Yves here. KLG continues his hard look at scientism. Established readers will note KLG takes a similar view to that of Jerri-Lynn Scofield in her “war on plastics” work. Jerri-Lynn, who was and is a very big traveler, particularly to destinations like India and Turkey, would discuss in her posts, and even more in real life, the profligacy of our plastics use, particularly with packaging. Here KLG takes a look at some policy handwaves on that front, and then turns to the similar deeply embedded wrongthink in food production.
As a paper industry brat, I feel compelled to point out that KLG greatly unsells teh merits of kraft paper, as in the brown paper used for grocery store bags. It’s valuable and made from long-fiber pulp. Kraft paper can be recycled up to seven times, and corrugated cardboard is one of its best used.
It has long bothered me that we fetishize recycling plastic and have eschewed paper bags (note my father worked in and managed coated paper mills, so this was not a matter of family self interest). A lot of those programs are fake and the plastic just gets dumped into landfills. And even in bona fide initiatives, consumers don’t sort out plastic that can’t be recycled (think those intensely colored laundry detergent containers). And on top of that, even the plastic that can be recycled (think clear water bottles) makes such poor quality plastic that virgin plastic has to be mixed in.
By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.
In my previous post, I discussed Science versus Scientism in Real Life. Here I will continue along these lines by briefly comparing disparate approaches to two of our most pressing problems. The first is “plastics” and the second is “food,” the latter of which was the primary subject of Science versus Scientism in Real Life.
Plastics, where to begin? Perhaps here, especially for those of us of a certain age. Since The Graduate was released in 1967, about 400 million tons of plastic waste has been released into the environment, and we are on track for a billion tons of plastic trash to have accumulated somewhere, everywhere in the next 37 years, representing more than 80% of total production: Three Ways to Solve the Plastics Pollution Crisis (paywall). The figure below, “A Tide of Plastic Waste,” is from this article. Plastics pollution is a problem for all of Creation.
So, what is the solution to this problem? Recycling makes us feel good about ourselves, and that includes virtually all of us, as single-use plastic is difficult to avoid. One of the stranger things about our version of modernity is the eclipse of water fountains in favor of bottled water, but I digress. I was amused to see signs in English that water from public water fountains in Rome is safe to drink, as it has been for 2000 years, albeit with some interruptions between the Roman Republic and the unification of Italy. But recycling doesn’t work very well. Deposits on single-use plastic bottles, even where widespread, which is not in the US, seem to have very little impact on recycling. An unintended consequence of these bottles is more plastic waste because people assume they will be recycled properly. Recycling, like the purchase of “carbon offsets” electric cars, is primarily a performative, feel-good exercise most common among the Professional Managerial Class, PMC.
If recycling does not work, what then? According to the article from Nature linked above, a Global Plastics Treaty is expected by the end of 2024. This instrument supposedly will deal with the “whole life cycle of plastics.” Three goals of the treaty will be to (1) develop policies to reduce production, use, and disposal of plastic; (2) cut plastic pollution through more focused research; and (3) develop technology to improve recycling and create new kinds of plastic.
Which policies work? Unfortunately, it is difficult to understand their effectiveness because there has been very little monitoring of such policies (paywall), anywhere and everywhere. The sale and use of plastic shopping bags has been banned in Antigua and Barbuda and in other places. I was impressed when attending a meeting at a resort on the South Carolina(!) coast earlier this year to find that plastic shopping bags were not in use in the dominant grocery store chain. When I asked why the employee at the checkout station replied that “we want to keep them out of the water.” Good policy that probably works if it is widely observed; I did not ask if this was a company policy or a local ordinance.
What about scientific approaches to plastics pollution? The French company Carbios is developing technology for the world’s first “enzymatic plastics recycling plant.” The hope is that bacterial enzymes will degrade plastic into its constituent monomers that can then be used as feedstocks for the re-synthesis of plastics. Enzymes that break down plastics have been known for 30 years, so this can work in principle for polyethylene tetraphthalate (PET) and polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE). Enzymatic recycling can also work better than mechanical recycling if it is less sensitive to contaminants (e.g., food residue, additives to the plastic) than mechanical approaches. But enzymes are also notoriously sensitive to contaminants, and these cannot always be predicted in advance. A Chinese group is working on enzymatic recycling of polyurethanes, which are used in insulation, furniture, shoe soles and other common products such as golf balls.
