How to (really) give good riddance to plastic

In the 1850s, what is now called bioplastic – a material derived primarily from plants – was developed to replace rapidly depleting resources such as ivory and tortoise shell. Since then, this commodity and its ubiquitous and eternal petrochemical cousins ​​have shaped the modern age, accelerating innovation as well as pollution and exploitation.

Sierra readers are well aware of the consequences of plastic – you don’t need a lecture on the dangers of single-use straws. But new research confirms that plastic is even more destructive than previously thought. It is a major contributor to climate change. Today, more than 99% of all plastics are derived from fossil fuels. Between its reliance on oil and gas extraction and its polluting production process, the U.S. plastics industry emits 232 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, equivalent to the emissions of 116 power plants around the world. coal. Despite the scale of the problem, half of all plastics are designed to be used only once and only 9% have ever been recycled.

The plastic and fossil fuel industries have used the promise of recycling in deceptive marketing for decades, perpetuating production while blaming consumers for plastic pollution. You can disrupt this status quo by pushing back against the entities truly responsible for this mess. Here’s how we, as individuals, consumers and voters, can lead the movement against the scourge of plastic.

Beyond recycling: tackling plastic pollution from all angles

The illustration shows a coat rack with two hanging shirts.

start at home

Zero waste is a privilege for most, so prioritize progress over perfection. Here are some effective ways to focus.

Buy with a purpose
These days, companies make all kinds of products from recycled plastic, but consumers should view sustainability claims with caution. A little research into a company’s practices goes a long way.

Clean out your closet
Cheap clothes made from plastic fabrics like polyester have made textiles the second largest plastic waste sector after packaging. Organic hemps, cottons and recycled synthetic fabrics are the greenest alternatives to wearing virgin plastic. Less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new fibers, so donate old yarn and buy used.

Limit desirable recycling
Municipalities that cut costs reduce their recycling programs. Look at what your local recycling center handles and use less of what they can’t.

Compost carefully
Many compostable plastics require industrial-scale processes to break down, but few facilities incorporate them. In landfills and incinerators, compostable products emit methane and other planet-warming gases, negating their potential benefits. Unfortunately, most of today’s “compostable” plastics simply aren’t.

Focus on business

The illustration shows glasses next to a plastic water bottle.

Companies can meet the demand for sustainable products by co-creating a circular economy for plastics with their customers, generating jobs, improving communities and reducing harm. They can also invest in natural alternatives to fossil fuel plastics, such as products made from algae, mycelium or bacteria.

Lobby companies to develop closed-loop and open-loop product designs that reduce reliance on virgin plastics. Teva, for example, uses 100% recycled plastic for its sandal straps and transforms used sandals into new materials, while Dell reinjects millions of pounds of computer plastic into new products. Hospitals recycle non-infectious medical waste like oxygen masks and IV bags. Even Coca-Cola has pledged to collect, recycle and reuse by 2030 the equivalent of the plastic it produces.

Unfortunately, most of today’s “compostable” plastics simply aren’t.

Look for companies that have buy-back programs and those that make products from salvaged goods. Genusee, for example, makes glasses from water bottles left over from the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and offers customers credits in exchange for their worn-out glasses.

Encourage businesses to support a binding UN treaty on plastic pollution, which would impose national reduction targets, harmonize regulatory standards and support critical recycling infrastructure internationally.

Working with legislators

Low-income communities and communities of color around the world are disproportionately burdened by plastic production and waste. Lobby elected officials to restrict the plastics industry and prioritize environmental justice and fossil fuel divestment.

Ask lawmakers to pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, reintroduced by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and California Representative Alan Lowenthal in 2021, which would make companies financially responsible for their packaging through extended liability programs producers, phase out some single-use plastics, pause the construction and expansion of plastic manufacturing facilities, and stop exporting plastic waste to developing countries.

This article appeared in the Spring 2022 quarterly edition with the title “How to (really) give good riddance to plastic.

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