Fantastic Plastics – Revisiting Waste

Fantastic plastic? Not anymore! The miraculous material of the 1940s is now haunting consumers and retailers. Morbid photos of deceased marine life with stomachs exploding with plastic bags, bottles, and cups flood our newsfeeds. David Attenborough elegantly shames us while showing how rubbish from Oklahoma ends up strangling a tortoise in a distant sea. Humanity’s trash has become globalized and commercialized, increasingly intertwined and expanding this last decade. So this post and the following post will explore how trash plays a role in our lives and what cultural and economic implications can be drawn, with some insight from the Chinese context.

Straws

The movement to reduce plastic consumption has accumulated over the past several months focusing on plastic straws. Last week, Seattle was the first US city to ban them, and a couple weeks ago McDonalds announced it would be phasing out plastic straws and moving towards paper straws.

 

waterflea
Ingested microplastics in a waterflea. Image from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-health-pollution-waste-microplastics/

However, some suggest switching to paper straws would not be cost effective since the shelf life of paper straws is much shorter than that of plastic ones. Additionally, some paper straws get mushy after about a minute of use, so consumers may not enjoy that aesthetic. Others have suggested use of metal straws in restaurants, but restaurant owners are resistant due to the potential cost of having to buy and replace these items (since lost silverware is a common occurrence).

But, with all this fuss, do we really need straws (acknowledging some need them if hospitalized or disabled)? For iced beverages, can’t the sippy-style cups used for hot drinks be used? Starbucks has invested in creating such a cup. This is the kind of innovation that could, paradoxically, help make our consumer culture less consumptive. But, at the same time, eliminating plastic cups all together would be even better!

Granted, plastic straws are only a small percentage of the global plastic problem, but they provide a good example of how retail and food companies have contributed to non-eco-friendly culture. Drinks automatically come with straws in them, just as at CVS, for example, giant receipts are printed without giving customers an option. Campaigns encourage customers to “say no to straws” and speak up.

Bagging Knowledge

Strangely enough, in the early days of plastics, the plastic bag industry had to persuade people to use them. A Swedish engineer patented plastic bags in 1962. Shoppers didn’t like the feel of the bags or the fact that they could not stand up. Companies gradually convinced consumers of the durable, waterproof, lightweight and flexible qualities of the bags that flat-bottom bags did not have. Now the industry in the US has a campaign of its own to prevent plastic bag bans (“Bag the Ban”), stating that plastic bags are a scapegoat and are more reusable and consume fewer materials to produce than paper or fabric bags.

plasticbag
An early American plastic bag. Image from: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/10/how-the-plastic-bag-became-so-popular/381065/ 

To their point, there is still limited knowledge about plastic bag consumption and effects. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that plastic bags make up just 3 percent of global plastics usage and measuring the remaining 97 percent of plastic consumption will be a challenge as governments try to control usage. If this is true, perhaps we should shift focus from straws and plastic bags and look at how to reduce plastics in other everyday common items.

Some studies have been conducted to measure amounts of plastics in the ocean. UK government scientists compiled data on 25 years of plastic trawled from the seabed around the UK. Findings of this study show a reduced number of plastics, perhaps attributable to the government’s policies to reduce plastics usage. We also know that plastics harm marine life, and recent studies also suggest chemicals from plastics ingested by fish may be passed on to us when we eat them. Further studies will surely help inform policies and behaviors to reduce plastics usage.

Economic (Un)Development

This plastics phenomenon is also closely linked with economic development. Studies show growth in global demand for film and sheet categories, likely attributable to middle class expansion in countries such as China and India. Rural Chinese residents that previously shopped for food at markets or grew and farmed food in their backyards, now find themselves with trash problems brought by fast food and consumer culture. Prepackaged foods and plastic goods become desirable, and the waste management system struggles to keep up, riverbanks littered with plastic bags, bottles, and wrappers. A finding from my dissertation research in 2016 was that ecotourism leaders were concerned about waste build-up in Tibetan areas, and how local residents did not know how to dispose of certain objects. This concern was so grave that each interviewed group had volunteer trips dedicated to helping pick up trash.

2016-08-20
Rubbish collected from a volunteer trip organized by an ecotourism group in Qinghai Province, China. 

Plastic-less grocery stores have started cropping up in London and across the US. Some grocery stores are creating plastic-less aisles. But how can this trend be made more mainstream and scalable and less niche? Additionally, how can developing regions be encouraged to leapfrog or even “undevelop”? Telling rural residents of developing nations to go back to farming their food may be seen as a condescending slight–“We don’t want you to modernize!”

Other social implications of going plastic-less are the jobs lost by those in plastic manufacturing industries (the plastic bag industry estimated to employ 30,000 in 2013). But, similar to the energy sector, industries reliant on plastics will have to adjust. Easier said than done, of course, and plastic just happens to be a trendy environmental cause at the moment, with visual evidence disturbing us and David Attenborough’s voice echoing through our psyche. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a plastics solution and not just a blip in the environmental fight.

The next post will explore a less talked about, but equally troublesome waste topic, where China is playing a leading role.

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