The first firm to figure out how to put a complete plastic recycling facility inside a shipping container is going to make a lot of money.
THE PERMANENCE OF PLASTIC
A plastic straw for your drink. A fork, a spoon. Plastic and Styrofoam wrap for your leftover foods. Single use water bottles sold by the caseload. Plastic packaging on every single cut of beef, chicken and pork you buy in the supermarket. Super-tough plastic encasing your 128 GigaByte thumb drive. And none of this ever gets used again. It’s permanent, yet goes directly into our trash.
That trash becomes a stream; an endless procession of plastic bags filled with plastic trash, thrown into a compacting truck and dumped in a landfill will billions of other pieces of plastic trash. Our once-touched possessions may blow away in the wind, catch on trees and fences, settle in rivers and waterways and eventually make its way down to the ocean; tattered, brittle and impossible to collect.
In our best economic model, plastics are recycled and reused. But who reuses used plastics?
ECOSYSTEMS ARE STRESSED
Plastic debris can be found floating in the most remote parts of the globe. Diatoms, shrimp and krill feed on microplastics. Sea birds feed plastic remnants to their chicks. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. Baleen whales filter buoyant clouds of plastic chips mistaking the toxic waste for their favorite foods.
Toxic compounds have made their way up the food chain and affect almost all edible forms of sea life from clams to tuna. Sharks, dolphins, seals, otters and whales are being caught up in discarded plastic netting found floating in gyres all over every ocean.
Today’s technologies are good at turning some used plastic into single use packages. Yet, much of this is shipped overseas to third-world markets. Third world countries have no regular trash service, yet single use plastics are marketed here in greater quantity than anywhere else on Earth.
Third-world rivers take all this unbreakable waste downstream and into the oceans in unimaginable quantities.
The human toll of plastics is unmeasured. Families, already living in poverty, burn free discarded plastic waste to light their wood fires and cook their freshly caught fish taken from contaminated waters; literally eating toxic food cooked over toxic fires. Young children dig through mountains of plastic and other waste to recover enough recyclable material to afford food for their families. Lung diseases and other easily treated medical conditions prevail and consume otherwise healthy people, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
MUST SEE DOCUMENTARIES
One need not take my word for these things. I want to point to two of the most powerful documentaries I have seen.
PLASTIC PARADISE, Angela Sun (2013): Hawaii’s own Angela Sun takes us on her personal quest to find the origins of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. She takes us from the origins of the most indestructible material ever created to the shores of Midway Atoll where sea bird carcasses reveal the toxic legacy of plastic. Think this doesn’t matter to you? The next time you reach for your receipt at the grocery store, your body will absorb minute amounts of Bisphenol A, a product of the plastics industry with long-term unknown consequences.
A PLASTIC OCEAN, Tanya Streeter (2016): Ms. Streeter, a free-diver who has witnessed the plastic in the ocean first-hand, is a new mother in this film, documenting the pervasiveness of plastic in our environment. From otters, seals, dolphins and sharks trapped in netting to baleen whales washed ashore with bellies full of microplastics. This film explores the succession of wildlife, from diatoms to blue whales that ingest and process a battery of toxic chemicals in microplastics. Our food chain and the entire web of life on our planet is being poisoned by single use plastics. With graphic footage of seabird parents regurgitating plastics into the mouths of their chicks, Ms. Streeter drives home the need for action against plastic pollution. (On Netflix now.)
Mandatory recycling of plastic bottles laws have been passed in a handful of states. People in these states, at the very least, have acknowledged that plastic is permanent.
California’s mandatory commercial recycling program is based upon a 2008 statewide study which determined nearly 75% of solid waste was generated from businesses. In 2012, the governor signed legislation requiring businesses that generate more than 4 cubic yards of waste to arrange for recycling services.
“Recycling…It’s the law” is Connecticut’s tagline. Residents, businesses, public agencies and private institutions must all recycle. Connecticut law requires residents to be educated about items that must be recycled. Manufacturers of certain items are required to provide collection systems for used products to keep them out of the waste stream.
Massachusetts provides a series of recycling web pages that tell you just where to take your trash. Whether you have plastics, bottles, electronics or Styrofoam, this state wants you to know your rights and responsibilities as a consumer.
Plastic bottle bans and mandatory recycling laws have been passed in New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Other states, like Hawaii have passed plastic bag bans and bottle recycling programs.
However, no state has even proposed comprehensive economic reform to address the prevalence and permanence of plastic in our lives.
HAWAIIAN PLASTIC PROTECTION
The Hawaii Deposit Beverage Container Program has been active since January 2005. The success of our program is a lethargic 70% redemption rate with plastic bottles coming in at only 60% recycled in 2015. The container fee, a hidden 1% fee charged to beverage distributors is increased when redemption rates exceed 70%. This disincentive is likely one reason why recycling is not as effective as it could be.
It’s too early to tell how Hawaii’s plastic bag ban, in effect since July 2015, has helped our environment or our ecosystem. The City Ordinance (Ch9.Art9) failed to include any means to measure its effect. Though the scope was limited to ban specific plastic bags, there are already forces challenging the ban. City Council Bill 59 (2016), CD1 would give businesses the ability to use virtually any kind of plastic bag they choose. Without compliance data, proponents of the ban have no defense.
