Let’s talk some trash…about plastics.
For the past year, I have been doing a good deal of research and community work centered on the issue of plastics in Hawaii. When I moved to Kailua in 2010, one of the first things I noticed was the insidious presence of micro-plastics and marine debris on the beach. Thus began a new and life-changing journey for me into understanding how this happened and what we could do about it.
One of the most important lessons learned: Although many believe the harm done by single-use plastics can be undone through recycling, that alone is not the solution to the waste issue, especially when it comes to plastics.
Plastic is an amazing material. It can be flexible, hard, waterproof, and beyond. Plastic allows for all kinds of medical and technological advances, such as IV bags, car parts, and modern appliances. Yet we primarily squander this modern marvel in single-use items. The dangerous paradox is that along with plastic's durability and convenience can come hazardous consequences for the health of our planet and our bodies. The same qualities that make plastic such a common choice of material also make it impossible to dispose of in a sustainable way.
National statistics on plastic use and recycling are staggering. The EPA calculates that we sent 5.8 billion pounds of plastic to the landfill in 1970, 33.5 billion in 1990, and 55.4 billion in 2009. Hidden in these numbers, is the fact that only 7.1% of all plastics in our country ever get recycled (The Plastic Problem).
On Oahu, we recycle about 5,400 tons (10.8 million pounds) of type 1 and 2 plastics each year. According to a City study, in 2006, 14% of the waste sent to H-Power, and 4.6% of the waste sent to the landfill were plastics. That's almost 114,000 tons (228 million pounds) of wrappers, bottles, and bags that could not be or were not recycled.
One reason for low rates of recycling is that not all plastic is the same. Plastic chemical type is indicated by the numeral in the chasing-arrows recycling symbol on your container. Across the U.S., less than 30% of PET/HDPE products are recycled. That's Type 1 and 2 containers such as water and detergent bottles (not lids). Less than 1% of Type 3, 4, 6, or 7 are ever recycled. In fact, Oahu Opala redemption centers only accept Type 1 and 2 plastics. This means all plastic containers labeled number 3 to 7 and plastic foam are burned. That’s your yogurt snacks, poke tubs, and Chinese-takeout containers, which are usually made from Type 5 plastic. It also includes plastic bags, foam, and the hard plastic packaging that electronics and toys come in.
Ultimately neither recycling nor incineration are entirely satisfactory solutions. Yes, recycling can reduce the amount of waste going to disposal sites. However, unlike glass or metal, recycling plastic is costly and does not stem the production of virgin plastic products. Glass and aluminum are easily recycled into the same quality product. Plastics are more often “downcycled” into lower quality products. In fact, most plastics manufacturers prefer new, raw materials to post-consumer recycled waste.
Further, most of our recyclable plastic is exported to other countries with lighter regulations for working with dangerous chemicals. Oahu’s plastic is sent to the highest bidder, currently a company in China. Learning that we are sending plastics overseas to Asia to questionable conditions for recycling was the most jarring part of my recent tour of Oahu’s waste facilities (See reports from China, Bangladesh, and India). In other words, we’re making our trash someone else’s problem at great risk to their health and environment.
To be clear, I’m not advocating we forget about recycling plastic as lost cause. Rather I’m asking you to think about ways you can reduce your purchase and use of the material all together. The costs, monetary and environmental, to produce, recycle, and clean-up plastics should call into question why we so frequently disregard it as a single-use, disposable material.
Beyond these noted perils of recycling (and incineration) there are a number of key reasons to add another “R” to our “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra: Refuse.
Single-use plastics and disposable plastics are the main source of plastic pollution. Consumption of single-use plastics has spiraled out of control. A plastic fork is used for seconds, hours, or days, but it will last hundreds of years. Plastic bottles can last 450 years or longer in most landfill conditions. Worldwide consumers take home over 500 billion plastic grocery bags each year. Less than 5% are recycled and at a high cost ratio. An average family of four can take home 100s of bags each year.
When incinerated, plastic emits toxic air and particulate pollution in the form of dioxins and furans, both carcinogenic compounds. In the marine environment, plastic does not biodegrade, but photo-degrades into smaller and smaller pieces. Hawaiian ecosystems are affected by this plastic. It’s estimated that 80% of this marine debris originated on land. Patches of plastic pollution cover millions of square miles of ocean in the North Pacific and in other world oceans. There is no known way to clean up the plastic pollution in the oceans: the plastic particles are very small and circulate throughout the entire water column. This plastic ends up in the stomachs of marine birds and animals. In fact, one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die globally each year due to ingestion of or entanglement in plastics. Learn more in Nicole’s post on Trashy Seas.
