Planet or Plastic

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently working on a book about textile artisans.

National Geographic kicked off a new Planet or Plastic initiative in its June issue. The magazine continues to highlight the plastics problem despite its 2015 acquisition by Fox. The worldwide plastics crisis is not seen as a left or right issue.

In the UK for instance, the Independent reported over the weekend in New ‘plastic tax’ planned to drive use of unrecyclable material out of existence that the government is discussing ways to increase the cost to companies of using certain plastics as part of a waste and resources strategy to be announced before end 2018:

It follows a string of announcements from environment secretary Michael Gove as he stakes out green issues as Conservative political territory, with campaigners encouraged to push for progress in other areas too.

Plastic or Planet Initiative

As reported by Treehugger:

Featuring a long-term, multi-year commitment from the media group, and comprising of educational campaigns, a consumer pledge, research initiatives, as well as a corporate commitment to audit and then reduce single-use plastic dependency within the organization, it really does look like more than your average corporate responsibility initiative.

An early sign of change will be subscribers in U.S., U.K. and India will begin receiving their magazines wrapped in paper, not plastic, immediately. And all global subscribers will see the same by the end of 2019. I’m very excited to see this initiative roll out.

This article, We Depend on Plastic. Now We’re Drowning in It., provides an eye-opening and depressing introduction to the scale of the problem. The magazine’s suggested response focuses on individual actions, as outlined in– You Can Help Turn the Tide on Plastic. Here’s How —  and emphasizes ‘painless’ measures:

Six Things You Can Do (and Feel No Pain)[Jerri-Lynn here: original emphasis]

1. Give up plastic bags. Take your own reusable ones to the store. A trillion plastic shopping bags are used worldwide every year, and 100 billion in the United States alone—that’s almost one per American per day. The average Dane, in contrast, goes through four single-use bags per year. Denmark passed the first bag tax in 1993.

2. Skip straws. Unless you have medical needs, and even then you could use paper ones. Americans toss 500 million plastic straws every day, or about 1.5 per person.

3. Pass up plastic bottles. Invest in a refillable water bottle. Some come with filters if you’re worried about water quality. A handful of cities, including Bundanoon, Australia, and San Francisco, have banned or partially banned bottled water. But around the world, nearly a million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute.

4. Avoid plastic packaging. Buy bar soap instead of liquid. Buy in bulk. Avoid produce sheathed in plastic. And while you’re at it, give up plastic plates and cups. The French are (partially) banning the stuff.

5. Recycle what you can. Even in rich countries, recycling rates are low. Globally, 18 percent of all plastic is recycled. Europe manages 30 percent, China 25—the United States only 9.

6. Don’t litter. The Ocean Conservancy has run beach cleanups for 30 years. Of the top 10 types of trash they find, the only nonplastic item is glass bottles. Worldwide, 73 percent of beach litter is plastic: cigarette butts (the filters), bottles and caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, polystyrene containers. In 2016 the conservancy collected 9,200 tons of trash in 112 countries—around a thousandth of what enters the ocean each year.

Now, I’m not saying that widespread adoption of such simple measures will have no impact. I  already follow each of these six steps, even though I have no illusions about their overall efficacy. Reducing individual plastic consumption would only be a teensy teensy drop in a very large worldwide bucket.

As astute reader oaf pointed out in comments the last time I wrote about plastics,
Plastics Pollution Policies– “Bold” or Pathetic?, it’s misleading to say that consumers create this waste. Much of the huge amount of plastics waste is foisted on consumers and we can’t escape being enshrouded in plastic packaging.  One welcome development– as I discuss further in the last part of this post– is that the current UK government understands that consumers alone cannot solve this problem and that companies must be pushed to  cease use of problematic plastics.

Improving Solid Waste Management

National Geographic’s Plastic. Now We’re Drowning in It  article is much better than its feeble pledge. As that piece noted, “ At a global summit in Nairobi last December, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme spoke of an “ocean Armageddon.”  Some note this is a far easier problem to solve than global warming:

“This isn’t a problem where we don’t know what the solution is,” says Ted Siegler, a Vermont resource economist who has spent more than 25 years working with developing nations on garbage. “We know how to pick up garbage. Anyone can do it. We know how to dispose of it. We know how to recycle.” It’s a matter of building the necessary institutions and systems, he says—ideally before the ocean turns, irretrievably and for centuries to come, into a thin soup of plastic.

