Is living on a plastic planet necessarily a bad thing?

News flash! “Plastic pollution risks near permanent contamination of natural resources” (the Guardian); “Earth is becoming a ‘Plastic Planet’” (BBC); and “World’s Plastic Waste Could Bury Manhattan 2 Miles Deep” (New York Times). Those are just some of the nearly two dozen headlines from around the country and the world announcing our fate at the hands of the monster called plastic.

University of Arizona “garbologist” Dr. William Rathje
University of Arizona “garbologist” Dr. William Rathje.

Roland Geyer, an industrial ecology professor at UC Santa Barbara, and a team of researchers released a new report, “A Plastic Planet” (first published in Wednesday’s Science Advances), which measures the production, use and fate of all the plastics ever made, including synthetic fibers. According to an article in the UC Santa Barbara Current, they found that global production of plastic resins and fibers increased from two million metric tons in 1950 to more than 400 million metric tons in 2015, outgrowing most other man-made materials. Roughly half of that amount was produced in the last 13 years.

Geyer noted in the UC Santa Barbara Current that many man-made materials such as cement and steel are built into infrastructure that lasts for many decades, whereas plastics “become waste after four or fewer years of use.” Geyer wants to measure plastics production and use the data as a “foundation for sustainable materials management” because “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

Recycling just isn’t working, Geyer claims. Only 9% of plastics in the United States are recycled. He’s skeptical about incineration of plastics, which I believe to be the greenest and most efficient way to capture the true value of plastics, because of the potential for toxic pollutants and lack of good filtration systems to capture them. (Maybe he should ask Germany—incineration is one form of waste-to-energy used in that country.)

Plastics get a bad rap because they are visible. Plastic floats, which means everyone sees plastics in the oceans, but no one has ever measured the amount of cement, metal and glass that have sunk to the bottom of the ocean from huge container ships that lose some of their cargo (a regular happening).

One journalist writing about this new study noted that most of the plastic ever made remains on the planet in landfills. Well, here’s another news flash: Most of everything we’ve ever thrown into a sanitary landfill over the last 50 years is still there. Look at the studies performed by University of Arizona “garbologist” Dr. William Rathje (1945-2012), which proved that nothing—not newspaper, chicken bones or vegetables—degrades in a landfill environment. Rathje dug down to layers of garbage nearly 25 years old and found still-readable newspapers.

This study is the best case yet for waste-to-energy if, indeed, recycling isn’t working. From what I’ve seen, it takes more energy to collect, sort, bale, ship to a reprocessor, reprocess into pellets and ship to a distributor for reuse in new products than it would to collect plastic and burn it! We are being fooled into thinking that recycling is a “good” thing. It is, to some extent, but it’s certainly not the most cost effective or “greenest” thing to do, and it fails to capture plastics’ BTU value that could provide energy.

I’ve heard many people say that the reason people throw away plastic is that they don’t understand the inherent value in plastic materials. It’s trash; it’s junk to be thrown away. For that reason we need more education on the value of plastics. Headlines like “Production of enough plastic to cover Argentina causes havoc” (Reuters) do not help the plastics industry or the huge economy that plastics supports. These headlines say nothing about the benefits of plastics or show people the “true cost” of replacing every plastic item or product with an alternative in paper, glass or metal.

It will be, once again, up to the industry to confront these types of studies, acknowledge the facts and figures (we know plastics are ubiquitous), then explain to the masses why plastic really is fantastic!        

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