In July, a sailing vessel called Kwai docked in Sausalito carrying a sickening cargo: 96 tons of plastic garbage and other trash recovered from the Pacific Ocean during a 45-day voyage from Honolulu.
Before arriving in California, the Kwai had sailed through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – an area more than twice the size of Texas that has been described as a “cloudy soup” of plastic debris and other trash accumulating in a vortex of swirling ocean currents.
The voyage was a project of the nonprofit Ocean Voyages Institute in partnership with the government of the Marshall Islands, which, like other island nations is acutely threatened by rising sea levels from the melting of polar ice caps and icebergs. Since 2009, the institute’s Pacific expeditions have recovered nearly 700,000 pounds of trash; 340,000 pounds were collected in 2020 alone.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in 1997. Other vast garbage patches are in the South Pacific, North Atlantic and Indian oceans. These floating dumps include discarded fishing nets and other nautical trash, but most of the dreck is from single-use consumer plastics that wash into the oceans: beverage bottles, bags, packaging, food containers, utensils and straws.
No one knows for sure how much plastic is in the world’s oceans, but in 2015 the best guess was 150 million metric tons, growing by eight to 11 million metric tons a year. The toxic flotsam endangers marine mammals, birds and fish, killing over 1 million animals each year.
Critically, this “plastics pandemic” is inextricably linked to the crisis of global warming because almost all plastics are made from petrochemicals. ExxonMobil, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. and other oil giants are among the world’s biggest plastics makers. Plastic production, incineration and breakdown are major emitters of greenhouse gases. As the world reduces its use of fossil fuels, plastics will become the biggest driver of oil demand.
But the power of plastics propaganda has waned amid shocking images such as a viral video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose and the BBC-TV documentary Drowning in Plastic. Decades ago, “plastics” was a punch line in the film “The Graduate”. Now it is shorthand for the earth’s despoliation.
In 2007 San Francisco was the first of hundreds of U.S. cities to ban single-use plastic bags, and in 2014 California was the first of 10 states to ban them. Many cities have since banned plastic straws and other items. The European Union’s ban on most single-use plastics took effect last year.
The plastics industry was set back on its heels by its public black eye, and looked for a way to push back. At an industry conference in 2019, one corporate executive told Alice Mah, a professor of sociology at the University of Warwick in the U.K: “We need to get the image of plastic in oceans out of the public’s mind.”
Soon came an opening: the coronavirus pandemic.
In “Plastic Unlimited: How Corporations Are Fueling the Ecological Crisis and What We Can Do About It,” Mah says the industry saw the pandemic as an opportunity not to let a crisis go to waste.
Plastics were suddenly in greater demand to make masks, gloves and other protective equipment, and the industry touted its role in guarding public health. Armed with studies showing the virus could linger on reusable plastic bags, the industry argued that single-use bags were safer, and won temporary rollbacks of some bag bans, including California’s.
Meanwhile, consumers shunned in-store shopping and eating in restaurants, sending use of plastic packaging and takeout containers soaring. That meant more waste going to leaky landfills or toxics-spewing incinerators or washed into rivers and oceans. Even before the pandemic boom in online shopping, Amazon was estimated to generate 465 million pounds of plastic waste a year.
But recently there are hopeful, if limited, signs of progress.
In June, the U.S. Interior Department banned the sale of single-use plastics in national parks and public lands by 2032.
In July, California passed a landmark law requiring all plastic packaging and food ware items to be recyclable, compostable or reusable within ten years. The law requires reduced production of all plastic by 25 percent in the same period.
The new law also aims to shift the cost and burden of recycling from consumers to manufacturers. Maine, Oregon and Colorado have passed similar extended producer responsibility laws. But since California is the nation’s largest market, its law could have a much wider ripple effect.
Another new California law prohibits cities from counting plastic sent to “waste-to-energy” incinerators toward their mandated recycling targets. California has two such incinerators, which produce little energy but pollute surrounding communities with toxic air pollution.
Mark Murray, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Californians Against Waste, said the new packaging law sets “critically important standards” for reducing sources of plastic pollution and increasing “real” recycling, not burning or exporting it. But its success is “100 percent” dependent on industry action.
“Some leaders in the consumer products industry see that their future access to plastic packaging is dependent on their demonstration of real recycling,” Murray said. “But much of the plastics industry still hopes to milk profits from cheap plastic for as long as possible.”
In March, 175 member states of the United Nations agreed to work toward a binding global plastics treaty, with a first draft scheduled for 2024. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) called it the most significant international agreement since the Paris climate accords of 2015.
“The UNEP agreement is truly groundbreaking – but only if it results in a treaty that takes on the full life cycle of plastics,” said Christie Keith, executive director for the US arm of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), an international zero-waste advocacy network. (I consulted for GAIA in 2012.)
For zero-waste crusaders, she said, the “holy grail” is limiting plastics production.
“The industry will lobby for a treaty that says more plastic is OK as long as we have recycling,” Keith said. “But only a small percentage of plastics recycling is legitimate – most ‘recycling’ is incineration or shipping rich countries’ waste to developing nations. The industry says it supports a treaty, but it’s the same old bait-and-switch.”
No more ‘wishcycling’
In her book, Mah writes: “After a deluge of depressing facts, the majority of books, films and reports about the plastics crisis reach the same willfully hopeful conclusion: that you can make a difference, by reducing your consumption of single-use plastics, recycling and reusing, and, if you’re really keen, going on beach clean-ups and raising community awareness.”
That’s true — as far as it goes. Putting the blame for plastics pollution where it belongs doesn’t relieve our responsibilities as environmental citizens.
But we shouldn’t be duped into easing our guilt by “wishcycling” – dumping cheap, single-use plastics into the recycling bin without thinking about where they end up.
Nor should we trust Big Plastic’s promises about its commitment to stem the spread of the plastics pandemic.
Mah’s book contains this quote from an industry scientist: “There are only two reasons the plastics industry will change: war or legislation.”
- Bill Walker has more than 40 years of experience as a journalist and environmental advocate. He lives in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
(Opinion columns published in The New Lede represent the views of the individual(s) authoring the columns and not necessarily the perspectives of TNL editors.)