The Global Plastics Crisis - The urgency of tackling the problem at its roots
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
Written on August 18th, 2020
“We need to bring in that kind of spirit of unity across boundaries, because toxins do not understand political boundaries” - Shibu K. Nair, Zero Waste champion and expert in India (from The Story of Plastic)
Scientists have posited that about 8 Million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean annually. That is as much as if a full garbage truck of plastic was being dumped into the ocean every minute of every day for a year. By 2050, if nothing changes, there will be more plastic in the ocean than there will be fish.
Many of you have probably seen ads on TV, social media, and the news surrounding plastic pollution in the ocean and on our shorelines, pictures of landfills, and islands buried in garbage. However, all these “environmental campaigns” put pressure on the consumer to change their habits more so than to encourage them to understand the source of the problem they are faced with. Therefore, does it really make sense that all the pressure be put on the consumer when multinational and multibillion dollar petrochemical companies, such as Dow Chemical and Exxon Mobil, unrestrainedly continue to frack, as well as build pipelines and petrochemical facilities all over the USA and beyond, in order to fuel their ever-growing plastic industry?
A Brief Intro
The plastic economy represents a global system of environmental racism, in which these corporations dominate what and how we consume, without giving us that much of a choice. Plastic is in everything from our clothes, our food wrappers, our beauty products, our construction materials, and the list goes on. It is in almost everything that we consume, making it extremely difficult to avoid. This invasion has forced many of us to become numb to it. To think it is normal and convenient, when in reality, single-use plastics on the scale that they are being produced daily, are threatening our ecosystems and our very existence on the planet.
Beyond working at Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice as a LISC AmeriCorps member, for the past four years, I have been working on the ground as a grassroots community educator at Recycle Here!, one of Detroit’s first public drop-off recycling centers for residents and community members. I have experienced first-hand, the shortcomings of recycling and the sheer difficulty of effectively recycling plastic. I often felt like it was fully my responsibility to eliminate plastic from my daily consumption. Of course, consumers are responsible for what they consume, but it wasn’t until I saw the “Story of Plastic”, a documentary taking a sweeping look at the man-made crisis of plastic worldwide, which was released on Earth Day of this year, that I really came to grips with the knowledge I had built up since 2016. Recycling had been used as a tactic and green washing scheme for petrochemical companies to seem ethical, thus giving them the green light to continue producing massive amounts of single-use plastics everyday. That we, as a global community, must challenge big oil companies by breaking free from plastic not just on an individual level, but on a collective one, by restructuring our economies and our policies. This will not be an easy fight and the answers are not straightforward.
My goal is to share the scope of the plastic problem that we face as a global community, but also to share certain paths forward. I believe in this context, that education, awareness, concerted community engagement, and organizing efforts will continue to be vital in our fight against climate change and our fight for a cleaner and safer world for all of us and for future generations.
The Personal Meets the Global
I was born and raised in Montreal, Canada, where “environmental services” like recycling and compost pickup, as well as access to green space and public transportation were common ground. But when I decided to move to Detroit, Michigan in 2016, due to my deep interest in the city’s Afrocentric musical history and culture of activism, I quickly and viscerally came to grips with the fact that these amenities, which I once took for granted, were far from accessible to all.
Although curbside recycling has grown in Detroit since its endorsement in 2014, the city was the last major metropolitan area to launch curbside recycling for its residents. To this day, this service has yet to become city-wide. This means that to this day, many Detroit residents have no easy alternative, but to toss all their valuable materials into the garbage - plastic, metal, glass, paper, food scraps, included. Until very recently, this waste was being driven off to be burned not too far away from their homes: Detroit’s former municipal waste incinerator, one of the world’s largest at the time. After years of advocacy work done by local activists, Detroit Renewable Power shut its doors last year, in March of 2019. Since its inception in 1986, it had been plaguing the local majority African American and often low income community with its toxic fumes, and was at the root of increased asthma rates and chronic illnesses in children and adults within the city. Between 2013 and 2018, it was measured that the Incinerator had exceeded pollution emissions standards more than 750 times.
It was in the context of intense environmental injustice for Detroit residents, that I was looking for work and opportunities to get involved with community, as a cyclist without a vehicle. And it so happened that the local drop off recycling center, which had been created in 2005 to mitigate the lack of citywide curbside recycling in the city, was recruiting volunteers. I have been volunteering there part-time ever since, and have had the privilege of engaging thousands of residents over the years, not only about proper recycling practices, but also about proper reuse and reduction methods. I was a strong recycling advocate at the time. I trusted that it was a wholesome and reliable system that worked.
It wasn’t however, until I found out a year and a half later, that all this time, the entirety of the Western World had been shipping more than 50% of its plastics to China and other South and Southeast Asian countries starting in the 90s. In other words, the burden of our waste fell back on the shoulders of other countries. And this business agreement, on which depended the entirety of the Western World’s recycling industry, came to a screeching halt in December of 2017/January of 2018. China was no longer willing to accept our poorly sorted and dirty recycling.