Unfortunately, the  development of effective waste management systems — particularly in developing countries– has failed to pace with the upsurge in plastics production and use:

In recent years the surge in production has been driven largely by the expanded use of disposable plastic packaging in the growing economies of Asia—where garbage collection systems may be underdeveloped or nonexistent. In 2010, according to an estimate by [Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor], half the world’s mismanaged plastic waste was generated by just five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka.

“Let’s say you recycle 100 percent in all of North America and Europe,” says Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University who also works in his native India. “You still would not make a dent on the plastics released into the oceans. If you want to do something about this, you have to go there, to these countries, and deal with the mismanaged waste.”

I should mention that the global rate of recycling is nowhere near 100%– even in Europe and North America.


But some developing countries– such as India– have achieved impressive results in some recycling initiatives. India currently recycles 90% of its plastic water bottles and food containers made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), as I discussed further in this March post. So clearly there is much more that can be achieved on the recycling front.

In the longer-term, creating fewer plastics in the first instance is the most sustainable way of addressing the problem. But suppose National Geographic is right– and improving waste management systems would take the world where it needs to go.  What’s the state of play with creating and financing such systems:

“Everyone wants a sexy answer,” [Jambeck] says. “The reality is, we need to just collect the trash. Most countries that I work in, you can’t even get it off the street. We need garbage trucks and help institutionalizing the fact that this waste needs to be collected on a regular basis and landfilled, recycled, or burned so that it doesn’t end up going all over the place.”

…Siegler has proposed a worldwide tax of a penny on every pound of plastic resin manufactured. The tax would raise roughly six billion dollars a year that could be used to finance garbage collection systems in developing nations. The idea never caught on. In the fall of 2017, though, a group of scientists revived the concept of a global fund. The group called for an international agreement patterned after the Paris climate accord.

At the Nairobi meeting in December, 193 nations, including the U.S., actually passed one. The United Nations Clean Seas agreement doesn’t impose a tax on plastic. It’s nonbinding and toothless. It’s really just a declaration of a good intention—the intention to end ocean plastic pollution. In that way it’s less like the Paris Agreement and more like the Rio de Janeiro treaty, in which the world pledged to combat dangerous climate change—back in 1992. Norway’s environment minister, Vidar Helgesen, called this new agreement a strong first step.

Really? Perhaps it is– the necessary first step in a marathon.

The failure to adopt a cross-border, multilateral plastics taxes does not mean that increasing the costs to companies for using plastics isn’t being discussed front and center at the national level.  In the UK for example, as The Independent article cited above reports:

Firms who package goods in unrecyclable plastic will be hit with massive costs under plans to drive its use “out of existence”, The Independent can reveal.

Whitehall insiders believe the proposal – effectively a tax on non-reusable plastic – will have a greater impact on the government’s drive to abolish all plastic waste by 2042 than any other measure.

A source close to the proposal told The Independent it would make the cost of using unrecyclable plastics “so exorbitantly high” that companies would simply conclude they are no longer worth it.

At the same time the measure will create a lucrative funding stream to pump into new UK recycling capacity for plastics that can be reused.

Although it’s certainly too soon to break out the champagne until the full program is announced– and a 24-year time frame for abolishing all plastic waste is not exactly stringent– the Tories seem to be looking  beyond individuals to address the problem of plastics waste.  Let’s hope they come up with something more ambitious than the disappointing EU plan announced in January that I discussed further in EU Makes Limited Move on Plastics: Too Little, Too Late?

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  1. zer0

    “…landfilled, recycled, or burned so that it doesn’t end up going all over the place.”

    Yeah that is part of the problem: thinking that if the plastic is BURNED or out of sight, it is gone. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Never understood Europe’s idea that incineration = good disposal. They think that if you filter the smoke, nothing could go wrong. Where do they think those (limited capacity) filters go? And how is burning a petroleum byproduct filled with nonsense going to help anything?

    The focus needs to be on coming up with material grades that are infinitely reusable and biodegradable, and FORCING companies to use them under the law. These little laws on plastic bags and bottles – very cute in theory, but I don’t see Nestle or Coke curbing their 99% profit margin machine.

    1. John Dorgan

      Plastics have molecular structures which enable complete combustion. For example, polyethylene is comprised only of carbon and hydrogen so the combustion products are carbon dioxide and water. An exception is PVC which if burned at too low a temperature can cause problems. However, this is VERY well developed technology and burning plastics and other MSW to produce electricity is an excellent solution to the problem!

  2. JEHR

    Another step to picking up plastic (and other garbage) is to ask the principal to have school students pick up garbage around the school and in the ditches.

