June 5, 2020

FTV: More About Plastics

     Previously in this column, we covered some of the history of plastics and how pervasive this material has become in all of our lives.  As I delved deeper into Susan Freinkel’s book “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2001), the more alarmed I became.  In the previous article (FTV:  Waste Not, Want Not 8-8-17), we examined the path industry traveled to make plastics the manufacturing material of choice for items like combs, chairs, medical equipment, and toys like the Frisbee and Hula Hoop.  One of Freinkel’s main concerns with these items is the health and welfare of the workers who churn out millions of these cheap, plastic based products every year.   In the later chapters, she spends more time on broader health concerns for the public at large and not just those working in the industry.  She simply asks, “Is it possible to enter into a relationship with these materials that is safer for us and more sustainable for our offspring?”

     To get a handle on what she terms “green plastic”, she looked into Henry Ford’s claim that “it would be possible to grow most of an automobile.”  Ford was searching for a way to industrialize  surplus crops and he threw his lot in with soybeans.  He retrofitted one of his River Rouge, Michigan plants to produce soy-based plastic to supply the ten to fifteen pounds of plastic that would be found in the 1936 Ford cars.  He expanded the concept further in 1940 by making  a demo car that he said was “farm grown”.  He demonstrated the durability of the plastic fenders by smacking one with an ax.  Time magazine reported, “The fenders of the Buck Rogers material… withdraw from collision…like unhurried rubber balls.”  This was the only proto-type soy-plastic car he was able to build due to the outbreak of World War II.  After the war, use of oil based plastics resumed as they were still more waterproof and versatile than soy based plastics.  The days of cheap oil put the brakes on Ford’s interest in “farm grown” cars.  

     With the higher cost and the all too real worries about the world’s finite supply (of oil) these days, plant-based plastics are being reexamined:  “Carbon is carbon” according to one bioplastics executive.  “It doesn’t matter if it was sequestered in an oilfield 100 million years ago or six months ago in an Iowa cornfield.”  Ford may not have been able to mass manufacture a plastic car in the 1940s, but at least his company has now used soy-based polyurethane cushions and padding in more than 1.5 million vehicles.  Plans to make all of their plastic car parts from compostable, plant-based plastics are on the drawing board, but as of this writing, are just that:  plans for the future.  Only time will tell if the emerging electric car trend will see car manufacturers embrace  synthetic plastic parts in their models.

     So where do we stand now nearly twenty years after Susan Freinkel issued her alarming book in 2001?  Let us take a quick tour around the state of plastics and the recycling of these materials to see if the world has made any progress in the last two decades.  As much as I whine about how much time people seem to waste on social media, the internet is at least helping raise the alarm.  A simple Google search about plastic pollution will provide one with a shocking tableau of photos and multiple web sites that should shake all to the core.  The picture of a dead sperm whale that washed up on an Indonesian beach in November of 2018 was a graphic reminder of the 700 ocean species impacted by plastic pollution.  This deceased mammal had 13.2 pounds (six kilograms) of plastic in its stomach that included 115 plastic cups, 4 plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags, a nylon sack, two flip-flops, and more than 1,000 other pieces of plastic.  Plastic bags are especially lethal for turtles who ingest them regularly because they resemble the jellyfish they normally consume.

     According to the journal Science, eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans from terrestrial sources each year.  Another two million tons are added from ships, particularly fishing vessels.  One of the most damaging items contributed by the fishing industry are the so-called “ghost nets” that are lost (or intentionally left) to drift free for months at a time.  They not only add to the oceanic garbage stream, they also continue capturing and killing fish that are never harvested.

     Science Advances reported that between 1950 and 2015, 8.3 billion tons of plastic were produced, 6.3 billion tons of which became garbage.  Only 9 percent of this material was recycled and because most is not very biodegradable, it has accumulated at ever increasing rates.  Mirjam Kopp of the environmental group Greenpeace notes that the problem has grown too large to be handled by recycling alone.  “We cannot continue this business as usual, we need to change the throw-away culture we have developed,” Kopp said.  “We need to tackle the problem at the source.  Industries are putting the blame on the consumers, saying they should recycle more, but we don’t think it will help.  They are responsible for the single-use plastics they put on the market.”

The movement away from single-use plastics has been slow, but the movement has gained momentum.  

     The European Union wants to ban certain single-use plastics by the end of 2021.  This single act could reduced the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean by 30 to 40 percent.  In the United States, many states are now considering bans on fast food plastic straws.  States like Oregon have long banned the use of cheap, one use only plastic bags in big box and grocery stores.  Bringing multi-use shopping bags (or paying a fee for more recyclable paper bags used in the place of the plastic ‘tee shirt’ bags) is less of an inconvenience than those opposing the ban whined it would be.  Making this new normal a ‘habit’ takes much less time and money than the projected costs of cleaning up accumulating mountains (or islands) of waste plastic.  

    Personally, I have a great dislike of the ‘t-shirt’ plastic bags.  When local outlets began using them, some discouraged those asking for paper bags by saying, “We may have to start charging a nickle per paper bag because they are so expensive to use.”  My standard reply was, “Make it a dime and dump the plastic bags completely.  That would be great!”  My acquaintances and colleagues were somewhat skeptical when I passed around Michigan United Conservation Club (MUCC) petitions to get the bottle deposit bill on the ballot in the late 1970s.  Again, I had a stock answer when they asked why I was doing it:  “I went to Oregon to visit a couple of friends right after I graduated from NMU.  Oregon has a bottle bill and there isn’t a can or bottle to be seen on their streets and highways.  Wouldn’t Michigan look a lot better without all the crap people toss out their car windows?”  People were wrong when they said that the bottle bill would not pass and that it would be a great burdon for everyone.  I hope we can muster the same magic with regards to single use shopping bags and non-carbonated beverage containers.  The shopping bags have been banned in Oregon for quite some time with no great suffering to the public at large.

