The Recycling Myth

Collecting plastics at curbside fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, these will be converted into new similar objects. This is not the case with plastic. The best we can hope for plastics is that these will be turned into other products such as doormats, textiles, plastic lumber, etc. These products will still end at some point in the landfill – and do not stem the need for more virgin petroleum product.

This is not recycling, but down-cycling.

But not even down-cycling is happening. In the US, 93% of plastics are NOT recovered (put in plastic “recycling” bins). These go straight to landfills. PET bottles that have a redemption value (cash value) fare a bit better: 62% are NOT recovered. (EPA data 2008)

How big is the problem?  How much waste is generated by single use plastic bottles?

Artist Chris Jordan offers the following visualizations. Imagine 8 football fields covered thickly with plastic bottles: this is  the equivalent to the number of plastic beverage bottles discarded in the US every five minutes (data: 2009). Now imagine a line of plastic water bottles going around the planet five times. This would be equivalent to the number of plastic bottles discarded every week in the US, just for water! (data: 2009) Plastic pollution will not be solved by encouraging “recycling”.  Perpetuating the myth of plastic recycling delays the adoption of effective and sustainable solutions, such as extended producer responsibility and the elimination out of single-use plastics.

Please visit Plastic Free Times for great resources on recycling.
 

Ocean Clean-ups

By most estimates, hundreds of millions of metric tons of plastic debris currently floats in the ocean.  The plastic is fragmented into small pieces, scattered throughout the water column.   There are no visible islands of trash anywhere, but rather a ocean soup laced with plastic. This makes cleaning the oceans a very difficult proposition, technically or economically.  Any cleanup has the potential to not only remove the plastics but also the plankton, which is the base of the food chain, and is responsible for capturing half of the CO2 of our atmosphere and generating half of the oxygen we need to breathe. We applaud the efforts of any group inspired by a vision of clean oceans and healthy sealife, and working to put an end to plastic pollution.  But we also caution that these efforts would only succeed if we work together to stop the millions of metric tons of plastic that is dumped into the ocean each year. Plastic Pollution Coalition believes in stopping plastic pollution at the source. This is something we can do now.
 

Bioplastics

Bioplastics are just plastics made from plants. Bioplastics may or may not be biodegradable, may or may not be toxic. Plastic is the result of a complex  process called polymerization. The building blocks for this process are atoms of carbon and hydrogen. These can be obtained from oil, gas, or plant materials. The use of plant materials does not imply that the resulting polymer will be better. You could make non-biodegradable and toxic plastic out of organic corn! There is a lot of chemistry and additives involved in making plastic, and the industry formulas are not transparent. Some bioplastics (not all), are biodegradable and/or compostable.  Currently there are not independent standards for what “biodegradable plastic” means, and some plastics that claim to be ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ may take many years to decompose or may require special high-heat composting facilities (which are uncommon). Some of these “biodegradable plastics” decompose extremely slowly in regular conditions, and even more slowly in the ocean.  And even biodegradable plastics require the use of plasticizing chemicals, which may be toxic and harmful to the environment, or to human health. If properly designed, biodegradable plastics have the  potential to become a much preferable alternative to conventional plastics. At a minimum, these bioplastics must be:

  • derived from non-food, non-GMO grain
  • compostable and biodegradable
  • free of toxins during the manufacturing and recycling process
  • manufactured in a sustainable way (water, land and chemical use are considerations)
  • recyclable in a cradle-to-cradle cycle

Still, even with the advent of a new-generation bioplastic, manufacturing single-use and disposable objects may be preferable but ultimately may not be a sustainable solution.  With almost 7 billion people in the planet, a throwaway culture addicted to disposable plastics is likely to continue harming our environment, whether these are made out of oil, or of plants. We  believe that rethinking our habits and our uses of plastic is as important as rethinking the material itself.
For more information and data on bioplastics, please visit PlasticFreeTimes.com.