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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 pollution:
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.

Next: The Putative Solutions to Persistent Plastic Pollution

Types of Plastic
The Science of Plastic Pollution
Media Items on Plastic Pollution
Some Interesting Approaches
Things That Don't Work
Things That Do Work
De-plasticizing the Ocean (2017 RESTCo 3-pager)
Removing microplastic from shoreline/beach (demo)
RESTCo Plastic Pollution Solution
Capturing Micro- and Nano-plastics from the Waste Stream
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