A Prelude to Future Plastic Waste Policies

Plastic is part of our land, our seas, and—through emissions—now our air too. No aspect of life, no corner of Earth has escaped unscathed.

Enough plastics are disposed of each year to encircle the Earth four times. Each year the oceans alone absorb three full trash bags for every meter of shoreline. By 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. In cities it is fast replacing soil and pollen as the primary constituent of household dust. In the past decade, micro-plastics have also been observed polluting the marine food chain. Scientists don’t believe this poses us an immediate health risk, but it could certainly be a canary in the coal mine.

Yet we are complacent, we have no sense of urgency. We go about our daily lives, shamelessly ignoring any warning signs.

How many sea lions—tangled together amidst a mess of commercial fishing line—must gasp away in obscurity, how many Albatross will starve with stomachs full of plastic, how much more fertile land needs to be designated a toxic waste site, how many more candy-bar wrappers tossed carelessly to the wind, and how many more shellfish dissolved in acidic ocean conditions before society takes a collective stand and reaches a tipping point? How much attention needs to be drawn to these decades-old issues before they’re finally faced and the unsung heroes of these tragedies are finally paid tribute?

Individuals can try to go plastic-free, but it is nearly impossible today. They may succeed themselves, only to fail at influencing the culture at large. It might feel like your voice is drowning in an ocean of faces.

We have a World Health Organization. What we really need now is a World Environment Organization. We need a central authority like that.

And we need to change our culture from within.

We should address the problem, proactively, at the source. Cleaning plastic out of the Ocean is reactive, and so is waiting til we run out of landfill space.

Micro-Litter: The High Price of Cheap Clothes

Most apparel today is made with at least 10% “polyester” (a plastic fiber). Each time a piece of clothing is washed, it sheds more and more micro-fibers into the wastewater, until it finally wears out completely. Work is being done to filter these out of the washing machine prior to discharge, but we need to do more.

The same polyester shirt sheds fibers in dryers, which expel the vented air to the outdoor environment, allowing it to find its way to rivers and streams. The same shirt also sheds fibers just being worn about and moved around. It is a microscopic pollution factory, silently shedding itself on your shoulders as you walk. We are all guilty of daily littering on a micro-scale. Everyone is a participant in this giant, cosmic crime.

Disentwining any deeply ingrained social issue is never easy. The true solution likely involves a return to basics, of raising cotton production and lowering our reproductive rate so that we can afford to clothe people naturally, without cheap polyester alternatives. Alternatively, the polymers could be made more resilient to breakage—so shedding from clothes becomes minimal (cotton outlasts wool for the simple reason its fibers can bend more times before breaking)—and for mixed clothing, recycling programs could recover synthetic fibers.

While it is nice to discuss these things, the sad truth is they may never become a reality in the current political climate. The use of cheap clothing is only expected to rise, especially as the urban populations in Africa and South America explode in the coming decades. At the rate we’re going, we don’t have time to pause and innovate.

Regardless of the approach decided upon, it seems inescapable that cheap, synthetic clothes should only be produced when desperately needed (e.g. medical gowns during a pandemic). Measures must be taken to reverse this complacency in everyday life. Polyester production is not sustainable like this. The oceans are a sanctuary, not a dumping grounds. Landfill space is a commodity—it should be reserved for a rainy day, and not allotted generously.

Global Warming and Ocean Acidification

Despite popular belief, the amount of CO2 released in annual plastic production dwarfs automobile and transportation-related emissions. Industrial and commercial CO2 releases—along with methane from herding cattle—account for the main two sources of global warming. Automobiles and planes are far down on the list. In terms of ocean acidification (which could be an equally imminent issue) methane is not a factor, and industrial CO2 is the main culprit.

The single easiest solution for addressing both landfill waste and CO2 emissions associated with plastic use (besides eliminating plastic altogether) is to recycle. Recycling not only preserves landfill space, but also reduces plastic’s carbon footprint. Even if it were more expensive, I am still unsure why it is not being done. We act like pollution doesn’t exist and oil is a renewable resource. Human life has other priorities than economic activity.