From then on, we have seen the recycling industry experience a severe collapse in Europe, Canada and the USA, as well as Japan, Australia, and other countries, whose recycling programs relied on the Chinese market. We, in the U.S, were not prepared to process all this packaging domestically. Our domestic infrastructure continues to be deeply lacking; our recycling communities often under-staffed and under-paid; and our market, not built to put value on all these materials. As a result, many recycling programs have had to shut their doors, many workers have lost their jobs, and millions, if not even billions of tons of recyclables have been landfilled or burned as a result. The recycling industry is still fighting for survival, but without investment, policy and governments to support it, the task at hand is daunting.
Having lived through these changes personally as a recycling industry professional, has exacerbated my passion for waste reduction advocacy. Breaking free from plastic on a personal level, but more importantly, supporting communities in their collective effort of doing so, will be my life’s journey.
The Reality of Plastic Recycling
But before getting into the ways in which we can fight this plastic crisis that we are in, it is important to understand the science behind plastic and why it is so difficult to recycle. On the one hand, there is definitely a lack of education in our consumer societies about the importance of cleaning and sorting plastics properly. Putting everything in one bin to have “recyclers” take care of it, also known as “single streaming”, has been at the source of China’s National Sword policy, which effectively banned all scrap plastic imports in late 2017, early 2018.
But most importantly, single-use plastics were never created and produced for the purpose of being repurposed and recycled, but rather for the sake of practicality and convenience. As stated by Llod Stouffer, in the Society of the Plastics Industry speech of 1956, “The future of plastics is in the trash”. Plastic is made from fossil fuels and is therefore very durable. In fact, one could say plastic doesn’t go away. You use it once and it stays forever.
It is very difficult to recycle. There are countless different types of plastics out there. You have to sort it by type, number, color and shape, clean it, melt it and turn it into new plastic pellets. The process puts the health of those recycling it, often residents of low wealth regions of India and South-East Asia, at risk.
Of all the plastic being produced worldwide, 32% is litter in the environment, 40% is being landfilled, and 14% is incinerated, and the last 14% is being “recycled”. But of that 14%, only 2% is effectively recycled and turned into something useful. The other 12% is down-cycled, that is, turned into less useful items like plastic bags and plastic wrappers.
From this knowledge, we can see that recycling and waste collection, as well as ocean cleanups are not going to dig us out of this problem. It is fundamental to understand who to hold accountable for this crisis, so as to figure out a path forward.
A Bit of History...
The Story of Plastic, a documentary released on Earth Day of this year, does just that. The film, which was produced by the “The Story of Stuff Project”, a non-profit “dedicated to changing the way that we make, use, and throw away ‘stuff’ so that it is more sustainable, healthy, and fair”, takes a sweeping look at the history of plastic from its inception until today.
From its creation, during the post-World War II consumer boom, plastic was sold by producers as a great innovation and most importantly, a great convenience, that helped families reduce their household chores. But ever since plastic has been created and gradually mass-produced, producers have been challenged by communities. These companies have, however, found many ways around the challenges they received over the years and have successfully deferred blame.
On the one hand, in response to the first laws, created in the mid 50s, which aimed to limit disposable packaging, US companies formed “Keep America Beautiful, Inc.", whose purpose was to focus on “anti-littering” racialized campaigns, in turn, causing limits on disposables to
disappear for decades.
In the 70s, in response to growing local environmental awareness, plastic producers urged municipalities to create tax-payer funded recycling programs, so as to mitigate the visible impact plastic was having on local communities and their environment. The idea is for the consumer to be consuming what is fed to them on the supply chain without questioning it. Recycling was a way for plastic producers to justify their existence.
And from the moment China accepted to buy Western Countries’ recycling supply, including over 50% of its plastics, the “floodgates” fell open for packaging companies to produce even larger amounts of plastics everyday. Not only, were the impacts of plastic becoming invisible to the eyes of the “developed” world, but the lie of all these materials being properly recycled, disseminated successfully.
Not only that, but starting in the early 2000s, single-use plastics started being marketed to the Global South, which did not have formalized waste collection systems, as their culture did not require them to develop such systems. Traditional cultures of localized production, open-air-markets, bulk food sales, and of conservation of natural resources, were sold into this false notion of convenience plastic presented to them and were subtly coerced into endorsing a wasteful way of life. Not to mention that the packaging marketed to South and Southeast Asian and African countries, amongst others, was and still isn't not as high grade and recyclable, as that of Western countries, meaning that it is more likely to be littered, landfilled or incinerated.