    In 2017, the UN-Environmental agency launched the CleanSeas campaign.  While 60 countries have already joined the effort to ban non-reusable plastics, the project’s manager, Petter Malvik said, “Although bans alone won’t solve the problem, they are definitely more than just a drop in the bucket.” Singer Jack Johnson has pledged to support the reduction in single-use plastics by promoting the documentary The Smog of the Sea among his fan base.  Johnson says, “I support the CleanSeas campaign because I believe there are better alternatives to single-use, disposable plastics, and that we as consumers can encourage innovation and ask businesses to take responsibility for the environmental impact of the products they produce.”

     Peter Thomson, the President of the UN General Assembly, added, “I urge all [nations] to join the CleanSeas campaign and make an ambitious pledge to reduce single-use plastic.  Be it a tax on plastic bags, or a ban on microbeads in cosmetics, each country needs to do their bit to maintain the integrity of life in the Ocean.”  Dell Computers has announced it is joining the fight.  Dell has pledged to use recycled plastics removed from the sea as packaging for their products.  Shoe manufacturer Addidas’ plans have been documented in a post entitled, “Your Next Pair of Running Shoes can be made of Recycled Ocean Plastics.”   

     The Ocean Cleanup Foundation has proposed cleaning up the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ by building a massive floating clean-up device.  Picture a kind of ocean going ‘Roomba’.  OCF’s lofty aim is to clean up half of the Pacific’s huge deposit (that has formed a huge floating island of plastic waste) over the next five years.  The ‘GPGP’ has been gathered together by marine turbulence and now covers an area three times larger than France.  It contains some 80,000 tons of floating material and while scientists are sceptical that OCF’s collector will work, it is a start.  George Leonard, the chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, points out that, “If you want to clean up the ocean, the surface is not the place to start.  [Experts say] What floats on the surface – particles of micro-plastics and other objects – is nothing compared to what ends up on the ocean floor.  We are in a moment in time where we are starting to stare the problem in the face, and we’re quite optimistic and hopeful that we can solve it.”  Surveys have even found plastic refuse on the sea floor of the Arctic Ocean, far removed from the heavily travelled sea transport lanes.  Once the oceans have been so widely contaminated, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that plastic pollution is also working up through the global food chain.

     Leonard and other environmental experts feel that increased public exposure to the problem will lead to more focused attention on how to work the problem.  When the detrimental effects that fluorocarbons were having on the Earth’s protective ozone layer became common knowledge, consumer alarm led to widespread changes in how aerosol products were produced.  ‘Our products won’t harm the Ozone layer’ actually became a common marketing strategy.  Consumers can force industrial changes that can make a world of difference and it is time for the same concerted effort in the plastics industry.

     Beyond efforts to clean up past damage and banning single-use plastic products, there are other ways to put a dent in the plastic waste problem.  Researcher Grancois Galgani of the French institute Iremer points to, “Degradation” as a possible solution.  Producing biodegradable plastic packaging has been in the works for a while now, but even some of these proposed products may take “hundreds of years” to break down.  With more than 5 billion plastic bags being used every year (more than 100 billion since Susan Freinkel’s book “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story” came out in 2001).  An outright ban of their production and use would still be a big step forward.  A similar ban on plastic straws and cotton swabs would be a logical next step.

     There are efforts underway to help stem the tide of accumulating plastics.  Until recently, China was actually purchasing much of the United States’ plastic recyclables.  This avenue made a small dent in our accumulating plastic mountains, but trade tensions have slowed this market to a trickle.

Some areas in South America have begun making ‘eco-bricks’ by stuffing two liter bottles with single use bags.  Once tightly filled and capped, these bricks can be used for a variety of things.  When eco-bricks are placed in poured building foundations, for example, they act as filler, thus lowering the cost of the concrete needed.  In this case, the durability of the plastic is a plus.  Recently, a research group in Australia announced they may be able to use sulfur and soy oil to help transform plastic waste into a rubber like compound that may be used in place of petroleum based products.  It will take a combination of recycling, research, and a change in consumer habits to manage our plastic problems.

     More information on the topic can be found on-line.  Excellent posts from Blue Ocean entitled What you can do to stop ocean plastic debris and Sailing through the garbage bag sea and a tasty alternative are a good start.  They also suggest the following related posts:  Microfiber Pollution from THE STORY OF STUFF, The great Pacific Garbage Patch:  Taking out the trash, If you love seafood –  you might not want to read this, Our Plastic Ocean, and Take the No Plastic Straw Please Pledge.  We need to be equally concerned about plastics and the future of The Great Lakes!

      Statistics show that the COVID-19 related cutbacks have reduced carbon emissions nearly twenty percent in three months.  No, I am not suggesting that we simply shut everything down to help Mother Nature heal our damaged planet.  What I am suggesting is that humans have the ability to limit and reverse the damage we have already inflicted through our insane use of ‘cheap’ plastics.  ‘Cheap’ to produce and use, but ‘toxic and costly’ for all if we don’t take action now!

Top Piece Video:  Jefferson Airplanes preaching plastics, 1960s style