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      Our school does trash pickup ‘playdates’ on afflicted beaches here in the Philippines; one even had divers working offshore. A drop in the ocean really, but the kids have fun. In a country with 30%+ underemployment, it seems silly not to have a by-the-kilo program. I suppose people would cheat by raiding dumps, etc.

      On shorelines here, the most noticeable items are carelessly discarded single service packets (shampoo etc), flip flop sandals and used fishing nets. The latter might be repurposed to bundle and haul trash but plastic and nylon rots in the tropics and salt water, losing its strength.

  3. marieann

    I also do all the recycling I can and am on the next step…don’t buy it in the first place. I would support a ban or tax on all plastic, I just wish I could find a Canadian political party that would go along with it.

    1. wilroncanada

      As is often the case, local governments are going to lead the way. Some cities and towns are now, or are in the process, of banning plastic grocery bags, a tiny step, but a start. What we must do individually is, as much as possible, stop using plastic. (I only partly practice what I preach, so far.) We must campaign to force retailers to take back all the plastic packaging they ‘give’ the consumer, instead of hiring clerks to actually serve those customers. I realize that it would entail the redesign of stores–good! They should realize that they are only passing on the inflated prices they are paying their suppliers for all that useless stuff.
      Already, in my little corner of BC, most coffee shops give discounts for refilling coffee mugs brought by customers, or looking at it the other way, they charge a substantial premium for having to supply take-out cups, even though many of those locally are now cardboard. Shopping at the local butcher, the local farmers’ market, and the local hardware store also help.

    2. John Dorgan

      Artificial knees and hips have polyethylene components – you want to ban medical implants and other devices like IV bags?

  4. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    There is one non-reusable plastic waste that is so important that we have to ask if we should ban it.

    And it’s non-latex condoms.

    We need them to combat diseases and for birth control.

    We also need plastic Sharps containers and one-usable plastic syringes (to be used with free needles).

    There are probably other plastic products we can’t do without.

    Maybe artificial limbs.

  5. Jeremy Grimm

    Plastic waste is a growing problem but does the problem merit such attention when other little problems like a rising ocean and fresh water and food shortages loom in the future? I believe the proliferation of plastics results as plastics replace glass in many uses, though I must admit a considerable amount of plastic is also used for conveying fast foods. Push back on the use of plastics and that will bring back glass. I like glass but with our current way of doing business the problem of plastics will become a problem of glass containers.

    How much of the plastic problem is really a problem of littering? As for recycling plastic — how does that work exactly? The “Challenge of Recycling” shows six major categories of plastic along with the category ‘other’. Many of the particular items we might recycle are made from more than one kind of plastic — how many people remove the lid from each plastic bottle they recycle? What about the color of the plastic? There are six+ kinds of plastic and then a large range of colors which might need sorting to avoid giving recycled plastic a nasty mud color.

    I’ll target one kind of plastic litter that most offends me — the plastic shopping bags. I try to find shopping bags to carry with me into stores to avoid getting loaded down with plastic bags. But I have found very few shopping bags for sale the last well, come at a reasonable price — and something very important to me — are reasonably attractive. [I would also like them to compress, but since none of my other desires can be met — oh well.] I have seen many remarkably ugly, overpriced shopping bags showing up. These are often decorated with some store name in printed in unremarkable fonts and color. I looked on the web for bags extrapolating their design from onion bags in the hope of finding something that would at least fit nicely into my pocket.

    1. marieann

      If you lived close to me I’d make you a bag.

      Have you tried going to craft fairs….bags are usually a popular seller and I’d bet you could find someone there to make you one.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Thank you for suggesting craft fairs as a place to find more attractive shopping bags. I’ll give that a try and/or talk with a woman on main street who seems to have the kind of sewing machine that might let her craft ma a bag using a netting material.

    2. MT

      This is a very America centric view of the problem. Unless you’ve been to Asia recently I don’t think you can have any real comprehension if the scale of this issue. If it were possible I’d post here a picture of my local beach here in Indonesia, it is literally covered with plastic. At times in piles up ankle and shin deep across the entire beach, and this is not a suburban beach where people are simply leaving their trash laying around, it’s a reasonably remote and sparsely populated island in the archipelago. All of this crap has floated in from elsewhere. A couple of days ago I took a ferry journey to one of the more developed islands and the approximately 50km of open ocean we crossed looked like a literal rubbish dump. At any moment at least 100 pieces of visible plastic floating on the surface. Plastic consumption has exploded here. Everywhere you go the houses are surrounded by piles of discarded plastic because there is no trash collection system. Even remote villagers barely above subsistence level are consuming enormous amounts of plastic encased stuff and dumping the packaging at the side of their huts. When the monsoon rains come all of this trash gets washed into the rivers and then out into the oceans where it is rapidly destroying the entire ocean ecosystem in this region. The remote northern shores of Australia are now seeing plastic debris from Asia piling up and it’s not going to too long before it dispurses itself to coastlines everywhere around the globe. I’ve heard reports that plastic bottles are not an entirely uncommon sight on the shores of Antartica these days. The solutions are multiple but we must start by taxing plastic lest oceans and beaches everywhere end up looking like this..

