At least nine states have already banned some form of single use plastic such as grocery bags, but this is just the beginning when progressives are claiming plastic can’t be recycled despite 50 years of doing so and comparing the industry to Big Tobacco. Plastic, of course, is everywhere, making this yet another assault on modern life.
For obvious reasons, the world uses a lot of plastic. The familiar substance is everywhere from packaging to building and construction, consumer products, textiles, transportation, electronics, healthcare, and industrial machinery, even sports. This morning you probably woke up on a pillow made of plastic and brushed your teeth with a plastic toothbrush, maybe rinsed with a plastic cup, made your morning coffee in a plastic coffee maker and ate your breakfast from a plastic plate. If you’re sitting in front of a computer, the keyboard and other components are likely plastic, and if you commuted to the office, the car’s dashboard, steering wheel, seats, and more are likely made of plastic, plus thousands of other parts including key components of the engine. It’s not an exaggeration to say modern life is built almost entirely on plastics, and has been for decades to the point where the world is practically made out of it these days. Perhaps nothing sums it up better than Dustin Hoffman’s 1967 classic, The Graduate, when his father tells him, “I want to say one word to you. Just one word…Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
Plastics have become ubiquitous in our lives because they are inexpensive to produce, endlessly flexible in their application, and generally durable with limited degradation over time. Technically, “plastic” is a general term that describes a range of materials that can be molded or otherwise formed with heat and pressure. The proper descriptor is a “polymer,” that is a long, chain-like molecule made of large numbers of smaller molecules known as monomers. The monomers are combined together and shaped into their final form via a process called polymerisation where heat and pressure is applied. There are many different kinds of polymerization depending on the final product. Polyethylene, composed of the monomer ethylene, is used in plastic grocery bags, milk jugs, containers, trash cans,and more. Polyvinyl Chloride, commonly known as PVC, is composed of the vinyl chloride monomer, and is used in more industrial applications such as pipes, doors, and windows. Before the invention of plastics, we relied on expensive, difficult to work with, and ecologically devastating natural polymers found in animals. Horns, tusks, and shells, for example, become malleable when heated and were used to make everything from combs to cutlery.
The rise of industrialization, however, pushed the animals these raw materials were harvested from, including elephants and several species of turtle, to the brink of extinction. The resulting scarcity prompted inventors and entrepreneurs to develop alternatives. They tried everything including materials derived from cork, milk, and even blood, but ultimately Alexander Parkes patented the first synthetic plastic in 1862. Mr. Parkes was born in Birmingham, England in December 1813, and described himself as an artist not a chemist or inventor, but this didn’t prevent him from accumulating a fair share of patents. He received his first in 1841 for developing a process that used electricity to coat metals, and was critical in identifying a means to remove silver from lead using zinc that was patented in 1850. All told, he filed some 66 patents over the course of 46 years, most related to metallurgy. Mr. Parkes called his new plastic, Parkesine, made by dissolving the cellulose found in the cell walls of plants in alcohol and mixing it with vegetable oil or camphor. Parkesine was followed quickly by other plastics that relied on plant materials. Celluloid was invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1865 and used initially in billiard balls, then film. Rayon followed in 1881 by Louis Marie Beringaut, but it wasn’t until 1907 that fully synthetic plastics were developed, first under the name Bakelite.
The widespread usage of modern plastics exploded in the 1960s, when production first approached 50 million metric tons. Over the course of the next half century, production increased more than seven fold, topping 350 million metric tons by 2015 and continuing to climb. This necessarily had the adverse effect of leaving behind a lot of plastic waste. There is an estimated 8.3 billion tons of plastic in the world, about 6.3 billion of which is trash, somewhere around the weight of 55 million jumbo jets worth. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that plastic accounts for 12.2% of all municipal solid waste in the entire country. As a result, plastics have found their way into the ocean, about 8 million metric tons per year, enough to fill five plastic grocery bags for every single foot of coastline on the planet. Not surprisingly, ecologists fear the impact could be devastating, killing ocean life, harming their growth, and requiring a lot of cleanup. Americans have responded to these concerns by dutifully recycling their disposable plastics for the last fifty years with the first recycling plant for plastics built in Conshohocken, PA in 1972. Since the early 1980’s, new forms of plastic were developed to be more recyclable and by 1984 some 100 million pounds of plastic was recycled in a single year. Today, we recycle somewhere around 8.7% of our plastic waste, mainly disposable bottles and similar items, plus industrial programs for shipping materials and other supplies. Recycling in general has become so commonplace over the course of my lifetime that most people instinctively look for the right receptacle rather than just throwing a piece of plastic, glass, metal, or a paper out.
