult to recycle because of their thinness and are as infamous for jamming recycling equipment as they are for ruining boat motors when encountered in water. The color in plastics can’t be removed, so any dark pigments in a batch of recycling will make a for a unknown final color: probably muddy, grey. For this reason colorless plastics stand a better chance for making it through a recycling center while colored plastics are separated out as trash.
Susan Freinkel explains in her excellent new book,
Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, that: “Plastics are a challenge to Materials-Recovery Facilities. There are lots of different polymers and each has distinctive chemical and physical properties, different melting temperatures, and separate secondary markets…Most plastics can’t be recycled together, but many look so similar that they are difficult to sort…just a few PVC bottles in a half-ton bale of PET bottles or vice versa, can contaminate the whole batch, rendering it unusable. Even some products that are made of the same base polymer should not be recycled together; a PET bottle that’s been blown into shape has a different melting temperature than a PET cookie tray that’s been molded through extrusion. Try to combine them and you’ll end up with unusable goop.”
Despite enormous efforts on the part of government and industry to promote recycling, plastics are not designed to promote recycling, and Americans recycle less plastic than any other material, scarcely 7 percent. And many plastics that make it to a recycling center are never recycled because the recycling cost does not justify the effort when virgin materials are cheap. Much plastic that makes it to recycling centers is sent as waste to China where it is burned releasing toxins into the air that settle over the oceans just like mercury from coal burning.
Myth #3: Disposable Plastic is Sustainable because it can be made into Fill and Fluff and other Stuff
The plastic that does get to a recycling center is actually “down-cycled” into lesser grade material to be mixed with wood particles for boards for example. Some is used for fiber filling of winter coats. This makes for more hybrid monster products that are just one more step away from the landfill at best and sustains the illusion that there is a perpetual need for plastic waste, when nothing could be further from the truth. In a study made of plastic collection at curbside in Berkeley California, none of the collected plastic containers returned to packaging but instead became secondary products such as textiles, parking lot bumpers or plastic lumber — all unrecyclable products. This does not reduce the use of virgin materials for packaging and single-use disposable goods.
Myth # 4: Plastic Pollution Can be Cleaned Out of the Environment
The plastics lobby encourages the notion that plastics can be cleaned from the ocean, and in some cases even funds clean-up missions and research on clean-up strategies to divert attention and resources from stopping the ongoing flow of plastic pollution. Reputable marine scientists insist that even if we had all the resources and time in the world to do it, we cannot strain the ocean of plastics that exist in such massive quantities, in both macro and micro sizes, and throughout the water column, without straining the ocean of life. The only “solution” is to turn off the tap of plastics entering the ocean and to wait for it to eventually wash to shore, sink and be covered with sediment, or be eaten! This is a situation that calls for stopping the problem at the source, not for delay tactics as the world becomes increasingly polluted with plastic.
To sign a pledge to REFUSE Disposable Plastics and for more information please see www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org.