Is enzymatic recycling practical? According to Carbios, “a 20 cubic meter (2.7•2.7•2.7m) bioreactor can, using the company’s enzymes, degrade 100,000 plastic bottles in 20 hours (and they will be able to) break down 50,000 tons of PET per year in 2025. This is a remarkable number, and the science is sound. But can it make a meaningful dent in plastic pollution? These processes are also expensive. One estimate (by Gregg Beckham, a chemical engineer at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory) is that enzymatically recycled PET will cost twice as much as “virgin” PET and four times as much as mechanically recycled PET. The energy costs are also high, and greenhouse gas emissions are greater for enzymatic recycling than other approaches. Effective recycling will reduce material throughput, and this should be accounted for as a “positive” even if the result is not complete sustainability (which cannot be achieved for plastics or much of anything else as long as the Second Law of Thermodynamics remains valid).
The question for all recycling initiatives, both policy and scientific, is one of scale. Can they really work? Probably not any better than “carbon capture” at the scale required by the problem. One scientific answer to this is the development of “better” plastics. According to Jeremy Luterbacher of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL),  this will mean “going back to the drawing board” and designing a new type of ideal plastic that will have “a life cycle akin to paper: minimally modified from the source material, simple to recycle, and with minimal potential for harm if it leaks into the environment.” This will require different feedstocks such as wood chips and maize (corn) cobs that can be used to produce a biodegradable polyester called dimethylglyoxylate xylose. Illustrationis here from EPFL.
Questions remain, however. Where will the wood chips come from? The corn cobs? The former perhaps out of the volume of wood chips used as a source of so-called “green energy,” obtained from local sources and imported. The latter will most likely come from the corn belt in the United States, where industrial GMO corn intended for livestock feed, corn syrup, and ethanol production is grown as an industrial commodity dependent upon large, outside, profitable for the suppliers, inputs of fossil fuel energy and fertilizer. It seems doubtful that this will work at scale, and it certainly ignores the underlying costs in energy, land degradation, and water pollution, both in the Mississippi River watershed and anywhere else that industrial corn is grown as a commodity crop. The raw material for this new and better plastic is simply too expensive, especially in unaccounted negative externalities that are left out of the accounting.
The “optimists” for better plastics as the solution to the problem of plastic pollution are represented by those who are “reassured that so many research teams around the world are working on the problem, and because of more media attention and public interest.” The “pessimists” view this as an interesting approach but one that is likely to founder as energy costs are reckoned with and anthropogenic climate change asserts its effects increasingly ahead of schedule. But even the skeptics tend to see the UN resolution to create a global plastics treaty as a step in the right direction because “plastics pollution is a transboundary problem, so we need global action to efficiently address it.” Another perspective is that the “plastics pollution crisis is literally visible, and it is hard not to be heartbroken when you see it in the natural environment, especially…I do think that humankind has recognized this problem, and I am hopeful that we can solve this. But it will take monumental amounts of work and time.”
Yes, this is all true. But it misses the point in fundamental ways. The technical achievements of enzymatic recycling as a form of chemical recycling of plastics are remarkable. The production of novel polyesters from organic sources is effective organic chemistry. But these are also of a piece with the Ecomodernism described by George Monbiot in Regenesis. While the underlying science is sophisticated, the intention is to solve a problem that does not have to exist and in this case is definitely something we cannot afford, in the form of science-adjacent scientism.
A better solution to plastic pollution is not better plastics through science and technology. The solution is to just stop. Yes, I know this is anathema because capitalism and markets. In the words of the late Mark Fisher, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world that to imagine the end of capitalism.” But it does not take exceptional imagination or foresight to see the end of the world, as we have come to know it and need it, from here. There is no real need for our produce to be delivered to us in sealed plastic containers. Those currently in my refrigerator are made of PETE (polyethylene teraphthlate and PP (polypropylene), which can be recycled but are probably not, even when they go into the recycling bin.
