Creating A Future Less Disposable Than Our Plastics

Plastic has become one of the most large-scale pollutants around the world, littering everywhere from the bottoms of oceans to the tops of mountains and threatening the health of wildlife, people and planet. Not only has plastic become ubiquitous because of its durability – taking more than 400 years to break down – but it’s manufactured using fossil fuels. And with half of all plastics in existence manufactured in the last 15 years, the accumulation of plastic pollution continues to worsen.

The plastic-free movement is booming worldwide as people search for ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Although the market is growing for reusable, sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics, a comprehensive overhaul of the plastic supply chain is the most direct way to affect meaningful change.

At the 2018 Bioneers Conference Anna Cummins, the co-founder and Global Strategy Director of 5 Gyres, hosted a conversation with Shilpi Chhotray of Break Free from Plastic and Conrad MacKerron of As You Sow on our worldwide plastic problem and some ways in which we could make progress toward solutions. This conversation is excerpted below, beginning with introductions from Shilpi and Conrad.

SHILPI: I am the senior communications officer for Break Free from Plastic, and I’m embedded at the Story of Stuff project in Berkeley. Break Free from Plastic is a movement of 1,300 groups working around the world at all points in the plastic pollution supply chain. This is the first time colleagues in the United States and Europe are working with colleagues in China and Southeast Asia to truly understand and listen to what’s happening on a peer-to-peer level. 

There is still a lot of blame in the mainstream media blaming Southeast Asia for the plastic pollution problem. The issue with this narrative is that companies headquartered in the Global North are the corporations creating this problematic plastic packaging in the first place, knowing very well that waste management infrastructure looks quite differently in that part of the world than it does here. And actually, we’re not doing a great job with our own waste management, given only 9% has been recycled since the 1950s.

Break Free from Plastic is in the general mindset that just figuring out what is out there is not enough. We also need to figure out who is creating what ends up clogging our storm drains and tainting our oceans. This allows us to understand where plastic begins and where it ends. Sometimes plastic pollution can seem very heavy, convoluted and complex, but our message is very simple: To stop plastic pollution, stop making plastic. 

CONRAD: I’m a senior vice president at As You Sow. We’ve been around for 25 years. We’re a nonprofit based in Oakland, California, and we use shareholder advocacy to promote corporate social responsibility in a variety of social and environmental areas. That work includes engaging companies directly as shareholders, starting dialogues on a variety of issues, sometimes filing shareholder proposals and having those voted on at the annual meetings of large companies, and encouraging our peers to vote their proxies. 

I’ve started a waste program at As You Sow. We have what I consider to be really embarrassing recycling rates in the United States. Why can’t we even recycle half of our aluminum or glass? In a country so technologically advanced and sophisticated, we still cannot recycle. These materials are all recyclable, and yet we can’t do it because of poor infrastructure, lack of will, and lack of funding.

A few years ago, we decided to find out how much all of this material that is going into the landfill is worth, and we couldn’t find any numbers. The EPA didn’t have it. We couldn’t find any states that did. So we decided to find out ourselves. We found that there’s $11 billion of value in the packaging that’s landfilled routinely in the United States, and about $8 billion of that is plastics. 

Part of the problem is a lack of resources. Even the corporate groups say that you probably need a billion and a half of investment just to fix what’s wrong with curbside recycling. We have outmoded material recoveries facilities, which is where they take your curbside recycling. And a lot of cities are just underfunded.

On the more positive side, because of the work that’s been done in the last three or four years by great groups like the Break Free from Plastic and 5 Gyres, you do have a real critical mass building. We had 200 nations pledge to eliminate plastic pollution at a UN environment assembly. 50 countries have banned some form of plastic bags. Nine countries have banned some form of Styrofoam packaging.

Folks often say, “Well, plastic’s so cheap.” It’s really hard to think about how to replace it because the alternatives like glass and aluminum and fiber, they’re all more expensive and they produce more carbon emissions. But when you talk about the price of plastic, it does not factor in things like the enormous subsidies to the oil and gas industry. Even the chemical industry now admits that plastic every year does $139 billion of ecosystem damage, and about $13 billion of that is estimated to be in the marine area.

When we talk about plastic being cheap, we don’t think about the externalities. Once those are factored in, and companies are forced to pay more of that, which we hope will happen, plastic won’t be such a cheap option.

So what do we do? We engage. The first thing to ask companies to do is pretty simple: Make all your packaging recyclable so that at least if you want to, you can put it in the recycling bin.

We also think polystyrene foam has proven itself to be a bad actor. It’s very hard to recycle. It does an outsized portion of damage with the ocean because it crumbles so much and fish see it as food. We don’t need it. Let’s just get rid of it.

