The age of disposable plastic is over. Last month, on Oct. 1, the Progressive Bag Alliance posted an article titled "Plastic bags can be recycled" in response to a Juneau citizen alarmed by mountains of plastic trash washing ashore. On that same day, our research vessel, the ORV Alguita, arrived in Hawaii after a 2,000-mile journey across the North Pacific Ocean. This is the fifth time Capt. Charles Moore has dragged his fine-mesh nets across the ocean surface to document plastic trash accumulating 1,000 miles west of the United States.
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In 1999, we found that the weight of plastic was six times greater than that of all marine life on the ocean surface. What's the news for 2007? After processing a handful of samples from this recent voyage, the estimates are 30 to 1. That's a five-fold increase in less than a decade. The estimated weight of plastic floating in the North Pacific is 15 million tons. In short, if we want to sustain our ocean's ecosystems, including the priceless benefits we get from them, then we must accept that the age of disposable plastic is over.
The Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry-based organization made up of Advance Polybag, Inteplast and Superbag, which account for billions of bags annually, suggests more recycling centers, recycling bins in stores, and more public education. In their article, they stated that "Plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable." There's the rub. An aluminum can or glass bottle can be melted to manufacture another can or bottle. It's technically and economically feasible to do so. Plastic bags, cups and bottles, however, are destined to become lesser-grade products, like plastic lumber, carpeting, garbage cans, and a few other products, a process William McDonough and Michael Braungart call Downcycling in their book "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things." You could also call it "One step away from the landfill," since the secondary products are typically not reused. The plastics industry will argue that technically a plastic bag can be made into a plastic bag again, and there are claims that recycled plastic is cheaper than using virgin plastics for the production of bags.
However, if you consider the cost of collecting, cleaning, sorting, transporting and remanufacturing used bags, then I cannot see how it is cheaper. And besides, if it were cheaper we would see more plastic bags with recycled content on the market.
I just visited Puente Hills Landfill, the largest site of its kind in the U.S., which is set to close in 2013. Virtually all of their reclaimed plastic waste goes to China. There are just no significant markets in the U.S. that want used plastic. Turning used plastic bags into new plastic bags is a novelty, a few companies do it, but it is not an economic reality.
There is no proper way of disposing of plastics. Burning plastic is in fact not a viable solution either, since the process releases dioxins and other compounds that are known to be harmful to humans. Some people suggest burning plastic as a fuel source, but this process gives rise to the same issues that surround burning any fossil fuel.
I recently sat on a five-member panel to discuss a proposed ban on plastic bags and polystyrene in Long Beach, Calif. I was joined by representatives from the alliance, the American Chemistry Council (formerly American Plastics Council), and a commercial plastics recycler. They corroborated the same story about paper being no lesser of an evil than plastic. They even went on to say that reusable bags would not solve the plastic plague either. In short, they urged the city to stick to plastic bags, and if anything, educate the public to recycle. No one mentioned bringing your own cloth bag to the store until the fifth panelist stood up. Representing the city of Santa Monica, Josephine Miller described the city's success after banning polystyrene.
"Behavioral change can happen quickly after bans are implemented," she said. She explained the necessity of legislation to get people moving in the direction of positive change, and she presented local businesses thriving after implementing alternatives, like bioplastic and paper products.
"Plastic bans work," she concluded.
Currently, the United States produces over 120 billion pounds of oil-based plastic each year. Virtually all of it is destined for a landfill or ends up in the environment somewhere. Less than 4 percent enters recycling centers, and once again, that plastic is reused to make products that typically will not be used again. The cost to our collective world in terms of environmental damage by plastic ingestion and strangulation, industrial nuisance of plastics around propellers and in engine intake systems, toxic effects of ingested plastic debris on marine life and our fisheries, toxins released during the production of plastics, the detrimental effects on human health, make disposable plastics too costly to continue. The age of disposable plastic is over.
Marcus Eriksen, Ph.D., is the director of Research and Education, Algalita Marine Research Foundation. He devised and built the ship Plastic Poison for Turning The Tides, a Juneau grass-roots nonprofit working to promote environmentally-friendly living and alternatives to plastics. To contact the organization, call 907-789-0449 or visit www.turningthetides.org. Turning The Tides' next meeting will be Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 5:30 p.m. in the big conference room of the downtown library