The Problem With Plastic… Is Plastic

Plastic has become a dominant element in nature, to the planet’s — and our — detriment.

What do your toothbrush, a fish dinner and your running shoes have in common? Plastic.

For roughly 4,499,999,900 years since our planet was formed, plastic was not a presence on Earth, much less a problem. But in the last few decades, this man-made petroleum polymer has become a dominant element in nature. We now live on Planet Plastic, and it’s definitely a problem.

Billions of tons of waste from everyday products made of these chemical contaminants are strewn literally everywhere — on the highest mountaintops to the deepest sea beds, in dense tropical jungles and all across barren deserts. It’s estimated, for example, that in less than 30 years, the gross volume of plastic in our oceans will outnumbers fish! From ubiquitous carry-out bags to shower curtains to almost-invisible microplastics, the vast tonnage of this trash increases every minute and has an afterlife lasting centuries, wreaking havoc on ecosystems; destroying species; and infusing our water, air, soil, food… and us. Consider just three products trashing our Earthly nest:

  • Toothbrushes: Until the 1930s, these were made of such degradable components as wood. Since then, practically all have been throwaway plastic brushes. But there is no “away,” so nearly all of the trillions of brushes we’ve discarded in the past century are still out there somewhere on land or in water.
  • Bottles: Since the 1970s, marketers of soda, water and other drinks have jacked-up profits by switching to disposable polyethylene bottles. A million of these containers are sold every minute of every day, creating a massive trash burden dumped on governments and Mother Nature. The bottles break down into trillions of tiny pellets that kill birds and fish that mistake them for food.
  • Sneakers: Every year, millions of pairs of these sports shoes are sold in the U.S. alone, advertised as being athletic and “cool.” What’s uncool is that they’re made almost entirely of melded and molded plastics that are practically impossible to recycle. So, after a short time in our closets, sneakers spend an eternity as globs of toxic plastic trash.

We’re being suffocated by our own synthetic waste — from food containers and cigarette filters to straws and synthetic rubber tires. As the wise old saying puts it, if you find that you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is to quit digging. Well, I can report that governments and industries are teaming up in the U.S. and around the world to respond forcefully to this planetary crisis. Unfortunately, their response has been to engage in a global race to make more plastic stuff!

Leading this Kafkaesque greedfest are some of our planet’s most infamous plunderers and careless polluters: ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and other petrochemical profiteers. With fossil fuel profits crashing, the giants are rushing to convert more of their oversupply of oil into plastic. But where to send the monstrous volumes of waste that will result? Even China has recently closed its ports to new shipments of plastic trash.

So, the industry’s chief lobbyist outfit, the American Chemistry Council, looked around last year and suddenly shouted, “Eureka, there’s Africa!” In particular, Kenya is their target, and an army of their lobbyists are deployed there and in Washington to transform the coastal region of this East African nation into “a plastics hub” for global trade in waste.

However, Kenyans have an influential community of environmental activists who’ve enacted some of the world’s toughest bans on plastic pollution. To bypass this inconvenient local opposition, the global Dump on Africa lobby is resorting to an old corporate power play: “free trade.” With a sympathetic push from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the chemical lobby is trying to impose its profiteering vision on the people through an autocratic trade agreement that would ban Kenyan officials from passing their own laws or rules that interfere with trade in plastic waste.

Such callous dumping, however, is what corporate image makers call “bad optics,” so the dumpers are trying to hide their ugliness by creating a PR campaign and front group with the spiffy name Alliance to End Plastic Waste. It is, of course, a fraud. ExxonMobile and other founding members claim that their alliance is a heroic battle against plastic pollution. But — hello — they are the creators of the pollution! Also, the mountains of plastics being dumped are not “public” but industrial waste — made, promoted and sold for the private profit of the corporations.

The real problem is not plastic waste but plastic itself. From production to disposal, the product is destructive to people and the planet. Rather than subsidizing petrochemical behemoths to make more of the stuff, policymakers should seek out and encourage people who are developing real solutions and alternatives. To help stop the insanity, contact the group Beyond Plastics.

Jim Hightower