Graphic image via @thetrashycollection
It’s no secret: plastic is everywhere. We find it in our food packaging, we find it in our everyday household and personal care products, we find it in our clothes. It’s cheap and it’s versatile. In many ways it has revolutionized life saving industries as we know them today — like medicine, energy and clean water.
Without plastic, space travel may not have been possible and our cars and jets would not be as light or fuel-efficient. And yet, the convenience plastic offers has created a toxic throw-away culture that is polluting every corner of our planet at a pace so monumental that now, it’s unmanageable. We are living in a global plastic crisis.
A quick search on Google for the “plastic pollution” might render you videos of turtles with single-use plastic straws lodged in their noses, scuba divers swimming through floating gyres of plastic debris or images of sea creatures tangled in ghost nets. You might even find articles highlighting the discovery of tiny particles of plastic, or microplastics, in our drinking water, food, air and even the human body. For many just awakening to the plastic crisis, these videos and articles might come as a shock. For others, it comes as no surprise.
The global plastic crisis is complex and nuanced; what we encounter at surface level is only just the tip of an iceberg. What’s below the surface — what we rarely encounter with quick Google search — is the gargantuan toxic mass of Big Plastic and the threat it imposes on communities and ecosystems before the plastic bottle even reaches the ocean.
In this post, we’re exploring beneath the surface of our global plastic crisis to answer some of our most pressing questions about plastic, Big Plastic and solutions for a more just recovery.
Image via National Geographic
How did plastic, as a material, come to be?
Modern plastic, or the common name for a category of materials called polymers, first made its appearance on earth about a century and a half ago through the augmentation of cellulose — a natural occurring polymer in the cell walls of plants.
In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt — inspired to find a material substitute for ivory —discovered that treating cellulose with camphor created a material that could be crafted into a variety of shapes and made to imitate natural substances. The discovery was revolutionary as it proved that humans could create new manufacturing materials without the constraints imposed by a scarcity of natural resources.
In 1907, Leo Baekland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature. It’s success led major chemical companies to invest in the research & development of new polymers and new plastics soon joined celluloid and Bakelite.
Where plastic as material really came of age was during World War II. Nylon, invented as a synthetic silk, was used in parachutes, ropes and helmets and Plexiglas replaced glass in aircraft windows. During World War II plastic production in the United States increased by 300% and the surge in plastic production only continued after the war ended.
How is plastic produced?
Plastic is produced through a complex process that starts deep beneath the earth’s surface. Let’s start with the raw material: fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are typically found a mile or two below the surface of the earth and to reach them, the oil industry has historically employed an aggressive extraction process called fracking. Put simply, the fracking process involves drilling into the ground and injecting the earth with a mixture of water and chemicals so that oil is released. Not surprisingly, the process presents a number of health and environmental hazards and has been linked to reports of poisoned drinking water, polluted air, mysterious animal deaths and industrial disasters and explosions.
Once the oil has been extracted it’s time for it to be transported. That means: pipelines. Pipelines carry the oil from the pump to the refinery. In addition to the environmental risks they pose to the ecosystems they’re built through — leaks, ruptures, fires — pipelines also deeply threaten the health and safety of communities that live nearest to them; disproportionately, these are communities of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) who are often sidelined in the decision making.
At the plant — again a site most often found near or within BIPOC communities — oil is transformed into gas and gas into plastic resin. The process releases large amounts of toxic chemicals into the air, polluting the surrounding communities at a disproportionate rate and exposing local residents to a slew of health problems.
Like with pipeline construction, these fenceline communities are given no voice in the corporate decision making process, yet bear the brunt of the healthy, safety and environmental risks of living near a plastic production site.
Watch this video about the residents of St. James, Louisiana and their battle to #StopFormosa
After all of that, plastic plants are left with a new raw material to sell to corporations in order to make their products and packaging. Which brings us to our next question.
How are we consuming plastic?
