Reduce, Reuse, Rethink Plastic: Transforming Markets to Cut Pollution

More than half of all plastic in existence was produced in the last 15 years, and this accumulation is only getting worse as plastic pollution threatens the health of the planet. Highly-durable plastic litters everywhere – from the bottoms of oceans to the tops of mountains – and won’t degrade for another 400 years. This problem will be with us for a while, but so will the growing movement for a systemic shift in how we think about packaging and waste in for sustainable future. 5 Gyres, an ocean conservation nonprofit, is one of the movement’s leading organizations.

Read on for a conversation between Anna Cummins, Co-Founder of 5 Gyres, and Teo Grossman, Senior Director of Programs at Bioneers, about leveraging the problem of plastic pollution with solutions that could lead us to a cleaner world.

TEO GROSSMAN, BIONEERS: As consumers and individuals, we’ve all been learning more and more in recent years about the scale of plastic pollution in the environment. When coverage first started to spike, I  thought initially that this was great news, the result of the heroic efforts to get the word out about plastic pollution by entities like 5 Gyres and other groups. Unfortunately, it also turns out that there’s simply vastly more plastic than ever before. I’ve read reports suggesting that half of all plastic ever produced has been manufactured in the past decade or so. Scientists are now including plastic pollution as one of the geological markers for describing “The Anthropocene” along with nuclear fallout measurements. It’s a bleak way to start here but what is the scale and extent of the problem we’re facing?

Anna Cummins, 5 Gyres

ANNA CUMMINS, 5 GYRES: Yes, awareness has exploded in the last couple of years, which is good news, and there are also some dangers associated with that growth. But the increases in production are terrifying. What you’re referring to with regard to manufacturing is true. It gets even worse if we look towards the future, which brings up a whole other issue in terms of the connections between plastics, fossil fuels and climate change.

Right now there are predictions coming from the Center for International Environmental Law that the industry is investing upwards of $200 billion in ramping up the production of plastic by 40% in the next decade through building 300 new petrochemical facilities in the US alone, or expanding some of the existing facilities. Plastic is really what’s driving that increase. If we don’t get a handle on stopping the production of plastic, then no bag ban, no straw ban, no amount of single-product bans are going to make a dent.

It is a little bleak in that respect, but I would say on the flip side there is now a movement that is really paying careful attention to this. We’re seeing the movement becoming much more organized and starting to engage in more intersectional collaboration, connecting with the anti-fracking movement, connecting with the justice movement, really looking at how plastic is not just about downstream impacts – plastics getting into fish and us eating fish – but it is an entire pipeline and there are potential human health impacts along that whole pipeline.

TEO: Much has been reported lately on the “end of recycling.” Are we really at risk of consumer recycling going away or being much less effective?

ANNA: There’s been this myth for a long time that the ultimate solution to plastic and our consumption is recycling. It is a myth that we have bought hook, line and sinker. It’s a very convenient narrative for industry to really push consumers as responsible for what to do with their waste, while abdicating themselves as producers from the responsibility from making products that have some value at the end of their life cycle. The problems with recycling have just really heightened lately with China’s recent decision to stop taking our dirty plastic. For a long time, we just shipped all of our plastic to China and to other countries, to Vietnam, to India. China recently said, Enough! We’ve had it with your low-value plastics. That is creating a ripple effect across the whole industry, and there isn’t a clear solution to what’s going to happen to our infrastructure in this country.

The truth of the matter though is that we’ve created products, especially plastic bottles and beverage containers, that had no design in mind for recycling. We’ve gotten really, really good at making tons and tons of cheap plastic water bottles, but we have not gotten good at how we recover and how we “recycle” those products. And I say “recycle” because most of those products are, in reality, downcycled, if at all. The vast majority go to landfill or escape in the environment.

For example, of the one billion or so beverage containers that are produced every single day, we recycle/recover around 30% of that. That means the vast majority, about 700 million, are going to landfill and out into the environment.

What we really need is not just innovation in packaging to make it perform better and to make it more resistant and flexible, but we need radical innovation in how we design materials, how we recover, and how we truly recycle them so that we can create a closed loop, which we’re nowhere close to.

Another approach to this glut in this increase in plastic production would be to actually mandate recycled content thresholds. If we demand that companies by 2025 or by 2050 incorporate 75% or even up to 100% of post-consumer recycled content in their packaging, then they’re going to have to get much better at getting their products back. That’s an example of producer responsibility where you’re really mandating that companies innovate. 

TEO: Tell us about some of the specific projects, campaigns, collaborations that are progressing forward, giving you reason to think that we’re going to be able to make a dent here.

ANNA: We’re seeing some really encouraging results from some of our partners in Southeast Asia working on community participation in zero waste. We have a partnership with some groups like the Global Alliance of Incinerator Alternatives. They’re scaling up zero waste techniques in cities, and getting huge reductions in the amount of plastic that is either going to landfill or escaping out into the environment. I think that’s really good news. 

