Thursday, May 5, 2011

Swimming Upstream

I hear talk that the tide is turning in the fight against plastic pollution. That laws are being passed, people are waking up, corporations are coming up with solutions. A sense of hope that scenes like this:
Ocean Park, Maine
or this:
Albatross belly, Midway Atoll, North Pacific
will soon be a thing of the past.

Reality check. Corporations are not poised to shun plastic. Quite the opposite. In our household, no product we've been using has turned away from plastic. In fact, we've noticed:

* Snapple, formerly bottled in glass, is now bottled in #1 PET.
* Honest Tea, formerly bottled in glass, is now bottled in #1 PET.
* Noxzema, formerly bottled in glass, is now bottled in #5 PP.
* Nivea aftershave, formerly glass, now unidentified plastic.
* Tom's of Maine toothpaste, once aluminum, now unid'ed plastic.

Among others.

The trend is global. In Europe, the plastic industry is nearing a tipping point: public acceptance of #1 plastic for beer/wine. Long a stronghold of glass, beer has begun to come in plastic in Eastern Europe. It's poised to enter the massive Western market. Elsewhere, Coke in Indonesia is ramping up its single-use #1 PET bottles in a nation that already can't handle the waste produced today.

More insidious is the trend to bioplastics. Turning food or compost into persistent, undecomposable polymers is folly. Yet self-described "green" blogs have fawned over the announcements, with only a few voices doing honest journalism and asking questions.

Couple this with high-profile failures in the Bottle-2-Bottle recycling world. In March, Coke quietly pulled the plug on its vaunted plant in Spartanburg, SC. This happened at precisely the same time that a rep from Coke was addressing the Marine Debris Conference, touting its commitment to recycling. Turns out that, surprising nobody, turning old plastic into new, food-quality plastic is extremely hard. Even "easy to recycle" #1 PET.

More and more of what we use is made of plastic. Whether that plastic is from oil, gas, compost, or sugarcane, it's still persistent, hard to refashion cleanly & cheaply, and deadly once in the environment. Millions of tons of new, virgin plastic are created each year. The old "recycled" stuff mostly becomes cheap feedstock for the stuff you see & buy at big box retailers.

Look at everything in your house that isn't yet made of plastic. Somewhere, there's an engineer in a company trying to change that. And some of every new thing made from plastic that was formerly made from paper, glass, wood, aluminum, steel, or anything else will end up in our persistently polluted oceans.

There are real successes in curbing the spread of this waste. Plastic bag bans and taxes are slowly making headway, despite the efforts of the American Chemistry Council with its dishonest "Bag the Ban" Web site and the equally misleading "Save the Plastic Bag" operation. A 9-year-old boy in Vermont is opening many eyes to the silliness of throwing away 500 million plastic straws a day. And speaking of tipping points, I'm an optimist that there will be a global tipping point against this rampant, unchecked pollution.

But for now, those of us who see the damage that our plastic world is causing have to be honest: The reach of plastics is growing, not shrinking. If we recognize and admit that, there's a better chance we can do something about it.

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