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chasing answers newsletter #10
Happy World Environment Day, March For Our Lives, and what the fuck are we going to do with all this plastic?
“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” - Anne-Marie Bonneau
And hello, double digits!
Not only is it edition #10 of the newsletter, but it’s also the first one of June. It’s now officially summer in my book, and at our house, that means two things:
It’s officially pool season, so grab the beach towel and sunscreen
Those Easter Peeps that I opened up and stuck in the back of the candy drawer a month and a half ago have finally reached the perfect level of staleness.
Happy World Environment Day!
World Environment Day is observed every year on June 5th to raise awareness of the importance of our planet and Mother Nature. This year’s theme is ‘Only One Earth,’ which ties in beautifully with my latest essay at the bottom of this newsletter.😉
If you would like to do a little reading on the history of World Environment Day or on some ways to celebrate it, check out the links below.
March For Our Lives
Last week I wrote about America’s gun problem and how I believe it is ultimately a problem with our political system. I won’t make those of you who read it re-live it, but if you haven’t and would like to, you can check it out here.
On June 11th March For Our Lives, an organization focused on ending gun violence, will coordinate events all across the country. At the time I am writing this, there are over 300 events scheduled so far.
Next weekend you will see young people all across this country putting in the effort to bring about change that will make their future and the next generation’s future better. If they are willing to put in that effort, the least those of us who are older and supposedly wiser should do is support them.
You can find more info about March For Our Lives here.
What the fuck are we going to do with all this plastic?
A few weeks ago, I highlighted @storyofstuff as one of my favorite Twitter accounts for all things related to climate change. Today, I’m going to dive deep into their feature-length documentary, The Story of Plastic.
I watch very little TV, and it's a little embarrassing that it took me so long to watch this, but it was worth the wait. If you care at all about the planet's future and preserving what natural areas remain in the world, you need to watch this. And if watching it doesn't light a fire under your ass, you aren't alive.
I've always been an avid recycler. It's one of those things that makes me feel really good when I'm doing it and that I enjoy doing with my daughter. Every couple of weeks, she helps me empty the recycling bins in the garage, load it all up and take it to the recycling center. Once we are there, she loves helping me throw it in the correct dumpster. She thinks it's a game. I feel like we're helping save the planet together.
After watching The Story of Plastic, I have an entirely different outlook on plastic and recycling. My complete review and summary of the documentary is below.
If you would like to watch the documentary, it can be purchased on Amazon for a few bucks or viewed for free if you have a Discovery+ subscription.
My Take on The Story of Plastic
Before I begin, I would like to note one thing. This documentary was released in 2020, so some of the statistics may have changed in the last couple of years. Things have gotten even worse by almost all accounts, so please keep that in mind when reading.
I’ve always understood that recycling isn’t quite as good as not using plastic at all, but I always thought it was a close second.
It turns out I was WAY wrong about that.
Saying that recycling is almost as good as not using plastic is like saying ordering a burger with extra lettuce is almost as good as getting a salad. It’s nowhere close to the same thing.
The Story of Plastic does an incredible job of explaining why this is so and has completely changed the way I look at plastic and my personal use of it.
For starters, only 14% of plastic packaging gets recycled.
Ugh, that’s depressing in its own right. What’s worse is only 2% of it actually gets effectively recycled, meaning it gets turned into something that is as useful as it was originally, for instance, a water bottle getting recycled into a water bottle. The other 12% that does get recycled gets downcycled, so it’s turned into something not as useful and most likely not able to be recycled for a second time. An example would be a plastic bottle getting downcycled into a plastic bag. Because plastic degrades during the recycling process, most of it can only be recycled one time before ultimately ending up in a landfill or worse.
Landfills are precisely where 40% of plastic packaging ends up. It will stay there for hundreds or thousands of years, or in some cases, even longer.
