Earth Matters: The politics of plastic waste

Earth Matters: The politics of plastic waste

Humans make a lot of garbage. It is most often referred to as solid waste by federal, state and local agencies and is fast becoming a worldwide crisis of immense proportion, especially since so much of the garbage is plastic.

In fact, the amount of plastic that is discarded is nearing 20% of all of our solid waste, and because it doesn’t degrade in the environment for hundreds or even thousands of years, we can begin to understand that a different solution to the problem is long overdue.

While open dumps are a thing of the past, now the most common way we manage our solid waste is to haul it to local landfills or ship it upstate or out of state to areas that have more space in their landfills, at least for the time being.

Methane releases and water contamination, among other problems, have historically plagued communities and natural resources surrounding landfilling operations.

More recently, attention is turning to the plastics in landfills that break down into microplastics due to physical, chemical and biological effects, which eventually contaminate our water and soil.

Another long-established solution to solid waste is to incinerate it, which is problematic for any number of reasons, most importantly the release of greenhouse gases and chemical pollutants, especially from the burning of plastic material.

Black carbon is one such serious pollutant resulting from burning plastic, with a global warming potential up to 5,000 times greater than carbon dioxide. From a human health perspective, burning plastic creates dioxin, one of the most potent synthetic carcinogens known to man. And, of course, incinerators are often disproportionately sited in low-income and marginalized communities.

And of course, most of us are familiar with the images of plastic garbage in our oceans, some of it landing there from littering and run-off, but also from intentional dumping.

Plastic’s long life makes it the predominant garbage material found in the deepest trenches of the oceans, the five enormous gyres of rotating ocean currents, and as microscopic pieces in sea life virtually everywhere.

An estimated 9 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. By the year 2050, by weight, there may be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Plastic manufacturers have known for a long time that plastic is not really a recyclable material, not at all like glass, aluminum or paper, but they have shamelessly promoted plastic recycling and have convinced the public that all you need to do is put your Poland Spring water bottle into your recycling bucket and it will be recycled into something useful.

According to Coca Cola, they want you to help them “get every bottle back”…a PR campaign that perpetuates the myth that plastic recycling works.

The reality is that less than 6% of plastic actually gets recycled. And my guess is that most of what gets recycled is from commercial users who are recycling a single type of used, but clean plastic.

Let’s look at some of the industry’s latest ideas about how to deal with managing plastic waste. The two most common “new” solutions are pyrolysis and gasification, both utilizing energy-intensive heating processes that attempt to reduce the volume of plastic waste by converting it into synthetic gas or oils to be burned as fuel. Unfortunately, both techniques release many of the same toxic emissions associated with incineration.

This plastic-to-fuel technology has a bad track record of major failures and had lost more than $2 billion dollars as of 2017.

Another industry-promoted idea is repolymerization. This is a process of breaking down a single type of plastic waste into its constituent parts and reconstructing the plastic polymers, typically by using solvents.

These facilities emit greenhouse gases and large amounts of effluent and toxic waste. This is a largely unproven technology with many negative impacts on the environment.

There are other “solutions,” like downcycling plastic to use in road resurfacing or building materials, but they present fire hazards and turn the plastic into microplastics, which just spreads the problem far and wide.

The only real solution to our plastic waste problem is to make less plastic, a simple idea that will require enormous efforts on the part of the public health and environment communities as the oil, gas and petrochemical industries are rapidly expanding plastic production, seeking to increase their output by more that 40% in the next decade.

And that is precisely what science, public health and environmental groups in New York and across the country are trying to do through legislation.

No doubt, legislation is tricky, with well paid lobbyists plying the hallways in Congress and state capitals, intent on maintaining the status quo. In Albany, we have a bill built on the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility that goes further than those bills already passed in Maine, Oregon, California, and Colorado.

Senate Bill #4246 sponsored by Senator Peter Harckham and matching Assembly Bill #5322 sponsored by Assemblymember Deborah Glick, known as the “Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act” puts forth true solutions to the plastic pollution crisis.

It includes producing less plastic and reducing toxins found in plastics, encourages alternatives to plastic packaging and single-use serving containers, supports reusable and refill infrastructure and creates more robust recycling initiatives, with a focus on requiring producer responsibility for post-consumer plastics.

From my perspective on these seemingly intractable problems, the only real solution is to go to the source and begin to turn off the tap.

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