Both these factors would explain why between 1950 and 2015, the annual production of plastic has grown exponentially from 0 to close to 400 million metric ton. In fact, of all the plastic that has ever existed, more than half has been produced in the last 15 years and 91% of it has never been recycled.
Countries and ecosystems drowning in oceans of plastic. Literally.
Vulnerable communities forced into hard poorly paid labor to sort through as much of this locally and internationally consumed plastic as possible. The equivalent of modern-day slavery. Single-use plastics incinerated within those local communities. It is therefore not surprising that China eventually banned the import of scrap plastics to its land and displaced the burden to smaller and less equipped countries, like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Cambodia, offering packaging companies a perfect opportunity to displace blame by stating that those countries are not managing their waste properly, when we, in Western countries are in fact, at the source of most of the pollution they experience. Research states that 60% of the ocean’s plastic comes from five countries in Southeast Asia. But where are the decisions made? And where does most of the waste on their land come from? It is needless to say that plastic waste has brought to light the global double-standard that exists between our plastic producing economies and the plastic “receiving” economies of the world.
So what happens here in the Western World in places like the US? Pipelines are built and oil extracted from the earth, thus plaguing nearing low-income rural and/or indigenous communities. Petrochemical facilities and refineries are built in inner-city areas, destroying the lives of local low income communities and communities of color, including immigrant communities, with no obvious recourse to fight back.
Microplastics, which are very small pieces of plastics, have therefore made their way into everything surrounding us from our oceans, to our lakes, rivers, groundwater, and even our rain…. Recent studies show that 83% of tap water samples globally and 93% of bottled water had micro plastics in them.
What the history of plastic shows us, is that plastic producers, packaging companies and petrochemical companies are masterful at drawing attention away from themselves. People often fail to recognize where plastic comes from (i.e. fossil fuels), how it is being distributed and sold (i.e. on the basis of the supply of it, not the demand for it). This “magical” quality that plastic has of just seeming to fall from the sky, diverts many people’s attention away from the connection that exists between climate change and plastic pollution, leading them sometimes, not to take it seriously.
Notice that the blame for the problems plastics cause to communities and the planet is often placed on the “irresponsible” consumer and “developing” nations with often informal waste collection systems.
Now that the world is slowly moving toward cleaner energy sources like wind and solar, and that in turn, the demand for fuel is slowly declining, oil companies are doubling down on their operations toward the production of petrochemicals, that is, mostly plastics. Environmental deregulation on the part of our governments like those of the United States and Saudi Arabia, allows for the growth of petrochemical companies. What deregulation entails for Corporations like Total and Dow, are government subsidies and tax breaks, which create major financial incentives for them to grow their initiatives and reach. The American Chemical Council projects that 194 billion dollars are going to be invested for the creation of 325 new and expanded chemical facilities by 2025. It’s a new way for fossil fuels to invisibly force their way into the economy.
And while the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, composed of all the major petrochemical companies out there, are committing to investing $1.94 billion for cleanups, they project to invest $204 billion in the creation of 334+ new petrochemical facilities.
The Way Forward
That is why it is fundamental for humanity to push past the notion that simply cleaning up the mess that we have created for ourselves, will solve the problem. We have to hold the companies who are at the source of this problem, accountable for their actions, because if we do not stop them, they certainly won’t. They must bear the brunt of the costs processing and cleaning up all this plastic waste entail, which will inevitably affect their profit margins and force them to reconsider how they do business. For this purpose, there are many ways for us all to be a part of the solution.
Learn more –
The Story of Plastic (2020) is a great educational piece and a great starting point to learn about the issue at bay. Check out storyofplastic.org to learn more about the film and its creators. You can purchase the film on Amazon for $2.99.
A Plastic Ocean (2016) documentary available on Netflix
Plastics or Planet? Moving Beyond Plastics Webinar: https://www.openchannels.org/webinars/2020/plastics-or-planet-moving-beyond-plastics
Look at how striving Zero Waste cities and/or countries are trying to move away from plastic. Examples of countries and cities that have banned certain types or all types of single-use plastics: Rwanda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Korea, Taiwan, Bali, Seattle, Montreal, etc.
Advocate + Join the movement –
Join the Break Free from Plastic Movement: https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/
Fight back on the fossil fuel subsidies that make it possible for petrochemical companies to build more facilities and produce more plastic. Voting for government officials, whose political agendas focus on climate justice and building resilience is one way to go about it. Officials, who refuse to be lobbied by corporate interest.
Join the Plastic Free July global movement: https://www.plasticfreejuly.org/
See what type of “Zero Waste” advocacy initiatives are happening near you, both on business and policy levels.
Switch up your routine –
Find different ways to break free from plastic in your day-to-day life. This will help create consumer demand for new types of products. Look for fairly priced alternatives.
See if you can access alternative distribution systems, over large corporate ones. Examples: bulk stores, independently owned stores, coops, thrift stores, farmers’ markets, etc.
