Is There Life Beyond Plastic?

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2020

By Robert C. Koehler


Yeah, it’s everywhere … not just in grocery store aisles and department stores and every other commercial outlet you can think of, not to mention your own cupboards and closets and trashcans, but on the grass and on the sidewalks, in the landfills, in the lakes and rivers, in the oceans. And it doesn’t go away. Ever.

You know, it doesn’t biodegrade. And “the vast majority of all plastic made up to now, will likely not be recycled,” Zoë Schlanger writes at Quartz. “And it will exist virtually forever, crumbling into microplastics that show up most everywhere scientists look for them.”

That would include, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: “a gyre of plastic debris in the north-central Pacific Ocean” about double the size of Texas. And even that’s just a small part of it: “At current rates plastic is expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050.

“Plastics pollution has a direct and deadly effect on wildlife. Thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals are killed each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it. . . .

“Dead seabirds are often found with stomachs full of plastic. . . . Dead whales have been found with bellies full of plastic.”

And, oh yeah: “In the first decade of this century, we made more plastic than all the plastic in history up to the year 2000. And every year, billions of pounds of more plastic end up in the world’s oceans. Studies estimate there are now 15-51 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans — from the equator to the poles, from Arctic ice sheets to the sea floor. Not one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution.”

All of which sets the context for another piece of news. Big Oil, you might say, has become the new Benjamin Braddock. I refer, of course, to that iconic moment in the 1967 movie The Graduate, in which Dustin Hoffman’s character, a recent college graduate, gets a shocking poke of career advice from an older guy: “Plastics!

The sarcastic humor of this iconic anti-establishment movie at the dawn of the late ’60s has, you might say, biodegraded somewhat more than the actual subject of the sarcasm. Plastic is too all-pervasive now to be as funny as it used to be. It’s simply part of life — not just our lives but the lives of every being on the planet. All of which sets the context for a recent bit of news, which has pulled my attention beyond the simmering social issues of the day, including the violence and racism that seem so impervious to change. Suddenly I find myself in a state of gasping incredulity that our long-term future seems to matter far less than . . . short-term profit for some.

Plastics! For Africa!

“Confronting a climate crisis that threatens the fossil fuel industry, oil companies are racing to make more plastic. But they face two problems: Many markets are already awash with plastic, and few countries are willing to be dumping grounds for the world’s plastic waste.”

So the New York Times informed us a few days ago, in a potpourri of ironic reporting. The climate crisis is “threatening” the fossil fuel industry? Not like the rest of us are threatened by it — by the planet become increasingly less habitable — but by the “inevitable decline” in the demand for fossil fuels. So the industry is “pivoting to plastics” to use up their oversupply of oil and gas, but faces two problems with this: Most markets are “awash” in plastic and, beyond that, we’re running out of countries to dump the plastic when it’s time to throw it away.

Before we go on, at least one question resonates like “a gyre of plastic debris.” Recycling stuff, which we claim to be doing, doesn’t actually mean . . . recycling it. It means shipping it to other countries to do whatever they want with it, which primarily means discarding it. So the question sits there. Why can’t the richest, most dominant country on Earth deal with — by which I mean, actually recycle and reuse — its own trash?

“In 2019, American exporters shipped more than 1 billion pounds of plastic waste to 96 countries including Kenya, ostensibly to be recycled, according to trade statistics. But much of the waste, often containing the hardest-to-recycle plastics, instead ends up in rivers and oceans.

“And after China closed its ports to most plastic trash in 2018, exporters have been looking for new dumping grounds. Exports to Africa more than quadrupled in 2019 from a year earlier.”

So Big Oil, focusing on Kenya as the hub, sees Africa as the place that will save it, both as marketplace and dumping ground. But there are a few problems with this. Kenya has recently enacted some strict regulations, banning plastic bags and other single-use plastic. And something known as the Basel Convention, an international treaty — unratified by the United States — puts restrictions on the ability of rich nations to ship unwanted trash to poor nations. But lobbyists for the oil industry are hoping to influence a U.S. trade agreement to pressure Kenya to ease up on its plastic restrictions and open the continent to both the industry’s products and its waste.

What are we doing to ourselves? Is there life beyond plastic? I certainly have no answers, but the questions flow without stop. And they won’t break down.