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On Plastics

On Plastics

By Sam Gutterman

I was with my family in Miami Beach. Beginning to swim in the Atlantic Ocean, I not only waded through a big clump of seaweed, but also a patch of plastic bags and candy wrappers. My initial reaction was revulsion—despoiling nature with empty Doritos bags!

While swimming around the buoys, I decided to do something, even if it was a small gesture. So, when I got back to shore, I picked up a couple dozen pieces of plastic trash and put them in the garbage bin. But that is just a drop in the ocean.

Though the focus of most environmental attention has been on climate change and at-risk wildlife, solid, water, and air pollution remain significant areas of concern and risks to human life and resources.

The goal could be to stop producing so much stuff, partly by eliminating unnecessary plastics. But plastics are cheap to produce and can be useful. As a result, the problem is massive and really hard to fix. Since World War II, plastics have become a necessity and ubiquitous, with lightness, durability, and low direct cost providing utility we depend on.

This challenge is ripe for risk management—identify the best strategy for society by focusing on prevention or reduction of its adverse effects (produce less stuff), followed by modifying practices and behaviors to help adapt (substitute less-damaging stuff).

I’ll try to do my personal part—­bringing market bags to the grocery store, using paper rather than plastic bags, and putting stuff in the “right” recycling bin. But compared with the total plastic produced/used, my tiny lifetime contribution seems puny. But if everyone thinks that way, we won’t, as a society, progress far.

OK, so we have to change somehow. How do we get people’s attention when fast food containers are both nonbiodegradable and inexpensive?

The term “microplastics” has been used for at least two decades—particles less than 5 millimeters. They can be dangerous, their use is expected to expand massively (170 trillion pieces floating around, doubling every six years), and their effects are anything but micro. They have infiltrated food, drinking water, and the air we breathe. They can come from synthetic materials in clothes, toys, household furnishings, tires, and city dust. They might be released into water or air, in marine food chains, and in immense floating garbage patches in the oceans.

Scientists are gradually uncovering their effects on our bodies, with trace amounts almost everywhere, including in our lungs and bloodstream. Long-term health effects remain uncertain, although I can’t imagine they are good for you.

Estimates of costs relating to plastics, including that related to cleanup, have ranged between $300 billion and $600 billion a year. We’re now using a trillion pounds of it a year—stunning when one considers plastics are ultra-lightweight by design. 

Take a circular approach to excessive plastic pollution:

promote reuse options, such as refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, and deposit-return. To make these work, a business case may have to be made. Systems and investments will be needed, but opportunities could arise. Instead of buying shampoo in plastic bottles, people might visit refill stores.

enhance recycling processes to make it profitable and convenient. So far, recycling hasn’t been sufficiently effective at the scale needed. Less than 10% is recycled, while the rest ends in landfills, as leaks into the environment, or burned. In the meantime, plastics have become more complicated and less recyclable. Extended producer responsibility could place more of the onus on producers through programs such as bottle-return systems (by financing collection, recycling, and end-of-life disposal).

carefully substitute products such as plastic wrappers with alternative materials such as paper or compostable materials.

A global framework could enable recycled materials to better compete with virgin materials by creating economies of scale and monitoring and financing mechanisms. Incentives such as taxes on plastic would make it more expensive to produce virgin plastic. Standards for the design and disposal of products and packaging, with recycling targets and making manufacturers more responsible for products that shed microplastics, will help.

The world seems to finally be getting serious about plastic pollution. Negotiation for a global plastic-pollution treaty is in process, with a goal of reaching a global treaty in late 2024.

Maybe the next time I go swimming in the Atlantic, I won’t have to swim through a bunch of plastic bags or swallow microplastics.

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