Remember, it’s a gradual process as plastic has its grips on every part of our day-to-day lives. It is a gradual and cost-saving investment over time. I, myself, am far from perfect. It has taken me years to figure out alternatives and I still have ways to go. Here are some of the resources I have found over the years. There are definitely many ways to go about this process.
A Zero Waste Guide to consider accomplishing step by step (this guide does not include composting methods and paper product alternatives):
Reusable tote bags to replace single use plastic bags
Reusable produce bags
Reusable tin water bottles (example, Klean Kanteen) or coffee mugs + Brita and/or Pure filters for your tap.
Reusable metal straws
Reusable and washable bee’s wax wrappers and/or cheese cloth.
Silicone stretch lids to replace saran wrap and aluminum foil
Reusable and washable snack bags to replace single-use zip lock bags
Grind your own coffee, instead of using Keurig coffee cups.
When taking some food home from a restaurant, strive to have a Tupperware and a silverware kit in your bag so you can avoid accepting Styrofoam or plastic from the restaurant. I forget mine all the time, but I am still striving!
Consider biodegradable garbage bags instead of plastic ones.
Consider biodegradable or reusable cotton dish sponges, instead of plastic fiber ones.
Consider wooden/bamboo cleaning brushes instead of plastic ones.
For all cleaners, avoid sulfates and chemicals that could harm water sources. Wastewater Treatment Plants often fail to have the capacity to filter those chemicals out of the water.
Consider getting zero waste detergent sheets or little pods to replace detergent bottles.
New Zealand wool balls to replace dryer sheets
Hard dish soap to replace bottled soap
Instead of all-purpose/ window/ floor/ bathroom cleaners in plastic bottles (chemical or organic), consider reusing old bottles, filling them with water and adding non-chemical cleaning tablets into them.
Toothpaste tablets to replace tubes. Same applies for mouthwash.
Consider using paper/bamboo + cotton Q-tips and even, consider getting reusable and washable ones, to replace the single-use plastic handle ones.
Consider using different types of specialized soap bars to replace shampoo, conditioner and body cleanser bottles.
Consider cotton or organic fiber sponges to replace plastic fiber body sponges.
Instead of plastic toothbrushes, bamboo ones.
Instead of plastic dental floss, bamboo and charcoal-based floss in refillable glass bottles.
Instead of plastic containers of lotion or makeup, glass, wood or refillable ones.
Instead of single use wipes or cotton makeup removers, reusable cotton removers
Instead of tampons or pads, a Luna cup.
There are also period-proof underwear, as well as 100% reusable and washable cotton pads available on the market.
Consider reusable bamboo handle and/or 100% metal razors, over disposable plastic razors.
The list does go on, but I have decided to not add even more to this already very long list of alternatives
Example of Independent Zero Waste Companies
Earthling Co.: https://theearthlingco.com/
by Humankind: https://byhumankind.com/
Blue Land: https://www.blueland.com/
Tru Earth: https://www.tru.earth/
Package Free: https://packagefreeshop.com/
Bite Toothpaste Bits: https://bitetoothpastebits.co
Try buying local and in bulk when possible. The larger the supply chain, the more difficult it is to move away from plastic. If possible, try to see if you could find local eco friendly stores that would refill your shampoo, soap, detergent, cleaner bottles over and over with septic safe products.
Strive to thrift instead of buying new clothing.
Avoid fast fashion and plastic fibered clothing when possible … it is very difficult to do so and I am still on a journey with that one myself.
Consider getting a Guppy Friend bag to put your clothes in when you wash them. This will help avoid microplastic clothes’ fibers from getting into our drinking water sources, because the bag will catch the fibers during the washing and drying cycles.
Reduce, refuse, reuse, repurpose when possible + DIY is always an option ☺
Keep your plastic cutlery and find cool projects for repurposing it.
Keep plastic straws and clean them with straw brushes.
Keep good quality takeout containers and reuse them.
Fold plastic bags neatly and preserve them when possible. You can even weave them into a shoe mat or tote bag if you are up for it!
You can find “How to” guides with recipes to make your own beauty and cleaning products
Cool Waste reduction blogs to take a look at and get inspired:
5-Minute Crafts: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC295-Dw_tDNtZXFeAPAW6Aw
Recycle when all else fails ☺ Remember to sort and wash your recycling properly. Check out the restrictions that exist within your local recycling program to avoid contaminating your bin!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Catherine Diggs is a Detroit-based Community Engagement Coordinator at Recycle Here! and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. She chose to speak about a topic she is very passionate about: the plastic crisis that we are faced with globally, and how plastic has successfully contaminated our oceans, our waterways, our soil, our ecosystems, and by extension, our communities both locally and internationally. Catherine wishes to pursue her career in Zero Waste advocacy.