In recent years, various state and local governments banned “single-use” plastic bags. Never mind that some of us re-used them for groceries or other shopping, ultimately re-using them as trash bags. Now we have to buy plastic trash bags, and they actually are single use. Before this well-intended measure, Americans might have asked themselves, how many of those small plastic bags did they ever see blowing around out in the open air? Littering the roadsides or beaches? The honest answer would have been, very few. That’s because the United States is a wealthy nation, and wealthy nations have infrastructure its citizens often take for granted, including waste transport systems and engineered landfills (the ones lined to protect groundwater, and the ones capturing methane gas).
Less than 1% of plastic garbage in U.S. is mis-processed; ocean and beach garbage overwhelmingly originates from impoverished nations— though, ironically, these countries also receive plastic garbage for “processing” from wealthy nations. This is the old international garbage scow routine. Some of you might remember the Mobro 4000, a garbage scow in search of a port during 1987. Wealthy nations transporting massive amounts of garbage to impoverished nations is a decades-old practice.
The much-noted island of floating plastic in the Pacific Ocean (no longer so heavily covered by the news media) is clearly not originating from the United States or Canada in any major way, at least not directly. Instead, plastic ocean pollution overwhelmingly originates from impoverished nations that lack waste management infrastructure. When basic survival is at stake, engineered landfills are a luxury the poor cannot afford. Instead, the local river (like the Pasig River in the Philippines) often becomes the dump of choice.
Until fairly recently, the United States also used to dump garbage directly into rivers. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio actually caught on fire. The fuel? Petrochemical dumping on a massive scale. In fact, so many factories were dumping so many chemicals into the Cuyahoga and neighboring rivers that some feared Lake Erie would cease to support aquatic life. Fertilizer and pesticide runoff from farms was another source of Lake Erie’s problems. But the national wealth was comparatively high, President Nixon and Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency, and rivers, lakes, and oceans began to benefit. Basically we ceased massive dumping of petrochemicals, tannic acid from pulp mills, and yes, also household garbage. The fertilizer and pesticide runoff remains a problem, though there has been some improvement with companies like Land O’ Lakes utilizing satellite technology for precision application of fertilizer (and irrigation, for that matter).
Anyway, in a sense, plastic bag bans in the U.S. (along with banning plastic straws and cup lids) reflect merely yet another example of token environmentalism from the “environmentally worried elite” (to use Bjørn Lomborg’s evocative phrase). The environmentally worried elite were the folks who invented the misleading “single-use” plastic bag term in the first place. I’m sure I was not alone in always re-using those former grocery bags at least twice. Now the plastic garbage bags I buy end up in the same engineered landfill where my re-used grocery bags used to go.
Environmental remedies are notorious for their non-silver-bullet consequences. Recycling paper and cardboard requires enormous amounts of fresh water. Nice, if you can afford it. Recycling glass requires enormous heat and thus fossil fuel energy. Fossil fuel power plants overwhelming recharge electric cars, and besides such carbon energy sources, perhaps electric cars’ dirtiest secret involves their batteries’ requisite heavy metals, often mined at great human and environmental cost in (you guessed it) impoverished nations.
Ironically, cloth and paper bags substituting for plastic bags require far more energy to manufacture, and some of the “cloth” is actually acrylic fiber, and thus just plastic in different guise. The latter is a little too ironic. True, we use them over and over . . . but they gradually break down into microplastics. Microplastics are probably not the bogeyman that some make them out to be, but nevertheless.
All advocacy against plastic is very well intended, of course. But ultimately, a substitute for plastic is probably our best bet. Unfortunately, history is littered with ingenious inventions that stalled at the marketing level. I wonder if this is now happening with the Xyleco corporation, which manufactures a biodegradable plastic substitute?
Eliminating household plastic altogether would be an elegant improvement. We could even salvage discarded plastic as an energy source. Green engineers have also used bacteria to consume and eliminate plastic, a natural continuum from the bacteria that have consumed raw oil for millions of years (plastics being a product of petrochemicals). Ingenious engineers have been discovering such solutions for many years now (see references, below). However you define our environmental problems, it will be the scientists and engineers who address them most effectively. After all, it was our science and engineering that mainly led us to our current state of environmental affairs. The world once thought plastic was an ingenious invention. It still is, in many ways. But obviously we could use a major reboot when it comes to many plastic products, and plastic substitutes from the Xyleco corporation and others may be quite helpful.
Now that Americans are finally overcoming their phobia against the family of Cannabaceae plants, I wonder if we could begin substituting hemp for acrylic fiber fishing nets and ropes? Before the age of plastic, braided hemp rope was dominant in the maritime world. Hemp is famously strong and would not break down into microplastics. The long term consequences of marine life ingesting microplastics remains to be seen, but somehow I think ingesting microhemp particles would be closer to the benign side of the scale.
Copyright © Will Sarvis, 2020; revised and re-posted, March 2022. All rights reserved.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
BBC News, “Malaysia Returns 42 Containers of ‘Illegal’ Plastic Waste to UK,” (Jan. 21, 2020).
Charles Q. Choi, “Plastic-Eating Bacteria Could Help Make Trash Disappear,” Livescience.com (March 11, 2016).
Earth Day Organization, “Top 20 Countries Ranked by Mass of Mismanaged Plastic Waste,” (April 22, 2018).
Laurent C.M. Lebreton, et al, “River Plastic Emissions to the World’s Oceans
Nature Communications (June 7, 2017).
Bjørn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pr., 2001).
Ben Lillie, “A Local Bacteria to Solve a Local Problem: Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao at TED2013,” TED Talks Blog (Feb. 27, 2013).
Daniel Robison, “Startup Converts Plastic to Oil, and Finds a Niche,” NPR’s Morning Edition (March 19, 2012).
Jonathan R. Russell, et al, “Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi,” Applied and Environmental Microbiology 77, no. 17 (Sept. 2011): 6076–6084.
Stacey Vanek Smith, “Why Banning Plastic Grocery Bags Could Be A Bad Move,” NPR’s Morning Edition (May 23, 2019).
Leslie Stahl, “The Inventor Turning Plant Life into Biofuel,” 60 Minutes (Jan. 6, 2019).
Lesley Stahl, “Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford and The Changing Landscape of America’s Farms,” 60 Minutes (Oct. 6, 2019).
Gosia Wozniacka, “Plastic To-Go Containers Are Bad, But Are the Alternatives Any Better?” Civil Eats (Jan. 14, 2020).