It’s imperative to make progress with plastics

“Plastics production and pollution have become a threat to life on the planet.”

  • Wednesday, June 5, 2019 12:53pm
  • Opinion
Will Lockwood.

Will Lockwood.

Good news from Olympia: the last Washington State legislative session passed two bills to evaluate options for improving plastics recycling.

SB 5397 directs an independent study of the amount and types of plastic packaging coming into the state and the disposal and recycling of that packaging, including costs. Producer responsibility programs and industry-based initiatives will be compiled.

HB 1543 creates a recycling development center to research new markets and expand existing markets for recycled commodities and recycling facilities. It requires the Department of Ecology to create and implement a statewide recycling contamination reduction and outreach plan for recycling and provide assistance to local jurisdictions to do so.

But bills to ban some single-use plastics did not make it through the House.

These bills begin to address the huge problem of plastic waste. The effects of plastic waste are global and getting worse. Less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, on the ground, in waters and the air. Every year, more than 8 million tons of plastics enter our oceans, adding to the estimated 165 million tons that currently circulate our seas. Plastic production is expected to increase by 40% in the next 10 years.

A new report by the Center for International Environmental Law states that in 2019, the plastics industry is on track to release as much greenhouse gas pollution as 189 new coal-fired power plants running year-round. The industry plans to expand so rapidly that by 2030, it will create 1.34 gigatons of climate-changing emissions a year, equal to 295 coal plants. Cheap fracked gas and other feedstocks are fueling industry growth.

These plastics take hundreds of years to break down, and they don’t go away. They just become smaller fragments of micro and nanoplastic particles, which are working their way up the food chain with unknown effects on ecosystems. This exponential rise is unsustainable. Plastics production and pollution have become a threat to life on the planet.

The situation got more complicated when China started refusing soiled recycling in 2018. Combined recycling has made it easier for the consumer and the hauler, but the process of extracting recyclables into separate components is not efficient enough to prevent unacceptable levels of contamination. As a result, some places have stopped recycling. Those municipalities that are still collecting recycling are having a hard time finding places to sell it.

How did we get here, and what are some solutions to this global problem that didn’t exist as recently as 1960, when the world produced about one-fiftieth of the current volume of plastics?

“The future is plastics” in the 1967 movie “The Graduate” is often thought of as the turning point. Plastics were sold as modern solutions to everything from packaging to product design. We’ve become dependent on this miracle product and are suffering the unintended consequences. After a product is manufactured, the downstream problems are passed on to the consumer and taxpayer. More than 40% of plastics are used only once.

In this take-make-dispose linear economy, the value of materials is lost. Europe started addressing this issue in the 1990s with a series of regulations that shifted the waste problem from the municipality to the producer by making them responsible for resources cradle to grave. This has led to a dramatic decrease in landfills in Europe, replaced by aggressive recycling programs in large part funded by the product producers. The linear waste cycle has been replaced by a more circular economy where waste becomes resource again.

Another solution in several countries has been an outright ban on some types of single-use plastics, such as plastic bags or straws. Another alternative is to incinerate the waste to generate power and heating. This practice is common in Scandinavia and Japan. All of these options are being explored now in the U.S. to some degree, and Washington State will research how we can improve processes here.

Most plastics are recyclable, but solving the waste problem is complex. Better sorting equipment is needed to reduce contamination. Petrochemical plants need to switch to chemical recycling instead of using raw materials. Better local methods for collection and preprocessing would add value that could help fund more local recycling. Better packaging could eliminate unrecyclable plastics.

The new legislation may eventually help Vashon to recycle more efficiently. Zero Waste Vashon will be watching progress and pushing for new solutions. In the meantime, most of us could probably do with a lot less stuff. Plastics last almost forever. They should be used wisely.

— Will Lockwood is a board member of Zero Waste Vashon. He has managed the waste to garden and electronics recycling projects on the island.

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