I think most would consider this a good thing, doing your small part to help the environment while enjoying the benefits of the modern world. There is, however, a problem: Recycling, plastics in particular, doesn’t actually appear to work at all despite a half century of doing exactly that. Judith Enck, writing for The Atlantic describes how “Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work,” as in, “Americans support recycling. We do too. But although some materials can be effectively recycled and safely made from recycled content, plastics cannot. Plastic recycling does not work and will never work.” For starters, there are thousands of different kinds of plastics today, and most cannot be recycled together. Instead, they are all sitting in some landfill somewhere, waiting to be recycled, except it’s “impossible to separate types for processing,” meaning all of it may well wait for the 400 some odd years the stuff takes to degrade. As Ms. Enck noted, “Just one fast-food meal can involve many different types of single-use plastic, including PET#1, HDPE#2, LDPE#4, PP#5, and PS#6 cups, lids, clamshells, trays, bags, and cutlery, which cannot be recycled together. This is one of several reasons why plastic fast-food service items cannot be legitimately claimed as recyclable in the U.S.” Even when plastics are properly sorted, the situation isn’t much better. The recycling process is wasteful and dangerous, spreading potentially harmful chemicals to neighboring communities, “many of which are located in low-income communities or communities of color.” It’s also expensive. Recycled plastic costs more than brand new plastic, and the differential continues to increase as the world consumes more polymers.
All of this prompts the obvious question: If it doesn’t work and never will, why have we been doing it for five decades? Ms. Enk, perhaps needless to say, blames the industry for conducting a massive misinformation campaign to “perpetuate the myth that the material is recyclable,” and she believes the scope of the deception is on par with Big Tobacco, describing it as “reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s efforts to convince smokers that filtered cigarettes are healthier than unfiltered cigarettes.” She is worried that “If the plastics industry is following the tobacco industry’s playbook, it may never admit to the failure of plastics recycling,” but urges us not to despair. There are “proven solutions” available. What are these solutions, you ask? Why outright banning certain types of plastic, of course. “These solutions include enacting bans on single-use plastic bags and unrecyclable single-use plastic food-service products, ensuring widespread access to water-refilling stations, installing dishwashing equipment in schools to allow students to eat food on real dishes rather than single-use plastics, and switching Meals on Wheels and other meal-delivery programs from disposables to reusable dishware.” Left-leaning states are already taking the lead in this regard with at least nine banning single use plastic bags and sometimes plastic straws. California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, and Vermont all have such bans. They have these bans even though 78% of those surveyed claim they use their disposable bags for another purpose like cleaning up after their pets. There are some local jurisdictions that have enacted their own bans as well, though some 15 states have counter bans in place preventing such local laws from being enacted.
Living in a state that enacted its own ban earlier this month, it seems like a minor, if somewhat silly, inconvenience. If you forget to bring a reusable bang, most stores will sell you a thicker and heavier than usual plastic one for ten cents, which of course makes one wonder if the ban will actually reduce plastic consumption in any measurable way. There are, of course, concerns that reusable bags are a petri dish for bacteria and other contaminants given there’s a reason why most stores ask if you want your meat packaged separately. In fact, at the height of the pandemic, many areas with a ban on single use bags suspended them temporarily. Otherwise, however, it’s not a big deal, but what are the odds the eco-activists stop there? Disposable plastic overall, which includes bags, straws, cutlery, plates, packaging, packing materials, and everything else designed to be used once, accounts for less than half the plastic produced, somewhere between 40 and 50 percent depending on methodology used. This means there is a literal ocean of other types of plastic out there and how long before all of it becomes a target?
Some are already advocating a much greater reduction. The website Almost Zero Waste, almostzerowaste.com, where “you can find how to live sustainably, where to find plastic-free goods, eco-friendly guides, and much more,” advocates going much further into the realm of do-it-yourself deodorant and other personal products. “Look online for DIY tutorials for some essentials that you use daily, like dry shampoo, deodorant, face masks, etc. These are super easy to make, and you can find a lot of variations.” In addition, they recommend purchasing items second hand, ditching single use products entirely, and living with your old stuff longer by “repairing and upcycling” first. Obviously, we encourage people to make their own choices and none of these recommendations have been mandated into law yet, but I’m willing to bet you never thought they’d ban plastic bags either. Is it really that much of a stretch to think they’ll be coming for your deodorant next?
Ultimately, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this is the progressive plan for the future: Reduce your consumption of everything and your expectations for anything. This can all be seen as part of a trend where the conveniences we take for granted today, from driving where we want to using a disposable deodorant stick, are destroying the planet and the companies that make them can’t be trusted, nor can we rely on technology to develop a better solution. No, the only solution in their minds is to do with less, and the government is the vehicle to make that happen whether you like it or not.