I couldn’t believe it when I saw the headline.
“Mariana Trench: Deepest-ever sub dive finds plastic bag,” reported the British Broadcasting Corporation on May 13, 2019.
American explorer Victor Vescovo piloted a deep-sea submarine 35,849 feet to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean, southeast of Japan – the deepest ocean dive in history. And what did Vescovo see when he hit bottom? A plastic bag, like the kind you carry out of Schnucks or Walmart.
Single-use plastic waste is everywhere, slowly choking the planet to death. Unfortunately, what we’ve done to address it is nowhere near good enough.
OK, time out. By now you’re asking yourself, “He says plastic is killing the planet, but what about climate change?”
They are related. Be patient, I will explain later.
A few mind-blowing statistics measure the enormity of the problem.
■ At current rates of growth in plastic pollution, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans, by weight, than fish.
■ By that same year, global plastic production, currently 350-400 million metric tons per year, will triple to 1 billion tons.
■ Ninety-one percent of plastic produced each year is not recycled.
■ Micro- and nanoplastics now pollute 83 percent of tap water samples globally, and 93 percent of bottled water.
Get the picture?
Your next question: “I thought recycling was the solution; what about everybody just doing their part by recycling?”
That’s been “the answer” for more than 60 years, and in that time the world has produced 8.3 billion tons of the stuff – 91 percent going to, where? Landfills, incinerators, waterways, oceans and your neighborhood streets.
Take a walk anywhere and see that last one for yourself. I regularly hoof it around Festus and pick up trash tossed out by careless litterers (none of you reading this, I hope). The plastic bottles and cups that dot the roadsides are the most recyclable of all plastic.
But even if every household recycled all the time, we’d barely dent the plastic problem for one simple reason: There is no viable market for the majority of single-use plastic items, and there never has been. A 1973 internal document from the Society of the Plastics Industry stated, “There is serious doubt that (contaminated mixed plastics) can ever be made viable on an economic basis.”
And yet the petrochemical industry is investing $400 billion toward new plastics manufacturing.
One expert interviewed in the Emmy-Award-winning 2019 documentary “The Story of Plastic” (watch it on YouTube) compared current recycling efforts to a person trying to bail out a full bathtub with a teaspoon while the tap is open full-blast.
A manager of a recycling center in California, standing beside giant bales of useless plastic, said bluntly, “We can’t recycle our way out of this.”
I need to say, however, recycling is still worthwhile. The first two categories of plastic, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE (high density polyethylene), tagged No. 1 and No. 2, are easily and fully recyclable.
They are found in water and soda bottles, plastic jars, milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles. (Important: Clean them out before dropping them off.)
There’s also a strong market for clean cardboard, glass, paper, newspaper, aluminum and metal.
With funding from the St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District, Jefferson County runs an effective recycling program, under coordinator Robert Bradshaw, with drop-off locations in Hillsboro, High Ridge and Barnhart.
The program is hosting a Recycling Fair from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Northwest Elementary School, 2843 Community Lane, in High Ridge. The event includes free paper-shredding, yard waste pickup (two bags per car) and recycling of electronics and appliances (some items require a fee).
For plastic, the shortcomings of recycling have illustrated that the ultimate solution is not at the consumption or disposal stages of the plastic life cycle, it’s at the beginning. The manufacturers must take responsibility for the environmental impact of their products.
The good news is, many groups such as the Break Free From Plastics movement (breakfreefromplastic.org) and the Plastic Pollution Coalition (plasticpollutioncoalition.org) are driving public education and action campaigns that have business and government leaders taking notice.
In 2014, California became the first state to ban plastic bags and since then seven other states (Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont) have done likewise. So have many major cities.
Almost all plastic is made from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal. The same fossil-fuel companies that fear a future of electric automobiles, as the world finally confronts climate change, have seized on a Plan B – make more plastic stuff.
Congress is considering the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (S.984 in the Senate and HR 2238 in the House), introduced back in March. As the bill summary states, it would “amend the Solid Waste Disposal Act to reduce the production and use of certain single-use plastic products and packaging, to improve the responsibility of producers in the design, collection, reuse, recycling and disposal of their consumer products and packaging, to prevent pollution from consumer products and packaging from entering into animal and human food chains and waterways, and for other purposes.”
This proposed law is a good first step in going beyond recycling to require the makers of single-use plastic to reimagine and reengineer their entire approach. However it happens, by law, public demand or divine intervention, the truth is clear.
It’s time to get drastic about plastic.