Climate Corner: Eliminate single-use plastics, starting now
Jul 8, 2023
Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Corner (Photo Illustration/MetroCreative)
This month, Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action (MOVCA) is observing plastic-free July, a global event coordinated by the Plastic Free Foundation to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of single-use, “disposable” plastics, starting with committing to change our habits for the month of July. Single-use plastics are items like the water or pop bottles you get from a vending machine, plastic utensils, plates, drinking cups, shopping bags, yogurt or pudding cups, Styrofoam containers, candy wrappers, fruit and vegetable bags you pull off the roll at the grocery store, bread bags and other plastic food packaging.
MOVCA will have billboards at four locations, two in Parkersburg and two in Marietta, run TV and radio public service announcements, and I myself recently appeared on an interview with WTAP to serve as reminders of these July efforts. You can find a monthly calendar of events and ideas, including three presentations and two film showings on the issue of plastics pollution, on our website at movclimateaction.org. You can also visit plasticfreejuly.org to sign-up to take the global challenge along with millions of others (a link is on day one of our calendar).
Plastics are ubiquitous in our lives. They’re everywhere. But we focus on single-use plastics because these make up about 40% of the global plastics market and could be eliminated, with the right consumer choices and public policy incentives and mandates, relatively quickly. Recycling is pushed by industry and sycophantic politicians as a long-term or even permanent solution to global plastics contamination, but it simply isn’t. Plastics recycling is a worthwhile endeavor to try to limit the plastics going into landfills and entering our waterways and oceans for as long as possible, but it’s a Band-Aid on a gaping wound, at best.
There are seven types of plastic: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET); High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE); Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC); Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE); Polypropylene (PP); Polystyrene or Styrofoam (PS); and miscellaneous plastics that include polycarbonate, polylactide, acrylic, acrylonitrile butadiene, styrene, fiberglass and nylon. The only types of plastic that actually get recycled on any consistent basis are labeled as types 1, 2 and 5 in those now highly recognizable triangular arrow symbols–#1 is PETE or PET, #2 is HDPE and #5 is PP. The Marietta Recycling Center accepts #5 because there is a local business that makes use of it, but the Parkersburg Recycling Center does not. Parkersburg only accepts #1 and #2.
Even recyclable plastics can only be recycled once or twice, at most. Beyond that they go right into the waste stream recycling is said to avoid. Producing “virgin” or new plastics is cheaper than using recycled plastics the vast majority of the time (an issue public policy must address). Globally, only 9% of the plastics produced annually get recycled. Over 800 billion pounds of plastics are currently produced across the globe annually, and this production level is set to double or even triple by mid-century!
So, what’s the big deal? Why should we be so focused on this plastics pollution crisis? Why do we even refer to it as a crisis? Plastics take centuries or even millennia to break down. As they do, they don’t simply disappear, but become what are referred to as microplastic and nanoplastic particles. These particles have entered our water cycle (it literally rains plastics) and can be found virtually everywhere on our planet, from the most remote regions of the Artic and Antarctic to the bottom of the Mariana Trench over 36,000 feet into the Pacific Ocean’s depths.
To understand the dangers of the presence of these synthetic materials, I will quote extensively from a piece in The New Yorker by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist, Elizabeth Kolbert:
“Plastics are made from the by-products of oil and gas refining; many of the chemicals involved, such as benzene and vinyl chloride, are carcinogens. In addition to their main ingredients, plastics may contain any number of additives. Many of these–for example, polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, which confer water resistance–are also suspected carcinogens [I interject here that the almost 70,000-person DuPont Health Study on C8, a PFOA in the PFAS family, definitively linked C8 exposure to six debilitating and deadly diseases]. Many of the others have never been adequately tested.”
Kolbert continues, “As plastics fall apart, the chemicals that went into their manufacture can leak out. These can combine to form new compounds, which may prove less dangerous than the originals–or more so.” Kolbert then discusses a study by American scientists who exposed CVS and Walmart shopping bags to the conditions they would encounter in our oceans and found that the CVS bags leached more than thirteen thousand compounds and the Walmart bags leached more than fifteen thousand!
Plastics and petrochemicals are a major focus of investment by the fossil fuels industry going forward as they lose revenue to renewables, EVs, sustainable agriculture and greater energy efficiency measures. We’ve each got to do our part to address this global crisis by eliminating single-use plastics and changing policies so that we can engineer safer and cleaner alternatives to the rest!
Eric Engle is chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.