Ditching plastic can save money and resources. Take, for example, one of the biggest villains in our plastic waste stream: bottled water. In the U.S., we purchase over 25 billion single serving, plastic bottles of water each year. We gulp down this manufactured demand at a price often higher than gasoline. If you buy a 24-pack of water bottles for $15, that’s $4.68 per gallon. But if you buy two $1.50 bottles of water from the vending machine each week, that’s $156 dollars a year, or $11.34 per gallon! (Multiply the cost of a single water bottle (.5L) by 7.57 to get the price per gallon.) Compare that to how much you pay for tap water?
Speaking of gasoline, bottled water’s packaging and transport depend entirely on non-renewable fossil fuels. If you fill a PET bottle about one-third with petroleum, that is about how much oil it takes to make and move your water. If you send a bottle to HPOWER, that valuable oil goes up in smoke.
Did you know you are paying around $15 to $37.50 a year in hidden costs for so-called free bags at check out? The bag price is buried in your purchase price. Moreover, it’s estimated that Americans use over 100 billion plastic bags a year, costing an estimated $64 billion in tax dollars wasted on plastic bag clean up from roads, parks, and waterways. That's $.17 per bag in San Fransico! A recent Los Angeles case study showed bag clean up costs at $.21 per bag.
Refusing plastic is better for your health and the health of the planet. To begin, bottled water is not safer for you. In fact, it's not even regulated. Further, bottlers often deplete local municipal sources here and abroad. Bottled water globally deprives communities of the water they need to survive and offers an unsustainable convenience.
Moreover, the plastic bottle holding your water is poisoning our bodies and our food chain. The chemicals in plastic that make it hard or pliable are not inert as originally thought. Harmful chemicals such as Bisphenol-A, Styrene, phthalates, and DEHA can be leached by plastic and foam food storage containers into our food or drink. In the environment, as plastic is ingested by wildlife on land and in the ocean ultimately contaminating what we eat. BPA and phthalates are endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with the hormone system in our body. These chemicals are already present in the bloodstream and tissues of almost every one of us, including newborns. They pose the most danger to children and women of childbearing age. BPA is not currently regulated in the U.S., but is banned from baby bottles across Europe and Canada.
Finally, let me be bold and explain that plastic manufacturing companies are out to deceive you. The American Chemistry Council, representing companies like ExxonMobile, Shell, and Dow Chemical who make and sell raw plastic, about 40 billions pounds of it in 2010, tells us “Plastics Make it Possible.” Their website makes the mystifying claim that 94% of U.S. household have “access” to recycling programs. They have always pushed recycling without ever revealing the inherent problems and dangers. The false comfort provided by the idea of recycling, convinces most consumers to feel just fine about buying plastic products. They have taken this a step further with “greenwashing,” telling us to feel even better about buying “plant bottles” or “biodegradable plastics” which actually compromise the recycling stream. They deny that plastics and BPA are harmful to your health. They deny that petro-chemical plant employees and surrounding neighborhoods have high rates of cancer caused by plastic production. And they deny that plastic bags are an environmental problem. Where ever plastic or bag banning bills have popped up, including Hawaii, the ACC and companies like Coca-Cola spend millions of dollars lobbying against the bans (Seattle, Oregon, California, Grand Canyon Nat’l Park).
It’s time to take a stand and embrace the alternatives to plastic. The hopeful point here is that consumption of single use plastics is a personal choice. You can choose to refuse bottled drinks, plastic grocery bags, plastic cutlery, replacing them with reusable, healthier, more affordable items. Visit our post on Reducing Household Waste to find out simple solutions for reducing your plastic footprint. The possibilities for change are simple, but they begin with you.
Make a commitment today to change plastic habits in your household.
I will reduce, reuse, and recycle - in that order.
I will use reusable containers and utensils when I pack my lunches and bring my own when I get take-out food.
I will use a reusable water bottle and not buy bottled water.
I will be conscious of plastic packaging and choose products with less packaging.
I will take my own reusable bag for all shopping purposes
I will pick up trash left on the beach when I see it.
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