Plastic waste is becoming a major scourge of civilization. The trend had humble beginnings in the 60s, when scientists were discovering hundreds of new uses for the complex chains of hydrocarbons that make up a barrel of oil. In the 1967 Mike Nichols movie The Graduate, young Ben Braddock is home from college and contemplating what the future might have in store. One of his father’s well meaning friends had a word of advice to shake Ben out of his ennui — Plastics. “Exactly how do you mean?” asked Ben. Good question.
50 Years Of Plastic Waste
Now 50 years later, mankind depends on thousands of products made from plastics. The stuff is tough. It doesn’t rot. It can be molded into complex shapes and it doesn’t breakdown naturally. In fact, getting rid of plastic waste is almost impossible. The plastic industry relies on much the same economic basis as fossil fuels. It does not pay the the costs associated with using its products. Those costs are an “untaxed externality,” just as the damage done by extracting fossil fuels is passed off on society to bear.
Imagine if a developer built an apartment house next to your home and piped all the sewage from it onto your back lawn, leaving you to clean up the mess. That’s a graphic but accurate description of an “untaxed externality.” Elon Musk calls the fact that fossil fuels companies escape paying for the damage they cause the “turd in the punch bowl.” Same analogy, just prettied up a bit.
Plastic Waste Threatens Sea Creatures
Much of the world’s plastic waste gets dumped into the oceans where it can float for centuries. Sea creatures ingest it, leading to disfigurement and death. A recent report by New Zealand news site Stuff says one third of all dead sea turtles that wash up on its beaches have eaten plastic bags floating in the water.
Dan Godoy, a researcher at Coastal Marine Research Group of Massey University says the turtles’ intestinal tract gets blocked when they mistake soft plastics for jellyfish. “They can’t digest food, and they basically slowly die,” Godoy says. “In the turtles that I’ve looked at, and [from] other studies around the world, it’s the soft, white, and translucent plastics items — so plastic bags particularly — that are consumed in a higher proportion than other items.”
While many developed countries are taking aggressive steps to keep plastic waste out of the oceans, many developing countries have no recycling programs in place. Weak central governments are unable to impose restrictions that can be enforced and the cost of disposing of the waste is seen as an unnecessary drag on fragile local economies. Even the most remote islands in the world are littered with millions of pieces of plastic waste.
Awareness Programs Around The World
In Australia, the local ABC news affiliate is sponsoring a War On Waste campaign designed to educate viewers to the problem. Part of that effort is a Plastic Free July program that focuses on one use food containers that restaurants, delis, and grocery stores use by the millions so people can transport food home safely. ABC is asking people to refuse to accept food that is packaged in such one use containers. The Plastic Pollution Coalition is asking people to give up using plastic straws, most of which wind up in land fills or oceans.
Many groups are promoting awareness of the danger plastic waste poses, especially for oceans. One of the teams in this year’s Volvo Ocean Race is dedicated to educating people about plastic waste in the ocean and one of Norway’s wealthiest citizens is building a superyacht that will serve as floating laboratory for ocean research.
The answer, of course, is the same as it is for ending fossil fuel pollution — force the polluters to pay for the mess they make. It is a fatal flaw in capitalist theory that the profits of an enterprise should be privatized while the costs are socialized. That is plainly a recipe for abuse.
8 Ways To Reduce Plastic Waste
A video prepared by BrightVibes offers eight ways to reduce or eliminate plastic waste. Here they are in no particular order:
- Stop using plastic knives, forks, and spoons. Use bamboo cutlery instead.
- Stop using plastic straws. It’s OK to sip beverages from a glass or a cup.
- Stop buying water in plastic bottles. Use reusable containers instead.
- Stop using take-away coffee cups.
- Stop using a toothbrush with a plastic handle. Bamboo substitutes are available.
- Just say no to plastic bags. Bring reusable bags with you to the grocery store.
- Decline to use plastic take-away food containers.
- Avoid buying products packaged in plastic.
That’s a short list of simple things we all can do to reduce plastic waste. Don’t underestimate the power of lots of people acting individually to make a difference. Think globally; act locally.