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The Plastics Problem: Identifying False Solutions, Part 1

The scope of our plastic pollution problem is well known. Plastic escapes into the environment at all stages of its life cycle. Once in the environment, most plastic finds its way into waterways and breaks down into microplastics. Those microplastics can be consumed by fish, birds, and other wildlife, and they are finding their way into drinking water, air, and even people’s bodies and placentas.

A recent report by PennEnvironment found that 100% of the Pennsylvania waterways sampled contained microplastics. Additionally, plastics contain a host of potentially toxic chemicals like BPA, flame retardants, and phthalates. These toxins can also be found in the environment, in wildlife, and in our own bodies.

What is not fully known are the long term impacts that plastic pollution will have on human and environmental health. A 2019 report from Center for International Environmental Law reviewed the health impacts of plastic from cradle to grave. They reported that human exposure to plastic has been linked to a wide variety of human health issues including inflammation of several different organ systems, developmental toxicity, and cancer. 

The crisis is here and can no longer be ignored. The plastic industry knows this and is forming partnerships across the world to come up with solutions to address plastic pollution. The industry has proposed improved recyclability and recycling infrastructure and new end uses for plastics like chemical recycling and plastics to energy plants (See PennFuture’s blog Recycling is Exacerbating the Plastic Waste Crisis). However, proposals to reduce plastic production and use are rare. In fact, the industry is actively increasing their infrastructure and the World Economic Forum has estimated that production of plastics will quadruple by 2050 in a business as usual scenario.

While improving recycling infrastructure worldwide may play a role in keeping plastic out of the environment, there is good reason to be skeptical of recycling as THE solution to the plastic crisis. Despite the fact that plastic recycling has been widely available for decades, only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled. In 2018, China closed its borders to contaminated plastic waste, exposing the ugly truth - that the system was and always has been broken. The farce of plastic recycling was further exposed by NPR and PBS Frontline in 2020. The investigation found that the plastic industry had spent millions of dollars supporting recycling programs, despite the fact that they knew the system was doomed to fail, in order to sell more plastic.

New end uses for plastic like chemical or advanced “recycling” and plastic to energy plants are being proposed by the plastic industry as solutions to the plastic problem. They go so far as to say this is part of a circular economy. However, the products of chemical recycling are most often burned, contributing more greenhouse gases and pollutants to our already overburdened atmosphere.

Communities are bearing the brunt of plastic pollution and the costs of cleaning it up. The plastic industry should not be relied upon to solve this problem in a way that benefits them. Instead policies that reduce plastic production and use are needed. These policies should:

  • Eliminate subsidies to fossil fuel companies that contribute to low plastic prices and overabundance of fracked gas;
  • Hold companies accountable for the life of their plastic products and their negative impacts to the environment; 
  • Promote zero waste solutions and true circular economies that design waste out of the equation and do not rely on burning as an end use;
  • Empower municipalities to address the plastic pollution plaguing them by eliminating pre-emption laws.

The Zero Waste PA legislative package and federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act are examples of state and federal policies to address the plastic crisis. California’s plastic bag ban is an example of a policy that has been effective in dramatically reducing the use of plastic bags and the bags found in the environment. The solution to the plastic crisis is not simple, but it is clear - reducing plastic production and use is the only way to definitively keep plastic out of the environment and our bodies.

This is Part 1 of The Plastics Problem: Identifying False Solutions series. Stay tuned for Part 2 to learn about Philadelphia’s 2019 plastic bag ban and problems with preemption laws.

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