The cover of the June issue of National Geographic magazine asks readers, “Planet or Plastic: Which One Will You Choose?” It then allows readers to enter into a portal that lets them commit to a way to help solve the so-called “plastics problem.”
For those of us in the industry, the choice seems rather dichotomous. Plastic is part of the planet—it comes from the planet’s natural resources and has helped save many animals that were being used for their shells (tortoises) or tusks (elephants) by offering an alternative material. Plastic materials have actually helped reduce CO2 emissions because plastic processing is a very clean manufacturing process, and doesn’t use resources such as water, which is used in making paper. And it has reduced the use of fossil fuels in transportation because plastic is lightweight and has replaced metals in vehicles ranging from cars to large trucks and even airplanes.
While I was prepared for more plastic bashing in the National Geographic article, I was pleasantly surprised at the article’s balanced approach with regard to the amount of plastic waste in the Earth’s oceans. Citing University of Georgia engineering professor Jenna Jambeck, who in 2015 estimated that 5.3 million to 14 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year just from coastal regions, most plastic trash in the oceans is not thrown overboard from ships, the article noted. Scrap plastic makes its way into the oceans via inland rivers that flow to the oceans, and the problem lies mostly in Asia, noted the article.
Because plastic was made to be durable and long-lasting, plastic does not degrade in natural environments. As the article points out, the estimated time for plastic to biodegrade “to its constituent elements” is 450 years. Surprisingly, the article did not so much blame plastic in and of itself; rather, it was very thorough in noting the socio-economic factors in developing countries that contribute to the amount of ocean plastics.
A lack of infrastructure for recycling and reuse in developing nations contributes to huge mounds of plastic that accumulate along shorelines. However, there is some recognition of the value of plastic by the garbage “pickers,” who gather plastic items such as bottles and film and sell it to “recyclers” in their neighborhoods. The photographs—for which National Geographic has long been noted—were very telling of the way local people make a daily living by gathering and selling the recovered plastic.
As I read the article, I did get the sense that the author knows that the problem isn’t really plastic but is a very complex issue that involves the willingness of countries to capture the plastic locally and reap its value before it reaches the ocean. Countries need to do more than just ban plastic, and initiate programs to build the infrastructure needed to recycle plastic and reclaim the value of the material. It’s certainly going to take more than garbage pickers in these developing countries to gather the plastic scrap, because the amount of scrap plastic is overwhelming.
Certainly the value of plastic and what it has done for the world in almost every industry was subtly recognized in the article. You can’t deny that plastic has been of tremendous value to humankind throughout the world. We just need to teach people the value of saving the plastic scrap generated in their neighborhoods, and take it to a place where that value can be realized as money in their pockets, and turned into new products. And that’s not just in developing countries—it’s badly needed in developed nations, as well, including the United States.