Mythbusting the supposed evils of plastics

June 03, 2015

I was fortunate to have a long conversation with Kerry Flickner last week. Flickner is the National Director - Waste Solutions for Foodservice Sustainability Solutions (Marietta, GA). He knew I was looking for commentary on the EPS foodservice debate that is ongoing in school districts, and expressed his frustration at the lack of scientific understanding leading to the many myths that surround plastic materials. The misinformation, in turn, leads to poor decision making among organizations and corporations in their efforts to be green and implement sustainability.

One of the myths that we discussed surrounds plastic materials, including EPS foodservice products, being put into landfills. Opponents decry the practice, because "plastic in landfills will last hundreds of years." That is true, but so does everything that is put into a sanitary urban landfill. "Modern sanitary landfills are designed to be tombs," said Flickner. "They are designed and built according to EPA regulations, which means nothing in a landfill will disintegrate."

Proof of that has been around for several decades now, since William Rathje (1945-2012) turned his Garbage Project from households to landfills in 1987. As a noted "garbologist," Rathje pioneered the study of modern refuse. His landfill studies revealed some astonishing findings, notably that items such as hot dogs and lettuce that had been entombed for years looked as if they had just been thrown out.

"Rathje ignited a controversy in the 1980s, at a time when concern over discarded plastics began to peak," wrote Jeff Harrison in an obituary that appeared in a University of Arizona publication. "When surveyed, Americans listed fast-food containers, polystyrene foam and disposable diapers as the three largest contributors of waste.

"Garbage Project excavations at more than a dozen landfills around the United States showed that, combined, those three items actually made up only about three percent of landfill contents. Rathje theorized that people assumed litter accounted for a larger percentage of the total waste stream than it actually did," wrote Harrison.

So here we are, nearly three decades after Rathje began studying landfills and presenting us with the scientific facts, still fighting the myths surrounding the "evils" of EPS foam and the "horrors" of landfilling plastics. The school districts are perpetuating these myths by their failure to teach science and scientific facts. District leaders claim they are making these students "good stewards" of their environment. But good stewardship demands good science.

Many years ago, when I was writing editorials about Rathje's work and his findings about plastics in landfills, I was invited to speak to a science class at a local high school about plastic materials. At the time, plastics bashing was just coming into vogue. I brought a variety of plastic parts and products made from many different types of materials to show the students and explain the benefits of plastics to modern civilization. I also talked about the myths surrounding the evils of plastics and why the idea of recycling, which was also just coming into vogue, is a good solution, but not the only solution.

Landfilling plastics is a bad idea not because our landfills are filling up with plastics—they are not—or because plastics are harmful to the atmosphere (EPS, for example, is inert and adds nothing to the atmosphere). Sending plastics of any type to landfills is a bad idea because it is a waste of a valuable resource. It has value in recycling and reuse, and it has tremendous value in the waste-to-energy stream in an urban incinerator to provide an additional means of supplying power. Plastic is, at its origin, a natural resource that can produce energy and power, if only people would recognize this and take advantage of waste incineration.

While Rathje has passed on, his work still lives with us. If only science teachers in our schools would recognize his work and use it to develop viable programs for recycling that capture the true value of plastics, and to teach scientific fact—not mythology—to today's students.

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