14% of it is incinerated, which is worse than sitting in a landfill for thousands of years. The chemicals that are released when the plastic is burned are highly toxic, and much of it is done in countries where they don’t have the systems to monitor and control the toxins safely.
If you’re doing the math, you know we’ve only accounted for 68% of the plastic packaging so far. So, where does the other 32% go?
This is the really depressing part. 32% of plastic packaging ends up in the environment. That’s right. Almost one out of every three pieces of plastic packaging ends up in the ocean, in a lake, on the roadside, in a park, or in some other area where it can negatively impact wildlife and permanently wreak havoc on our environment.
When I saw this, I almost couldn’t believe it. I’m officially on a new mission to eliminate as much single-use plastic and plastic packaging from my life as possible.
I realize it can be a little hard to grasp that 32% of plastic packaging ends up in the environment. Like I said, at first, I had a hard time believing it. But when you see some of the footage of trash washing ashore in different places around the world, it becomes much easier to believe.
There are estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Again, this sounds crazy, but in some parts of the world, it is almost there. One local fisherman from the Philippines who appeared in the documentary stated that approximately 40% of his catch is already plastic.
This guy fishes in the coves around Manilla using nets, and 40% of what he catches in his nets is plastic. I understand that doesn’t necessarily mean that plastic makes up 40% of everything in the water in those locations, but that is still fucking nuts. Especially when you consider that the percentage of plastic in his nets should be ZERO!
Every year there are 8 million metric tons of plastic that enter the oceans. If you’re like me and aren’t sure what the fuck a metric ton is (it’s 2,205 lbs. by the way), think of it this way - it is the equivalent of one city garbage truck dumping a load of plastic into the ocean every single minute of every day.
More plastic than fish? Yeah, definitely possible.
The worst part is things aren’t getting better or even leveling out; they’re getting worse. More and more plastic is being produced every year. And it’s being sent to countries that aren’t prepared to handle the problem. Not that any of us are, but some are better than others.
As petrochemical companies look for ways to increase sales, they are forcing their product onto populations that not only aren’t prepared to handle it but who aren’t even asking for it. These companies are moving into developing nations and bringing their single-use plastic products with them. Many of these countries don’t have organized waste collection systems because they aren’t used to having that much waste. They are accustomed to using natural products or reusable items that they buy once and use for a lifetime.
Not only are these countries now generating waste they don’t know how to deal with, but western countries are also shipping some of their waste over as well. Much of this plastic waste used to go to China, but in 2017 China announced a ban on importing most types of plastic waste. So, some of this has been diverted to other countries.
This is what many people, myself included, never fully understood about the recycling programs that were viewed as the cure for the plastic problem. Much of that plastic we thought was getting recycled was just getting sent somewhere else to become someone else’s problem. I always understood this was happening on some level but never imagined it was this bad.
To make matters worse, these countries are then blamed for doing most of the polluting. 60% of the pollution in the ocean can be traced back to five countries in Southeast Asia.
Yeah, no shit.
So, just to be clear, western companies go over and sell products to them that will generate waste they aren’t equipped to handle. Then western countries send over their own waste as well, so they don’t have to deal with it. Then we point our fingers and say, “Hey fuckers, take care of your trash.”
Makes perfect sense.
The biggest problem with plastic is that it’s a supply-driven problem, not a demand-driven problem. The reason single-use water bottles exist isn’t to make your life easier or because consumers were sitting around pleading for them. These companies have a product, and they need an outlet for it.
And as the world moves to electric vehicles and alternative forms of energy, they will need to convince you that you need even more single-use items. It’s a strategic part of their sales plan. They need you to want to buy single-use plastic items to make up for the sales they are losing in other lines of their business.
Plastic production has increased steadily over time, and projections show it will continue to do so. More plastic was produced in the 15 years from 2004 to 2019 than in all of history before that point. The acceleration of production is mind-boggling. According to the documentary, as of May 2019, there was $204 billion committed to building 334 new petrochemical facilities.