On the other hand, I could have hand-picked my greens, beans, and broccoli from the produce display, placed them in a paper bag,  and had them weighed at checkout. We all did this not so long ago. And we were expected to. Just as we were expected to wash the greens and vegetables ourselves before we ate them. As for plastic use in other packaging, we did well enough before 1970 without it, as shown in the figure above. We can and must do this again. A top-down, technologically sophisticated solution to this problem is not needed. Top-down technology manufactured this problem. Glass works just as well, is inert and reusable, and is recyclable when required. No enzymes needed. Energy, yes, but little increased throughput of resources required. 
If developing better plastics is a “hard science” adjunct of Ecomodernism, others are using the “soft sciences” of anthropology, sociology, and political economy as an alternative to Neoliberal/Ecomodernist food production by going back to the future, as outlined in the 2 August 2023 issue of Nature: Millions of jobs in food production are disappearing – a change in mindset would help to keep them (no paywall). It follows that if these jobs, perhaps more properly thought of as right livelihoods to borrow a concept from Buddhism, are saved, then rural and Indigenous communities (often one and the same or very similar even in so-called developed economies) will be saved. This will help us prepare for the coming smaller, more sustainable world in which the urbanization and high-tech industrial agriculture required of Ecomodernism prove to be impossible.
To begin at the beginning: “Making progress on internationally agreed goals for sustainable development, climate change and biodiversity will require major changes to how the world’s food is produced and distributed. In 2021, the World Bank estimated that current food systems account for US$12 trillion in hidden social, economic and environmental costs.” These are costs we cannot afford even if we do not see them. Although it would be hard to believe given the Ecomodernist perspective, scholars such as these in the Department of Anthropology, Sustainable Food Systems Science project, and the Ostrom Workshop  at Indiana University are making a difference. Similar “soft science” approaches can and will work with healthcare, simply because they must.
If we are to reverse this unsettling of the land, three major shifts will be required: Governments and non-governmental organizations, to the extent they can be useful in our politics, will be required to:
- Invest in basic infrastructure and public services (e.g., schools, transportation, digital connectivity, to which I would add healthcare) in rural and Indigenous areas; this applies to both the Global South and the Global North. They should also reframe widely but mistakenly held narratives that consider small- and mid-scale food producers to have limited value.
- Enhance national and international initiatives to make food production more resilient and biodiverse while addressing social and well as environmental problems. People should eat where they live instead of being the Global Standard Consumer of the Global Standard Diet provided by the Global Standard Farm.
- Bring the economic benefits of food production closer to where foods are grown.
The initial response to this will be disbelief due to entrenched assumptions of the colonial/imperial/neoliberal mindset (both national and international) that “small-scale and Indigenous/rural food production and resource management are unimportant for feeding the world’s people” and that the loss of livelihoods in rural/Indigenous areas is an inevitable consequence of economic growth. This is a consequence of economic growth in very late, neoliberal capitalism. This is not an inevitable consequence of economic development, however. Continued economic growth on a finite planet is utterly nonsensical. As it is, smallholder farms of less than two hectares (~5 acres) produce approximately 35% of the global food supply, and this should increase instead of decrease in the coming world.
Moreover, the depopulation of the countryside across the Earth results in the disappearance of critical knowledge that will be difficult to recover once it is gone. Only those who remain close to the land can care for it. The industrial “farmer” is required to miss too much for industrial agriculture to remain efficient or remotely sustainable. The analog is the modern, scientistic, biomedical scientist building a little empire for himself while not paying attention to the actual data coming from his lab. The outcomes are often untoward. Nor are these displaced rural/Indigenous people finding jobs after they are forcibly “urbanized,” contrary to the common Ecomodernist assumption. They mostly just become urban, with unfortunate consequences for them and their new cities.
How can agriculture be brought back to a more human and humane existence? The first step would redirect the nearly $600 billion in yearly subsidies to agriculture and fisheries to encourage more sustainable food production while at the same time revitalizing rural areas. Big Ag and Big Chem would revolt at their rice bowls being broken. So what. This would rebalance the relationship between the country and the city which will increasingly depend directly upon one another in the coming smaller world. As noted by Chris Smaje in his reply to George Monbiot in his Saying No to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods, we can do this well or we can suffer the consequences of the attempt to maintain the unsustainable status quo. The only thing required of us is to think well, culturally and scientifically, using appropriate approaches such as those of anthropology and sociology instead of organic chemistry to scientistically solve problems that we cannot afford. And using political economy instead of economics for the same reason. Our choice.