We’re working on a project in Los Angeles called Trash Blitz. The idea is looking at cities as centers for waste. We’re really trying to get a handle on understanding where and what the hotspots of plastic pollution are in a city like Los Angeles. We’re not just looking at shorelines and the sea surface, but inland and airborne and rivers. The goal is to get a sense of the location and source of the priority problems in a city — and then translate that data into a policy response.

We’ve been doing something like that in San Francisco through a two-year project called the San Francisco Microplastics Project, looking at sediment, sea surface, biota, fish stomachs, etc., to find out what all the primary problems with microplastics are in the San Francisco Bay. Again, the intention is to determine how can we use that data to inform solutions at the city level. We’re hoping that we can create models for protocols that we can spread to other cities, since we’re not seeing a whole lot of federal action these days. We need to look at cities as the center for solutions. 

TEO: It sounds like you’re working to develop solutions on all sides of the issue. Working with cities on zero waste policies while pressuring producers on the other side to stand down production.

ANNA: It really depends on what we find. So say, for example, in the San Francisco Bay we find that microfibers are the most prevalent contaminant. That’s really useful information we can provide to the city to say we need to get a handle on microfibers are getting into our waterways. When I’m talking about microfibers, I’m talking about microplastics that come from synthetic clothing in the washing machine.

There’s no one single solution to this issue. We’re going to need to change textiles. We’re going to need to change our washing machine infrastructure to actually filter out these microfibers. But that’s just one example of how we can use data to drive upstream solutions and figure out where the policy approaches are going to be most effective.

TEO: How much impact has the Ban the Bag legislation and straw phase-out efforts had? Given the scale of the pollution, are these symbolic victories (meaningful in their own right) or will they really have an impact?

ANNA: That’s a great question and one we’re really grappling with as we look at the predicted production increases that I mentioned before. If plastic production really does ramp up by 40% in the next 10 years, is it going to matter if we ban bags and straws and forks, not just in California but in the entire country? 

I do think it matters. I think it sends a signal to the industry in general that consumers, citizens, are starting to take note of plastic, and they’re starting to demand action. Is it going to make a dent in that kind of production? Probably not, but coupled with more collaboration with the fracking movement, with climate activism, we’re really on the cusp of making an impact.

Here’s another example. In my city of Los Angeles, we have the largest urban oil field in the country. There are some amazing activists that are working on pushing for a 2500-foot buffer zone between oil drilling activities and residences. That’s a great example of something that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as a plastic pollution solution. It’s not banning bags or straws, but if that succeeds, it’ll shut down about 80% of the oil activity in Los Angeles, and because plastics are made from fossil fuels, there is a direct correlation there.

I think these product bans are important, but if we don’t start reaching across the movement aisle and engaging with new partners, then we’re not going to make a dent.

TEO: You’re seeing this movement evolve into a truly intersectional effort by partnering with groups that are working on eliminating fossil fuel extraction and burning, partnering with social justice and public health movements. Are you seeing success in terms of that concept being picked up, understanding that global plastics pollution and global carbon pollution are basically driven by the same 50 or so global companies?

ANNA: This is an exciting new development, seeing some of those intersectional connections starting to align. I think we have a long way to go still. Where I’ve seen that be most effective is through partnership with Break Free from Plastic.

I went to a meeting last March in Houston with a number of plastic pollution groups who work on more consumer facing issues and environmental justice groups that work on toxics and fracking issues. It was an incredible coming together where we realized that there are all these connections, all these synergies, and that we’re ultimately all fighting for a just transition off of fossil fuels. The only way we’re going to be successful against such a huge and well resourced industry is if we are able to strengthen this movement. 

TEO: What does success look like in 15-20 years, if everything goes right?

ANNA: First, we shut down the expansion and the building of new petrochemical plants in the US and stop making so much plastic. If we could figure out a way to use the plastic already out in the world, there’s no reason we should be drilling for new sources of materials to make more plastic. That would be a huge success, getting away from fossil fuel-based materials period. Obviously we need to do this not just for packaging, but for our transportation and for so many of the things that we do. We need to move to renewable sources of energy.

Second, if we can curb or stem the flow of plastic pollution from land to sea, we could actually see a huge dent in ocean impacts, because plastics don’t stay in the ocean. There’s a lot of talk of going out to the ocean to clean up plastics. My husband Markus Erikson has been working on a lot of research with ocean modelers, and showing that it gets kicked back out. It’s not staying in the ocean. It washes back up on shorelines, it sinks to the sea floor, it gets eaten by fish and sequestered in fecal pellets. So it doesn’t stay in the ocean. If we could actually stop the amount of plastic flowing out to sea, we could see a huge difference in our ocean environment.

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