Ben, I want to say just one word to you, are you listening? Plastics.
– The Graduate
The actor who spoke that cryptic line from a 1967 movie was trying to convince a young man, played by Dustin Hoffman, to pursue a career in the plastic industry. Apparently many thousands of men and women took him up on his recommendation as the world is now drowning in plastic waste. And it’s growing: The World Economic Forum has predicted that plastic production will double in the next twenty years.
About 22,000 tons per day, escapes into the waters around coastal nations, catches a ride on ocean currents, and makes its way to the most remote spots on the planet. On its way it breaks into progressively smaller pieces until it becomes micro plastics, which are ingested by many pelagic mammals, fish, and birds; the Pew Charitable Trust estimates that up to a million seabirds are killed each year by plastic waste. And unless something drastic is done soon the scourge of plastic waste will begin to affect human health as it works its way into our food and drinking water.
After WWII Americans, weary of the tedium of cleaning, adopted a lifestyle of throwaway living, fueled by cheap plastics made from cheap oil.
Forty percent of all plastics made are single use, like bottles, cups, straws, plates, utensils and grocery bags, which Americans use at the staggering rate of 100 billion annually, for an average of twelve minutes each. According to National Geographic the average American throws away about 185 pounds of plastic per year.
And unlike organic or paper waste, discarded plastics are with us for a very long time; it’s fair to say that all the plastic that has ever been manufactured—including fiberglass boats—are still somewhere on the planet. The U.S. recycles about 9% of plastic waste, and for years much of it was sent to China until they recently halted all shipments of scrap imports.
Even if we miraculously found a way to increase how much we recycle, we’ve already passed the tipping point and won’t be able to recycle our way out of this problem.
What’s needed is a vision of a circular plastic economy where most consumer products are designed to be reused. “Plastics aren’t the enemy here,” states Plymouth University marine biologist Richard Thompson. “It’s the single use items, and that’s 40% of the production, things that are used and discarded within a year.”
This is a Gordian knot of a problem, made even more frustrating when I think that the blame lies squarely on the guy in the mirror. Corporations only produce this junk because we expect food and beverages in ways we don’t have to think about it. Well we better start thinking about it:
If you’re tired of seeing plastic waste on your beach then make changes in the way you buy and use things.
A few suggestions from National Geographic Society include:
- Purchase reusable water bottles and coffee mugs. And buy in bulk wherever possible.
- Seek out businesses that re-use their containers and cutlery, or refrain from wrapping food in plastic, and compliment them for doing so. The smart ones will listen and continue the practice.
- Bring cloth bags when you shop and support bans of plastic bags in your community.
- Spread the word with friends and family. Ask for a commitment to reduce their use of single use plastics.
But in this plastic crisis there is hope.
Consumer products giants Unilever and Proctor & Gamble have teamed up with TerraCycle Loop to offer their household products online using the old “milkman model”: Reusable glass and metal containers designed for a hundred use cycles are delivered (including ice cream!) to customers then collected when empty, cleaned, and returned the next day in a reusable tote.
“I’ve been doing this waste thing for sixteen years,” said TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky. “But, in the past twelve months the world has awoken in a very big way. People are looking for alternatives.”