We are what we eat, and we need to eat better. This can be done only when we can see where our food comes from and who produced it for us. Something like this. “Local producers selling their crops at a vegetable market in Mandalay, Myanmar”:
From my email on Sunday, August 13th, an article in Country Life on the topic of Ecomodernism and rewilding as advocated by George Monbiot in Regenesis:
John Lewis-Stempel: ‘Rewilding is half backwards-looking fantasy, half dystopian vision’ “Rewilding is half backwards-looking fantasy, half dystopian vision. The purists have come up with one hell of an idea to rid the land of farming: microbial food, grown in vats, in urban factories. Hello Brave New World, hello ‘farm-free’ future, hello the South Downs rewilded as a wolf-prowled forest theme park, your guide a former sheep farmer like me. Goodbye working countryside, goodbye Ermintrude with your organic poo feeding two million insects a year. Goodbye the iconic British landscape of fields tied up with ribbons of hedges.” Yes.
 The current (12 August 2023) EPFL landing page has this gloss on carbon capture as the lead. Whether carbon capture has more of a future than not releasing carbon that has been sequestered for hundreds of millions of years is doubtful.
 Yes, we can also abuse the privilege of using paper bags. But there is no real need to produce a plastic “with a life cycle akin to paper: minimally modified from the source material, simple to recycle, and with minimal potential for harm if it leaks into the environment.” We already have paper. And most paper seems to be produced from pine trees that are grown in rows, just like corn. The primary difference is the growing season lasts 20 years for pine trees that have been developed to grow fast and produce wood that is useful only for paper and other cellulosic products. This is as sustainable as possible. Paper is also compostable most of the time.
 For those interested in digging deeper, two other articles from Nature publications are important. “A safe operating space for humanity” was published in 2009. Earlier this year “Towards circular plastics within planetary boundaries” was published (open access). The 2009 paper forms a foundation for this more recent paper, which is introduced in a News & Views here: Pathways to Sustainable Plastics. In my view, plastics are in no way sustainable, and we would be better off admitting that. But scientific imperatives are strong. Among scientists “can implies ought” much too often. Two block quotes from this News & Views are explanatory:
(1) “The idea of allocating global allowable impacts to human activities at smaller scales has already been put into practice for climate change. The Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C ceiling with the associated operating space for man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has inspired discussions on national fair shares. The 1.5°C ceiling is also the backbone of ‘science-based targets’, which have been set by more than 2,000 companies7. Going forward, and reflecting the breadth of the planetary boundary framework, there is a need to relate to allowable impacts for other natural systems beyond the climate system.” Science-based targets have not been taken seriously by these 2,000 companies or any governments with substantial agency that come to mind.
(2) “The study makes an important contribution to the literature about absolute environmental sustainability assessment by using optimization modelling to investigate how different configurations of technologies and consumption behaviors may lead to sufficiently low planetary footprints of plastics in the near and far future. The scenarios involve highly optimistic technology assumptions, such as a 95% yield of chemical monomer recycling. While perhaps unrealistic, such assumptions are useful to explore the solutions space, and they strengthen the message that some plastic pathways can never become sustainable — even under idealized efficiencies.” Solutions space? But yes, it is true that some (if not all) plastic pathways can never become sustainable.
. The Ostrom Workshop is named for Elinor Ostrom, one of the few unconventional economists to be awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. The description of her work at nobelprize.org explains why: “It was long unanimously held among economists that natural resources that were collectively used by their users would be over-exploited and destroyed in the long-term. Elinor Ostrom disproved this idea by conducting field studies on how people in small, local communities manage shared natural resources, such as pastures, fishing waters, and forests. She showed that when natural resources are jointly used by their users, in time, rules are established for how these are to be cared for and used in a way that is both economically and ecologically sustainable. Foundations of Social Capital edited by Elinor Ostrom and T.K Ahn is a useful relevant compendium. Other organizations addressing solutions to industrial agriculture include The Land Institute and The Berry Center. I also recommend the books of the Amish farmer David Kline for how small agriculture can feed the world, one local area at a time. There really is no other sustainable path.