      1. ObjectiveFunction

        Yup, as noted above I see the same here in the Philippines although relatively few areas are badly fouled. I get the sense it’s not deliberate ocean dumping, just careless littering that ends up washed into the rivers and oceans by rain. Some shallow reefs are also getting paved with green scum from agriculture runoff and sewage.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          You raise an interesting question. Where does all the plastic trash in the oceans come from? I cannot believe it results from an accumulation of plastic litter from California beaches or plastic litter thoughtlessly tossed from ocean liners or bags blown out to sea from landfills.

          I fault the entrepreneurs who came up with the idea of shipping plastic waste to China and places East and wherever for “recycling”. Urban environmentalists in the U.S. could hug themselves for “recycling” and entrepreneurs in China and places East could profit from “exporting” a place to park the flow of waste — a perfect Market solution. Now suppose you have a shipment of plastic waste filling your holds and you find your ship all all alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and you think about the profits you lose paying someone to take your plastic “recycle” trash …. As you might guess I am more than a little skeptical of India’s tremendous success at recycling plastic. And I don’t get the sense the Great Pacific Plastic Gyre is just the accumulation of careless littering.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        I am not sure what about my comment is America-centric, though I do try to comment on what think I know — which is usually my own country. I am sorry the beaches in Indonesia are littered with plastic ankle and shin deep.

    3. Janet Zampieri

      Besides keeping a few reusable grocery bags in my car, I carry a bag in my purse that squeezes into a tiny pouch. This way I am always able to avoid using plastic grocery bags. I see these bags for sale regularly. I’ve used many of my bags for years before they need replacing. I don’t understand why anyone would be concerned about aesthetics over reducing plastic waste.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Ouch! I don’t understand how you inferred that I let aesthetics stop me from carrying the best bag I could find around in my trunk. I do let aesthetics keep me from carrying around and re-using some crushed down plastic shopping bags — yuk!

        I believe aesthetics are very important. Few things are as inexpensive and readily available as art and design fit-for-purpose. My point, apparently poorly made, is that the lack of aesthetics, design, reasonable price, and availability of substitutes for plastic bags suggests much of the angst about plastic bags is little more than that. I do believe enough in Capitalism to imagine some small vendor might provide a solution where a demand exists.

    4. Brooklin Bridge

      You might also check out the French filet à provisions .. Right up into the 80’s and beyond, it was used extensively by the French rather than paper or plastic/paper bags. It’s essentially a provisions bag made out of a net. When empty, it can fit in a tiny space (one’s pocket for instance) and yet it stretches to accommodate a surprisingly large amount of shopping goods. As it disappeared, replaced by our system of 1 off plastic bags, I knew the frog was being cooked out of the natives. It is now apparantly making a comeback. The article is in French, but it shows pictures of a few (on the fancy side) “filets” to give an idea. They also come in simple white mesh or weave with no shape at all until they are filled.

      I guess they are called, “string bags,” in English and one can find a number of places that sell them by a simple query, “where to buy french string bags.” Ebay, for example:

      These (or other reusable bags) are much better even than paper bags since they can be used again and again. And given the numbers of humans in the pot – these days – that’s a lot of trees.

  6. Arizona Slim

    Key point from the post: Much of the huge amount of plastics waste is foisted on consumers and we can’t escape being enshrouded in plastic packaging.

    To which I say: Stop patronizing the foisters!

    1. sd

      How do you avoid it? Prescription pills come in plastic blister packs or plastic bottles. The computer keyboard you are typing on – likely some sort of plastic product. Plastics are truly everywhere. Are there ways to pull back – absolutely just by starting with moving to paper based products whenever possible. Connected with this should be the broad adoption and legalization of industrial hemp for use in paper pulp.

      1. Sam Adams

        Plastic pill bottles are great containers for the small screws and other items collected in a workroom. They are the easiest of all the plastic items to recycle into something useful.
        That said, using paper and glass are the most obvious solutions to plastic packaging. But the weight increases transportation costs, including carbon emission.

