My Turn: We’re drowning in plastic

For the Monitor
Published: 9/30/2021 6:00:04 AM

As my family walked in the woods, we came across an old bottle dump. Until World War II, glass was used and reused to contain liquids sold to consumers. The bottle dump we found was a mere mound in the earth. Compare that with the 232 pounds of plastic waste each American generates annually. And as the slogan says, “there’s no such thing as away.” Our disposable culture is catching up with us.

Recycling plastic is an international problem with environmental and physiological consequences. According to, of the more than 300 million tons of plastic produced each year, half consists of single-use items. Equivalently, every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean. The Great Pacific garbage patch is a mass of plastic visible from space. It is dangerous to navigate and too expensive to clean up, according to CNN. By 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight.

In a 1972 article in Science, Edward J. Carpenter documented “plastic particles” in the ocean. The Plastics Industry Association shut down his research. Microplastics, tiny particles that escape filtration, degrade from plastic products and block sunlight from reaching algae and plankton, thus disrupting the marine food chain. In humans, they are endocrine disrupters.

A 2020 study of placentas found microplastics in unborn babies, potentially causing preeclampsia and fetal growth restraint. We breathe them. We drink them. They are shed in the washing machine every time we do laundry. They are in paints, cosmetics, even glitter. And we have been deceived into thinking that if we recycle that mayonnaise jar or soda bottle, we can mitigate the harm plastics are doing to us and our planet.

The world’s first synthetic plastic was patented in 1909. Bakelite is a hard molded plastic that was used for everything from radio cases, telephones and cigarette holders to jewelry and electrical insulators. Wartime research led to the development of many more synthetic compounds so that after World War II, plastics began replacing other materials in manufacturing and packaging. Durable and less costly to ship, plastic was attractive to a market hungry for new goods. Besides plastic packaging, the BBC says today’s clothing is mostly plastic, annually generating 92 metric tons of waste worldwide.

Consumers who recognized the plastic problem decades ago were placated by a deliberately deceptive advertising campaign in the 1970s created by packaging and beverage companies that knew most plastic wasn’t recyclable. The oil industry didn’t want to give up making $400 billion a year manufacturing plastic, thus Keep America Beautiful was designed to place the onus for reducing plastic waste on the consumer. An Italian-American actor portrayed a Native American weeping over plastic roadside trash. This inspired many Americans to collect and recycle plastic, but was what Susan Hassol, Director of Climate Communication, called “deflection.” Individuals cannot solve the plastic problem.

Although plastic containers bear recycling code numbers, only milk jugs and soda bottles, less than 10% of all plastics, can be recycled, and those only once or twice. The rest was shipped to China until 2018 when that country stopped accepting such waste. Now, 95% of the European Union’s plastics and 70% of the United States’ end up in Southeast Asia, in mountainous waste dumps.

Some plastics have improved life and would be hard to replace. Communication devices rely on plastic. Medical supplies have been spotlighted during the COVID outbreak. Everything from personal protective equipment to catheters to plastic wrappers for sterile instruments makes medical care safer. Handicapped persons find the bendable plastic straw and unbreakable container a godsend. Plastic wrap protects food displayed in stores and airbags save lives.

Is the solution, then, to eliminate all plastics or to rethink their production, uses and disposal?

The Zero Waste Campaign advocates the 5 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. But requesting a paper straw, using refillable containers, reusing or re-purposing synthetic clothing, recycling bottles and composting are only the beginning. Nor are bioplastics the solution, as they contain over 20,000 chemicals, says Erica Cirino, author of Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis. Personal measures alone will not stop the twenty companies led by Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil that produce 55% of the world’s plastic waste.

Only when producers of plastic are made to bear disposal costs will change occur. Today, municipalities collect plastic waste and burn it or ship it away. Extended producer responsibility is a plan that taxes corporations based on the amount of un-recyclable plastic they produce. Despite pushback from Big Oil and the food service industry, Maine is looking at this plan, which several other states have adopted.

In March, Federal legislative bills H.R. 2238 and S 984, known as the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, proposed keeping plastic pollution from animal and human food chains, reducing waste exports and making producers responsible for the design, collection, reuse and recycling of their consumer products and packaging.

Alden Wicker said in the summer 2021 Yes! Magazine that legislation and other forms of pressure are the only way to interrupt the production cycle which disproportionately harms communities of color and the environment. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups agree that legislation is imperative and urge citizens to support it with their voices and with funds to counter the oil industry’s lobbyists.

In time, concerted pressure could do to the plastic industry what it did to cigarette production. And according to the International Labor Organization, the move away from plastic would create six million jobs worldwide by 2030. This move will take work and a sea change in public attitudes and habits.

(Chris Hague lives in Weare.)

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