Safety Deposits and Disassembly of Goods: a Tangled mess

A TV remote with rubber buttons, a glittery, single-use birthday sign, spray on insulation, a soda can lined with plastic, carpet glued to fiberglass backing, and a substrate-backed pipette tray—all these things represent man-made products with a limited lifespan, e.g. they’re disposable (and often even single-use). They also boast a shameless array of sub-components—of plastic, rubber, and vinyl pieces—all mishmashed and swirled together into a tangled, non-recyclable, final product.

All of these components need to be accounted for. Proper plastic recycling is a very fickle process that requires careful separation of types. The entire mishmash should be easily taken apart—like pulling a slip knot out of a sewn rice bag, or pressing a quick release on a bicycle tire. Products should come apart easily so each part can be recovered, identified, redeemed and recycled. Unfortunately, very few products in daily life meet these “ease-of-disassembly” criteria.

There are many difficulties surrounding standardized attempts to recycle cell phones. Recycling phones is challenging because of the diversity and sheer volume of cell phone models, as well as the complex componentry inside. E-waste often ends up crushed or disassembled, with plastic burned off and only metal being reclaimed.

When other electronics like laptops, printers and monitors are recycled, they don’t go through a Daisy. They’re put in a shredder or a hammerlike pounder that breaks apart the devices in an effort to expose the elements inside. This process often mixes materials together, making them impure and less valuable. Still, a series of sifters and magnets attempt to collect the recyclable materials before the rest is thrown out.

“Apple is opening up its world of iPhone recycling.” CNET. Ian Sherr
March 25, 2020. https://www.cnet.com/news/apple-might-delay-next-big-iphone-launch-due-to-coronavirus-report-says/

Plastic bottles are another great example of a failure here. The bottle itself is recyclable, but the cap and the cap’s O-ring (as well as the plastic labeling) are generally considered byproducts to be disposed of or incinerated. The cap would qualify as a mishmash: a hard exterior and a soft sealant coating inside. The O-ring and label are also not easily removed, nor marked with a plastic type or recycling number.

Bottle caps are often so small that it’s easy to overlook the impact they have on the environment. If you drop one on the ground at the park or the beach, you may think it’s not a big deal.

But the Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii (B.E.A.C.H.) found that “plastic bottle caps are one of the top 10 items found during marine debris beach clean-ups and are the second most littered item after cigarette butts.”

Recycling seems like a good option, but did you know that many cities don’t accept caps for recycling?

“Bottle Caps and the Environment” Weill Cornell University. https://sustainability.weill.cornell.edu/recycling/bottle-caps-and-environment

Most “recyclable toothbrushes” only focus on the handle itself—which is composed of a homogenized plastic similar to yogurt cups. Very few recycling programs are in place for the tiny nylon bristles. (Note that the only toothbrush with biodegradable bristles lasts but a few uses.)

These efforts are not practical until specialized recycling and compositing facilities become more standardized and widely available.

Moving Forward

The measures needed to fix society’s mismanagement of plastic waste are known to scientists, but it is up to governments to implement them—putting bio-plastics in circulation where appropriate, regulating production, and incentivizing consumer recycling. All this should be a matter of subtle political maneuvering, but nothing is being done currently.

Sometimes our collective complacency is too great for any individual voice to make a difference, until the crisis is imminent. So it was with coronavirus. Critics knew an influenza or SARS-like outbreak was possible—indeed they suspected it was only a matter of time—but no one could urge governments to take the necessary preparations. On the contrary, most countries continued cutting funding to disease programs as the memory of the 1918 pandemic grew more distant.

The current livelihood of the world economy depends on the wasteful expenditure of natural capital. Little attention is paid to sustainability (or the actual, basic needs of men), and little respect is paid to Earth. The priority is always getting more money and more power at whatever expense. We must find ways of balancing the capitalist incentives to innovate and produce against the necessary virtues of self-preservation and respect for the planet.

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