    2. marieann

      Perhaps we could just buy less…of everything: and if you have to buy it then go to the thrift store.

      1. Arizona Slim

        Went to the Goodwill yesterday. Got some great items for the kitchen and some used towels that will do just fine in the bathroom.

  7. Wyoming

    And right now the recycling business is collapsing due to the new restrictions by the Chinese.

    Almost all recycling is losing money in the US and it is cheaper for towns to haul everything to the dump and bury it right now.

    This does not bode well. Making plastic is so cheap and recycling it so expensive we are really at the point of just banning it or just burying it. But if we ban whole classes of plastic other costs skyrocket to replace the plastic. A dilemma for sure.

    1. Wukchumni

      It turned out we were the Bizarro World version of the Melanesian Cargo Cult, in that empty containers would dutifully show up from a distant shore and take our recyclables, so we didn’t have to bother with it.

      As always the TEUfel is in the details…

  8. mle detroit

    I’m re-housing our CDs in a binder. I took a “jewel case” to the recycling center, but they could find no number on it, so said that it goes in the trash. In Detroit, that means the municipal incinerator — two (plastic) bags of the things.

    One of the CDs contains a song by Keb Mo titled “Victims of Comfort.”

  9. JR

    The very BEST thing you can “do” is to stop BREEDING. A single American produces more plastic waste then any other country – by FAR.

  10. Kent

    This kind of action has very little impact. I would rather see governments take on companies that use plastics and make them pay for their damage including criminal liability.

  11. Peter Phillips

    My local state government recently introduced a scheme of container deposit refunds on recyclable plastic and glass containers of a certain type. The deposit/refund – 10c per item

    I decided to collect, on behalf of my large household (7 people), all the containers that met the criteria.

    I am astounded at the results after only 3 months collecting.

    From my household’s purchases have flowed in that time 700 containers!

    I will now slip them into the recycle stream and garner $70 for my trouble, which I have committed to giving to worthy organisations in my state that support valid environmental issues that genuinely address the dystopian climate future we are currently building.

    I know this is a minuscule effort in the grand scheme of things, but I hope it is doubly positive to just letting them go to landfill!

  12. Deb Schultz

    I started attending the annual Drift Seed convention in Cocoa Beach FL about 15 years ago. One of the recurring topics at these meetings is the huge amount of plastic adrift on ocean gyros and how tracking debris from cargo ship losses and tsunamis has led to a much deeper understanding of ocean currents and the devastating effects of plastic waste on pelagic birds.

    I’m visiting my son and his family in Seattle right now. Seattle has yard and food waste recycling as well as regular recycling . Yet my son’s bins are overflowing regularly. Yes, he and his family could change a number of their consumption habits. But even here, the culture works against that. The amount of packaging is unbelievable. And trash mail!

    Someone above mentioned repurposing pill and medicine containers. I just have to share this last complaint. I use two prescription eye drops for glaucoma. When I purchase them using mail order, the six very small bottles come in their individual boxes, within a plastic bag, within a Styrofoam container that has at least 4 freeze packs, and that is in a cardboard shipping carton. No amount of requesting less “protection” has made a dent.

  13. Jeremy Grimm

    I am very interested in spices and herbs and pondered starting a small venture to sell them. I like the idea making an attractive package, so I looked for jars. The glass jars were as expensive as most of the spices or herbs they would hold — except for saffron of course. Then I considered other common products and the probable ratio in price between the product and the container. The price point for many items has been established for those items in glass containers. Along comes a clear plastic that reduces weight, and breakage, and provides much of the appeal of the glass it replaces, and I suspect lowers the end-to-end cost for providing the product and thereby produces a windfall profit.

    I don’t believe we can efficiently re-cycle plastic, or glass for that matter — some metals, perhaps — and containers are essential for our preservation and distribution of food and beverages. We need to re-use the containers and doing that will require broad cross-product standardization of the containers, along with the construction of means to cull the broken containers, clean and sterilize the containers, re-fit them with lids and get them back into the hands of food producers. [This doesn’t address ‘fast-food’ containers but that’s a target too easily.] Long before we will ever see an “intrusion” into the Market of that scale I think we will see plastic assembled and pressed into giant bricks as a form of carbon capture and storage with attendant hoopla and tax credits of some kind. Perhaps some civil engineer will discover that properly made plastic bricks make excellent dampers for reducing the earthquake liquefaction of foundation soils for buildings.

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