In 2015 and 2016, we became incensed that someone was putting plastic in our toothpaste and face-creams without telling us. Heck, I feel betrayed by 4 out of 5 doctors. Currently, Hawaii has no protections against microplastics or microbeads. In 2016, legislators proposed banning microbeads in four separate Hawaii bills, each with insightful preambles that used the best science to effectively communicate how plastics are having a very harmful effect on our planet.
This year (2017), SB1198 also proposes a ban on microbeads. But, seriously, microbeads are the tip of the plastic iceberg. Why aren’t we equally concerned about our bottles, plastic bags and milk crates that litter our ocean floor and wash up, broken on our beaches? Some of this stuff can be dated back to the 1940s and 1950s.
Our scattershot attempts at addressing plastics, so far, has provided us no protection from the toxic chemicals accumulating in our environment. We must create a plan to change people’s behavior and evolve to an economy which can accept the permanence of plastics in our lives. Only then can we responsibly deal with the consequences.
A RECYCLABLE ECONOMY
NewPlasticsEconomy.org points out that the plastics industry produces $80 to $120 Billion of packaging and other materials every year. Only 14% of this material gets reused and the rest goes into the waste stream. Globally, about a third of all plastic waste ends up spoiling our interconnected ecosystems. NewPlasticsEconomy wants to promote the idea that there is money to be made. If we can capture the lost value in these throw-away, indestructible materials, it will go a long way towards creating jobs, increasing the value of plastics and saving the environment.
With partners like Pepsico, Coca Cola, Dupont, BASF and Nestle, this organization is offering a $2 million prize to designers, scientists, academics and entrepreneurs to “create a plastics system that works.”
Part of that challenge needs to be taken on by governments like the State of Hawaii. Sure, we have a bottle fee and recycling program and now that plastic bags have been banned from supermarkets, we feel a little bit vindicated. But the truth is that today’s recycling programs fall far short of getting the most harmful forms of plastic from our environment.
The Four Post Table to a recyclable economy:
1) Consumer incentives,
2) Commercially viable products and businesses,
3) Sustainable plastic recycling research, and
4) Government incentives.
Consumer incentives need to engage a person with a compelling reason to divert plastic from the landfill. We need to broaden the scope of consumer incentives with a $.05 cents per pound incentive for plastic and other recyclable materials. Recycling centers should be authorized to accept and pay for such materials, such as bubble wrap, Styrofoam peanuts, Tupperware, Ziploc bags and other household plastic waste. The state should provide consumer education for how to handle mixed plastics, such as window envelopes and packaging where the plastic is glued onto paper or cardboard. And, what about that safety plastic around bottle caps. That’s pretty pure plastic. Where should it go in the waste stream.
Paper forks are real. A pack of 50 will cost $10 on Amazon. But the competition is stiff. For the same price, a business can get a box of 500 plastic forks. Can a local producer create a cheaper paper fork? Viable commercial products are a crucial part of the equation to a plastic independent nation. We need to consider incentives for the producers of the non-toxic, non-permanent single use item.
Plastic producers need disincentives, too. Manufacturers and resellers should be charged a per pound plastic recycling fee similar to the bottle fee. The fees collected should be directed towards establishing and maintaining a plastics recovery facility that pays for each pound collected. Such facilities are nearly turnkey possible with products like the “Green Machine.” Hawaii could provide a tax incentive for entrepreneurs willing to establish such a business.
Schools are hotbeds of innovation, yet they are underutilized as resources to solving economic and environmental crises like plastics. Scholarships and grants should be provided to encourage sciences that could yield breakthroughs in plastics or plastic replacement technologies.
Our state government can fund technologies, through tax credits, to help clean our environment of toxic waste material and produce useful by products. We could also be providing ongoing subsidies to make sure that such products and facilities are profitable in the long-run.
Here are a few of the ideas that could create a profitable plastic economy:
* Provide University assistance into research to miniaturize and improve the optical sorting technologies that can sort mixed plastics.
* Encourage research into turning used plastics into commercial grade products, like pothole fillers or road grade construction material.
* Establish business incentives that encourage the use of compostable single use items; forks, knifes, spoons and plates for takeout food.
* Fund university research into technologies that improve the recovery of used plastics, especially when they have been subject to extreme biodegradation.
* Establish a prize sponsorship with tax incentives for donors for figuring out how to convert toxic plastics into environmentally friendly and commercially viable products.
* The Hawaiian Islands are perfect test beds, with miles of ocean-bound viaducts and underground drainage systems, giving us ample opportunities to design and test plastic waste catchment systems.
* And, to round out the whole program, provide incentives for plasma waste converters to vaporize the remaining irreducible material to its component elements.
PLASTICS ARE HERE TO STAY
It’s not an understatement to say that the future of humanity is at stake. NewPlasticsEconomy predicts that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by the year 2050. This crisis has the potential to be one of the Great Filters that can end a civilization.
With President Trump formally withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, it is up to individual states in the United States of America to re-assert the importance of all life on this planet. As Americans in the most ethnically diverse state in the Union, we cannot accept isolationism. We are all connected and this blue planet is ours to protect.
Passing comprehensive legislation aimed at establishing a sustainable plastics economy can empower individuals and their communities to tackle this world-wide problem now. Hawaii can lead the way!
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