Plastic never leaves the planet—but it can be reused
“I just want to say one word to you—just one word—‘plastics.’”
— “The Graduate,” 1967
Plastics! Plastic items are everywhere: bottles, bags, PVC pipe, medical stints, carpet, clothing. During the holidays, hordes of Americans will cruise crowded aisles at big-box stores to purchase bright-colored plastic toys. Plastic is never good for the environment—even if you never throw it away.
But let’s start at the beginning. How do we get plastic? It’s nonexistent in the natural world. Start with the fossil fuel we call oil. Crude oil containing hydrocarbons is reshaped by high temperature “cracking” and catalytic reactions to produce polymer chains called plastic. This material is then strained, melted and turned into pellets that a manufacturer melts and dyes to form the desired shape. All that cracking and melting requires a lot of heat, thereby resulting in emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases, meaning there’s a large environmental impact before it ever gets to you.
The story gets worse. Plastic is long-lived. Research scientist Tony Andrady explains, “Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated, every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last 50 years or so still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment.”
Plastic does not biodegrade. It just breaks up into smaller pieces. No microbe can digest plastic. Much plastic ends up in the ocean, hurting wildlife. These free floaters attract toxins to their surfaces. A study of puffiins who had eaten small plastic bits showed presence of bio-accumulated poisons with concentrations up to a million times more than in normal seawater. Consider, too, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch teeming with plastic, and turtles eating six-pack rings.
One answer: recycling. Orange Grove Center, the major recycler for Chattanooga residents, hires disabled people to sort incoming recyclables. In their 2014-15 fiscal year, total collection equaled 6,215 tons. Of that, 158.98 tons was No. 1 PETE plastic and 87.08 tons was No. 2 HDPE plastic. Other plastics with numbers from 3-6 are also collected including plastic bags. Meanwhile, Hamilton County in fiscal year 2014-15 collected 2,147.83 tons of recyclables at their five drop-off centers from 139,619 vehicle visits. They sent 193.59 tons of plastic to West Rock.
Lately there’s been a pushback against recycling. Those objecting say there’s too much labor and processing involved—just take it to the landfill. Most municipalities without well-thought-out programs do not profit from recycling services, but should they? For Chattanooga, recycling means job training and meaningful employment for our disabled. It allows us to reuse and tie up plastics in products to buy—and hopefully never throw away. It saves landfill space. By the way, the sale price for recycled plastic #1 can range from $260 to $280/ton, while #2 plastic is more volatile at $420-$600/ton.
So, recycle—but also refuse plastic bags and water bottles. Stay away from over-packaging. Avoid plastic toys and buy something locally made. It may not have animation or bells and whistles, but it will inspire creativity, support the local economy, and help the environment.
Intentionally misleading headlines
Speaking of environmental care, a recent AP poll showed 57 percent of Americans are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about climate change. However, the misleading headlines said climate change was “no big deal” to the public. That headline writer needs math lessons. Quick polls usually ask about 1,000 willing adults with cell phones or landlines. View that with skepticism and weigh it against other happenings. When 400,000 people show up in New York City to march calling for climate action, perhaps the poll cited is not adequately measuring concern. Stay tuned for Paris outcomes in December when nearly 200 countries concerned enough to submit plans for reducing carbon emissions and slowing climate disruption speak out.
Sandra Kurtz is an environmental community activist and is presently working through the Urban Century Institute. You can visit her website to learn more at enviroedu.net