This means more plastic to deal with AND more pollution from the production of that plastic. Of the 86,000 chemicals recognized in the United States, only 187 were regulated by the EPA for air pollution at the time the documentary was made. And many used in plastic production were not on that list.
And while some steps have been taken by some of these companies to help with the plastic problem, such as the formation of the Alliance To End Plastic Waste by dozens of companies in the petrochemical business, it pales in comparison to the amount being spent to build new facilities for production.
The Alliance To End Plastic Waste committed $1.5 billion to help with plastic cleanup solutions which sounds like a lot until you compare it to the $204 billion committed to new petrochemical facilities.
Below is what that looks like on a bar graph. If you look really hard, you can see the bar representing the amount pledged for cleanup solutions.
It’s just not realistic to think we can recycle our way out of this situation we have created. Not only does a very small percentage of plastic get recycled, but the opportunity to increase that percentage is limited by the ability of the product to be recycled in the first place. Most of these products just aren’t capable of being recycled repeatedly.
And the recycling process itself isn’t exactly ideal.
Remember, a lot of this plastic is shipped to countries where labor rates are low so that the cost of sorting the plastic and recycling it is manageable. Many of these countries don’t have the systems in place to do this safely and effectively.
Once the plastic is sorted, it is chopped up into tiny “flakes,” which are then washed. During this process, tiny particles of plastic can easily get past filters, if they even exist, and into estuaries and other bodies of water, where they can make their way to the ocean or into someone’s drinking water.
After being washed, the “flakes” are melted down into strands which are then chopped up into tiny pellets or nurdles. During this melting process, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are released directly into the air people are breathing.
This problem isn’t going away. It continues to worsen every year. As the documentary points out:
“Micro- and nanoplastics are increasingly found in food, air, and water throughout the world. Recent studies found plastic particles in 83% of tap water samples globally, and 93% of bottled water.”
Perhaps my favorite quote in the entire documentary came from Anika Ballent of Algalita Marine Research and Education.
“When you realize how widespread this issue is and how small the particles are, you realize that cleanup is really just a great way to see how bad the problem is. We cannot rely on it as a solution.”
This is both heartbreaking and eye-opening. I always try to teach my daughter to respect nature and clean up things you know shouldn’t be there. Whether we are taking the dogs for a walk or going for a bike ride, I show her that you need to pick up litter even if you didn’t put it there. Little things like this are better than nothing, but when you see the amount of plastic finding its way into our environment daily, it can feel hopeless.
One solution discussed in the documentary is Extended Producer Responsibility. The concept is to push the responsibility back to the producer of the products. Basically, if you buy a bag of chips, you are buying the chips, but not the bag, so it is up to the producer to take care of the bag afterward. You are essentially just renting the bag from them.
By pushing the responsibility back to the companies producing the products, it could force them to develop more environmentally friendly solutions. Incredible things can be accomplished when a company’s bottom line is impacted.
Some countries have already taken other steps like banning single-use plastic items such as plastic bags, straws, and cutlery. But it’s going to take so much more. As the world’s population increases and petrochemical companies produce more and more plastic per person, it’s going to take a concerted effort by individuals, governments, and companies to bring us back from the brink on which we sit.
I believe that this is one of the most significant problems we need to solve over the next decade. If you care about the future of the planet and the quality of life we will leave behind for our children and grandchildren, I think this should be on your radar.
The Story of Plastic does as good a job as I have seen of showing just how big of a problem this is on a global scale.
As the journalist, Zoë Carpenter says in the documentary
“....figuring out how to break out of that cycle, that’s the project of our lifetime.”
That’s it for this week.
As always, I would love to hear from you.
If you read something here that resonates with you, leave a comment.
If you would like to discuss something further, shoot me an email.
If there was something you absolutely hated, @ me on Twitter.
And if there is something you think I should be writing about, please let me know.
If you want to see more of my work, visit chasinganswers.co.
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