Persistent Plastic Problems (yes, it's plural)
The problem is not plastic itself. Plastic is ubiquitous in our industrialized
society because it is a valuable commodity solving a lot of day-to-day problems in
many aspects of our lives. The problem is when plastic ends up where it is not
appropriate, notably the wild environment and inside living organisms (e.g. us), and
those very properties (longevity, strength) which make it valuable as a product make it
hazardous in the environment.
There are two profoundly different aspects to the growing problem of plastic
a) reducing the continuing stream of new plastic pollution being jettisoned
into the environment daily; and,
b) removing the existing tonnes of plastic pollution already in the environment.
At RESTCo, we think both are important. We note that most, if not all, the
governments, corporations and environmental organizations are keen to make others
address part a), but nobody else is tackling part b) in a significant and credible way.
There are multiple kinds of plastic. The thing they have in common is they
are generally long-lived in the wild environment. They do break up into smaller
pieces due to weathering and collisions, but for the most part they do not
decompose into natural elements and compounds; instead they just break into
ever smaller pieces, becoming micro- and nano-plastic pollution ('plastic smog') - harder to see
but more easily ingested and damaging to the health of living creatures.
Plastic pollution ends up in different places. Some plastic pollution ends up
stuck on land. Some gets land-filled. Some ends up in the Arctic and Antarctic,
some ends up blowing around in the atmosphere, and a lot ends up in creeks, rivers,
swamps, marshes, lakes and the oceean. Some plastics are dense
enough to sink in water, but the plastic which floats is the greater hazard, as
a lot of feeding and breeding is done at the interfaces (water-atmosphere,
water-shoreline). While we acknowledge that pollution and debris on the water
bottoms should also be addressed (much of which is not plastic), we feel the
floating and near-surface plastic pollution should be the higher priority. Also,
debris on the water bottom needs to be cleaned up quickly after depositing; otherwise
it often becomes habitat for life on the water bottom, the life we're trying to preserve.
The plastics recycling industry does not like mixed plastic. In general, the plastics
industry wants a pure feedstock, and because we subsidize the oil and gas industry,
virgin plastics are typically priced quite low, making it hard for recycled plastics
to compete on sticker price. Many municipal recycling programs expect the materials they collect to be
a revenue source (it used to work for paper and metals), but the supply of waste plastic
is so overwhelming compared to the market for even clean and sorted recovered plastic,
that this material is almost never able to cover costs. Instead, government-run
plastic recycling programs need to accept they are collecting plastic for the benefit
of our species (and some others), and seeking reuse, upcycling, repurposing and recycling
opportunities is cost-effective primarily as a landfill diversion initiative. These
same governments should be making efforts to ensure there are markets for items made from
recycled plastic. For starters, it should be mandatory that the municipal recycling bins
are made from recycled plastic.
If we create demand for products made from recycled plastic, I expect the market will
respond. Europe has proven it is possible to make packing materials from recycled paper
instead of styrofoam. Presumably we could do the same in North America, if we choose
to do so. Getting the world you want is about the choices you make daily.