By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Yves mentioned in a post yesterday how hard it is to reduce one’s use of plastics – a problem I’ll examine further in the latter half of this post.
Before I get to that issue, however, I first want to consider an article that appeared in yesterday’s Guardian, The plastic polluters won 2019 – and we’re running out of time to stop them. I encourage everyone to read this comprehensive, but reader-friendly account in full, as it well summarises some key issues about plastics, and is especially informative to any who might just becoming aware of this scourge..
First off: the scale of the plastics problem. Wednesday, I linked to a Reuters piece, A plateful of plastic, which visually represented the amount of microplastics we consume. Each week, that amounts to 5 grams of plastic – a soup spoon. Every month, 21 grams, or enough to fill half a rice bowl; every 6 months, 125 grams, a cereal bowlful. Every year, 250 grams, or a heaped dinner plate of the stuff. And over an average lifespan of 79 years, at current consumption rates, we eat 20 kilos of plastic, or the equivalent of two mobile recycling bins worth. There’s precious little scientific understanding what this consumption of microplastics does to out bodies. But I fear the answer is: this isn’t health food.
Second, the Guardian piece discussed the mismatch between the amount of plastics produced, and insignificant clean- up efforts, despite the rise in public disgust and Sir David Attenborough’s claim that the world was changing its plastic habits. According to the Guardian:
…But he may have been wrong. Greenpeace and the Environment Investigations Agency showed that more plastic than ever was put on shop shelves in 2019 and only Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s of the 10 biggest chains marginally reduced the amounts they used. Plastic water bottle sales, indeed, soared.
Academic research, too, confirmed that pollution was worse than ever in 2019 and that the fishing industry was considerably responsible. The Dutch Ocean Cleanup project, working in the Great Pacific garbage patch, found more than half came from discarded plastic nets and rope, fish aggregating devices [FADs], buoys, long lines, crates and floats. French researchers showed how plastic litter at the bottom of the Mediterranean had tripled since 1990 and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that there would be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 if business was allowed to continue as normal.
Third, the US is a major contributor to the problems – not just due to its lack of a waste management strategy (compared to the EU, which has in fact adopted a waste policy, albeit an inadequate one; see EU Plastics Ban: “Doesn’t Go Far Enough”). As problematic: US producers continue to ramp up plastics supply; all that fracking product must go somewhere. Over to the Guardian:
Ultra-cheap shale gas from the decade-long US fracking boom continued to fuel a surge of billion-dollar investments in new cracking plants that separate ethane from gas to produce ethylene, the building block of most plastic. Since 2010 the petrochemical industry has invested about $200bn, and with $100bn more planned to be spent, plastic production is expected to grow 40% by 2030.
And a fourth, related point: the link between plastics production and climate change. Again, let’s look at what the Guardian has to say:
The implications for countries struggling to cope with climate change and thousands of communities fighting tides of plastic are only now being understood. From having little impact on the climate just 20 years ago, the production and disposal of plastic now uses nearly 14% of all the world’s oil and gas. Plastic production is expected to grow to 20% by 2050 by which time the industry’s climate emissions could rise to 2.75bn tonnes a year and plastic could be driving half of all oil demand growth.
Plastic, says the International Energy Agency, could take up to 15% of the remaining annual carbon budget and make the fast-growing industry the equivalent of the world’s fifth largest climate heating country, emitting more than Germany or the UK, twice as much as all African countries and nearly as much as shipping and aviation combined.
Even as anger mounted in 2019 against rich countries’ reluctance to act on climate change, it became clear that plastic was big oil’s great hope for expansion, and one of the world’s leading drivers of climate change. Shell’s giant $6bn ethane-cracking plant being built near Pittsburgh, will produce 1.6m tons of plastic a year but is just one of dozens of similar size plantsplanned for the US, India, China and the Middle East.
What Is to Be Done?
I’ll begin by considering the low-hanging fruit. France and Thailand both launched a single-use plastics ban from the start of the new year (see EGEB: France, Thailand launch single-use plastic ban on New Year’s Day).
We shouldn’t harbor illusions that cutting back on single-use plastics is any kind of panacea for the plastics problem. For starters, such bans are often honored only in the breach: I’ve stopped counting the times I’ve been served a straw or offered a thin plastic bag in places where such items are nominally already “banned”.
When one sees low-hanging fruit, however, what should we do?
Pick it, I say. So, say no to straws, ditto plastic cutlery, and carry reusable bags. Also, make it clear to the management of grocery stores that swaddling everything in plastic isn’t necessary or welcome.
At the opposite extreme, I’m not going to reprimand myself – or anyone else, for that matter – for falling short of a plastics-free ideal. I try to avoid plastics, but I realize I cannot do so entirely. (Although for those serious about undertaking such a mission, f, see No plastic 2020: The reason I am giving up all plastic bottles.)
Regular readers are probably aware of most of the following suggestions; still, it’s sometimes worth reminding ourselves of the obvious.
So, eschew synthetic fibers, including those microfiber cleaning cloths that although convenient, shed lots of nasty microplastics. I’m usually leery of recommendations to go out and try some new product; these dischcloths look interesting however, and are reusable and compostable; I’m not going to send off to Sweden for some, but I shall keep my eyes skinned for local sources (see I tried Swedish dishcloths and they are amazing).
Say no to plastic wrap and ziplock bags. It’s possible to substitute aluminium foil and wax (or grease-proof) paper – but those options still generate waste . Some people swear by reusable beeswax wraps, I rely on glass or handmade ceramic storage options.
Yes, I realize these require you to spend more money, at least initially. But those handmade ceramic s provide artisanal employment, which benefits the community and the economy. And the seemingly lower cost of plastic alternatives is due to the fact that the negative externalities, e.g., disposal of plastics waste – is not reflected in the purchase price. With ceramics, there’s less waste overall: I have handmade ceramics that I’ve owned for more than 30 years: I use them until they break. I like handmade ceramics and I’m always on the lookout for pieces that come with their own lids.
Beyond hand thrown ceramics, some places have yet to surrender to plastic entirely. In parts of India, terra cotta is still in widespread use (but much less than was the case even a few decades before). One still can get cups of chai in small terra cotta cups – rather than thin plastic cups which only burn one’s fingers. Other things are still sold in terra cotta packaging: yogurt, or take-out biryani. Now, to be sure, unglazed terra cotta containers are intended to be disposable, but they can be refilled, or reused for general storage. And when thrown away, the terra cotta breaks down, without polluting the environment with pernicious microplastics.
Avoid plastic water bottles. I know access to clean water is a problem even in the US (and in fact, just this week, Bernie Sanders pledged to establish drinking water standards when he becomes president; see Sanders vows to create tougher nationwide drinking water standards as president). There are many places in the world where it’s not safe to drink the water (and in which even bottled water provides false security). When possible, I already opt for filtered water rather bottled. Sometimes, I rely on a personal, portable, filtration system, which can be as simple as a Brita filter.
Shop at farmers markets. Not only do they cut out the middleman and help farmers, but they offer variety, and fresher local food – rather than the products of agribusiness, trucked across the continent or flown in from distant countries, trailing a massive carbon footprint. By patronising farmers markets, and carrying reusable shopping bags, one cuts down on plastic packaging.
I hope these suggestions don’t come across as banal, the plastics equivalent of saying look both ways before crossing.
And, I don’t mean to suggest that individual action will produce an adequate solution. For that we need collective action, and comprehensive regulation.
But these small steps are not going to cause harm – as long as they’re not offered in the spirit of virtue signalling, and we understand that it’s necessary to adopt much more draconian, universal controls on production and use of plastics.