Trying to list all of the ways in which modern society consumes plastic is almost an impossible feat. When we think about the plastic crisis, and the pollution it has amounted to, the most common plastic culprits are consumer packaged goods (CPG) — toothbrushes, plastic bags, laundry detergent bottles, diapers and disposable razors. Beyond CPG, we find plastic in toys, furniture, home & garden accessories, clothes, electronics, sports gear, shoes, baby accessories, and mattresses. Beyond those, we find them in commercial fishing — ghost nets, fishing line — automobile tires, shipping containers and other large-scale commercial industries. We could go on, but you get the picture.
Global consumption of plastic is out of control. Unfortunately, due to the low rate with which the raw material is brought to market, brands are able to bring their products and packaging to market at an artificially low sale price that doesn't account for the environmental damage incurred through extraction and production.
Low prices allow these plastic packaged products to gain traction among consumers — many who don’t have the luxury of choosing more sustainable alternatives — which in turn, increases demand for them and perpetuates the vicious cycle of plastic production all over again.
Image via The Surfrider Foundation
What’s more? Consumers who purchase plastic products are at a higher risk of exposure to toxic chemicals that can transfer from plastic into our food, water and air. Just last year, research published in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology found that the average person actually eats at least 50,000 particles of microplastic a year and breathes in a similar amount. So yeah, we are now literally consuming plastic.
Where is plastic disposed?
It’s been commonly said that the average single-use plastic item is used for roughly 12 minutes before it is thrown “away” to be landfilled, incinerated, littered or, least likely, recycled.
Here in the United States, most of our trash heads to a landfill where it sits for the rest of eternity. These landfills are predominantly located in BIPOC communities and are merely designed to store our waste, not break down waste. We’ll say that again. Landfills are not designed to break down waste, only to store it. Once there, our plastic waste will never truly biodegrade, it will merely degrade into smaller and smaller pieces over an extremely long period of time.
Recycling, although a better alternative to landfilling, hasn’t been a great solution either. Currently more than 300 million tons of virgin plastic is produced annually and less than 10% is recycled.
Why? Because plastic is an oil-based commodity. When oil prices fluctuate, so does that price of plastic. When those markets are depressed, virgin plastic becomes far cheaper to buy than recycled plastic and recycling companies struggle to find a domestic market for their product. Without a market, many recycling companies sell their goods overseas. In 2011, plastic waste was America’s largest export to China but in 2018 they imposed a ban on trash imports in order to reach their own sustainability goals.
So, what’s the solution to the plastic crisis?
For the privileged individual who wants to do something, the simple answer is follow the 5R’s: refuse what you don’t need, reduce what you need and can’t refuse, reuse what you need and can’t reduce or refuse, recycle what you can’t reuse, reduce or refuse and rot what’s left. For many, however, the shift towards a zero waste lifestyle and the adoption of reusables, is not yet an equitable solution.
We realize this and will always strive for equity and accessibility in all that we do. That’s why Simply Zero has united with #BreakFreeFromPlastic members around the world to support the following principles for a just recovery:
- Prioritize health for people and planet: Public health must be protected, prioritizing frontline workers, fenceline communities, and other vulnerable populations. Environments and human rights of impacted countries and communities cannot be compromised by the business interests of the global elite.
- Investment not bailouts - Deprioritize and divest from extractive industries and their boom and bust cycles. Transition the workforce into sustainable economies with free training programs. Bailouts must be investments in community resiliency, not corporate interests.
- Replace single-use with sustainable systems - Single-use must be replaced with sustainable product delivery systems. The externalized costs from extraction to disposal must be eliminated.
- Demand government and corporate accountability - Government policies must ensure countries manage their own waste. Policy must be informed by credible, third-party science. Corporate responsibility and accountability should be mandated and consistent in all regions where companies do business.
- Engage impacted communities - Support community efforts to hold industry accountable for its impacts. Regulators must measure and monitor emissions, as well as health impacts of frontline communities.
Like with many environmental crises, the solution to our global plastic crisis is complex and demands action at all levels. Whether you choose to say “no” to straws, challenge yourself to live completely plastic-free or dive in as an activist for environmental justice, we need you!