Our Plastic Waste World

One of the first blogs I wrote, almost two years ago, discussed the need to eliminate the use of single-use plastics and my personal plan to address it.  Since that time, I’ve become obsessed with this idea and often think about what more I can do. I’ve written about it many times.  It baffles me when I see so many others oblivious to the “plastic” problem.  Anyone can easily find ways to reduce their plastic consumption but I suppose for many, it’s just not on their “things I need to change” radar.  The problem is that our “plastic waste world” is getting worse. 

A new research study, published in Science Advances, reveals the amount of plastic waste by Americans is today five times higher than earlier (2015) research indicated.  Americans are using more plastic, and much more of that plastic is polluting our world.  The U.S. does not have adequate capacity to handle recycling demands so more than half of our plastic waste gets exported.  Eighty-eight percent of these exports end up in countries that have inadequate resources to manage them so they end up polluting the world.  The U.S. only recycles about 9% of our plastic and there’s no guarantee that the recycled plastic will be remade into new consumer goods.  New plastic is so inexpensive, partly because oil prices have plummeted, which has further reduced the incentive to re-purpose used plastic. 

A lot of this plastic ends up in the oceans.  There are five giant plastic garbage patches in our world’s oceans – the largest being the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.  Located halfway between Hawaii and California, it is estimated to be about twice the area of the state of Texas!  This plastic significantly impacts marine life since plastic particles are easily mistaken for food by fish.  Virtually all marine species have ingested some of this plastic, a lot of it eventually makes its way into the human food chain; obviously not good for our health either.  Besides our health, this plastic pollution has economic effects, like loss of tourism and the costs to deal with the cleanup.  A recent study estimated marine plastic has a yearly economic cost between 6 and 9 billion dollars, and that amount does not reflect health related costs.

The plastic industry has many advocates including large U.S. chemical manufactures.  Big oil companies also want to make more plastic since it requires oil, and our oil industry wants to offset lower market demand for oil.  Besides lobbying to protect their domestic interests, these companies see opportunities in Africa and are pressuring our government trade negotiators to have African countries reverse current strict limits on plastic imports.  Many African countries, recognizing the proliferation of plastic, have passed laws and joined in global agreements to stop importing plastic waste – a move obviously not appreciated by the chemical and oil industries – but good for them!

The head of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, recently labeled plastic waste a “Top Priority” and has announced it will work with Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a group funded by the petrochemical industry to try to improve recycling rates.  President Trump has proposed giving the EPA $7 million to address marine plastic waste.  To me, this action, while it may sound good, is a “drop in the bucket” considering the petrochemical companies have recently invested tens of billions of dollars along the Gulf Coast to build and expand plants that make plastics, tapping into abundant and cheap natural gas from Texas shale.

While industry and governmental efforts to improve plastic recycling may eventually prove useful, I believe, much more aggressive action to reduce the amount of plastic that is consumed is needed.  For example, New Jersey recently passed a bill to eliminate single use plastic and paper bags – the most aggressive restrictions in the country.   This legislation is slated to go into effect 18 months after the governor signs. Some opponents argue paper bags are a good, environmentally friendly alternative to plastic.  But supporters of the legislation believe reusable bags should replace all single use bags since even paper bags require energy to produce – energy that could be avoided if all single-use bags were eliminated.  Eight other states have in effect, or scheduled to be implemented, some form of plastic bag prohibitions but many of these have been suspended due to the pandemic.  And other states have enacted restrictions to prohibit local municipalities from banning plastic bags without state approvalClearly government has a role in this and it is our responsibility to let our legislators know our views.

Innovation is playing an emerging role in addressing the plastic issue as entrepreneurs like Footprint are developing new environmentally sustainable packaging alternatives to plastic – products that are compostable and offer less contamination than many plastics currently used today.  The success of companies like Footprint are critically dependent on major companies, like McDonald’s, incorporating these new, sustainable and biodegradable products into their packaging, in lieu of plastics.   Other companies such as ASDA, Costa Coffee, and Evian, have made major commitments to eliminate the use of plastics – or committed to use only recycled plastic, in their operations.  As consumers, we should become aware of these efforts and choose to do business with these companies.

Clearly, steps by companies, manufactures, and government are being taken and all are important and leading us in the right direction.  But today, on average, in spite of these good intentions, every American still accounts for approximately 4 ounces of plastic trash per day.  Doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up, and so much of it ends up in our waterways and oceans.

Last year I described how litter makes its way into our waterways like Buffalo Bayou in Houston. I recently watched a 59-minute presentation by members of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership in Houston. This video illustrates the amount of trash that ends up in Buffalo Bayou as a result of that waterway’s role in the city’s storm drain system. It also shows what is required to deal with all the plastic trash.  In 2019, 1,500 cubic yards of trash was removed from Buffalo Bayou. As a basis of comparison, a dump truck typically hauls 12 cubic yards of trash. This is trash that didn’t make it to the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean.  If you take the time to watch this presentation, you will never look at plastic litter the same way. Below are some photos from this presentation that illustrate the magnitude of the problem and what is involved it cleaning it up.

Bottom line, plastic trash is a huge problem and getting worse.  The most productive thing all of us can do to address this problem is to stop using plastic items – especially those single-use products.  We should all want to BE THE BEST STEWARD OF OUR PLANET WE CAN.  It’s time to contact our governmental leaders and insist they adopt measures to address the plastic trash problem.  It’s time to let our merchants know we’d like them to do their part by eliminating the use of plastics.  And we should support those companies that are doing the right things.  Individually, we can adopt these principles and collectively, it can make all the difference in the world.  It’s time to stop trashing our planet.  It’s time to fix our plastic waste world.

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