We need to redesign non-recyclable pouches and sachets that Shilpi mentioned to be recyclable. Then of course, the harder, bigger job: transition to reusables and renewables, refillables, and then have some transparency around how much plastic companies are actually using. 

I’m very proud that in the last year, the interests within our investor/shareholder community has really exploded. We now have 30 investors with a trillion dollars of collective assets under management who are excited, and we are going to be starting dialogues this fall with four huge companies: Proctor & Gamble and Pepsi-Co here in the U.S., and Nestlé and Unilever in the UK. 

Harmful Waste: To Ban or Not to Ban?

ANNA: We’re struggling with this right now in Southern California, where a lot of us are working on banning polystyrene and Styrofoam. We all know it’s a problem, but the question is: What do we replace it with? It’s really unsatisfying to go from something that’s bad to something that’s a little less bad. And unfortunately, that’s what we’re looking at right now.

Ultimately, what we want is systems change, where instead of everything being available to us in a disposable takeaway, we look at different delivery systems. For example, in the UK, there’s a company called Cup Club that’s just starting to try to scale. Instead of walking around with your paper or disposable cup, you can basically rent or lease a reusable cup from one place, get your coffee, and drop it off at the next place.

We struggle with the alternative for water bottles, too. There’s just water and boxed water, and better boxes and all these other alternatives. I grew up without plastic water bottles, and we drank out of the drinking fountain, and no one passed out from dehydration because they didn’t have their little bottle with them.

It’s going to take us time, though, to transition from where we are – this culture of convenience – to a more reasonable system. So in the meantime, we absolutely need alternative materials.

That being said, there’s a ton of greenwashing with the bioplastics that are on the market right now. Most of them fall woefully short of what they’re advertising. Ideally, we go to fiber-based compostable materials and we can create more of a closed loop. And then we can create compost, regenerative agriculture, fix the soil, carbon sequestration, and all that good stuff. 

CONRAD: Here in the U.S. we’re very spoiled. We have a developed, mature recycling system, even if it doesn’t work well. In developing countries, there are literally millions of people who are living on the edge who collect bottles for a living. We need to respect what’s going on there, and if you suddenly ban certain products because they’re not perfect, you’d be taking away those livelihoods. They actually thrive on an admittedly flawed system. That’s one of the complexities I just wanted to point out that makes it hard to make a sweeping ban.

How Effective Is Our Recycling System?

ANNA: It’s really hard after decades of being told that recycling is an environmentally friendly thing to do to—for us to say “don’t recycle.” But it does bring up a really important question: We’ve gotten really, really, really good over the last 30, 40 years at making super efficient processes. Beverage containers, for instance: We’ve gotten better at making trillions of them. We haven’t invested to the same extent in innovation around our infrastructure for recycling. We haven’t paired designers together with recyclers to talk about how can we create a closed loop. So the system is broken. 

CONRAD: The plastics recycling industry estimates that 30% of materials that are collected for recycling have to be rejected because the industry has chosen to put these fancy shrink-wrap labels on them. You’ve seen this, like on Gatorade. Those make the recycling process very difficult. You can imagine the competing powers within a company of wanting to advertise the heck out of their stuff and put fancy labels on it versus doing what the environmental people in the company may say.

SHILPI: China has decided not to take the world’s waste anymore in an effort to protect their own environment and their people, which is really great, because it’s focused the rest of the world—it forced us to figure out what to do domestically. We really need to face the facts about what’s going on in our own country. One thing I do want to say about recycling is that it still comes from fossil fuels. Even if we figure out the recycling issue, there’s a whole other piece to this, which is human health and climate change.

Alternative Materials and Solutions: The Good and the Bad

SHILPI: In looking at bioplastics, we asked a lot of sectors what they think about it, and there is a concern about using natural resources that can also be harmed or depleted if we go that route, especially if you’re talking about mass scale. 

In my other life, I work a lot in seaweed and regenerative seaweed systems, and there is a big push for marine algae to be used as bioplastics. I am not about that if it’s going to be ravaging the ocean ecosystem. Not all aquaculture systems work in this arena, so we need to be looking a little bit more holistically when we talk about alternatives.

ANNA: There’s a big push to “leash the lid” right now. But that water bottle, once the lid is off, is made from a kind of plastic that’s going to sink. If you talk to Sylvia Earle or James Cameron or other people who’ve gone down to the ocean floor, they will tell you that, especially in the Mediterranean, the floor is littered with those bottles. 

CONRAD: Because of all the concerns about straws in the last six months, wheat straws have become one of the alternatives being tested and publicized, but a lot of other materials are as well. Wheat seems like it’s pretty benign, so that’s great. A lot of it has to do with supply, though. When you think about it, if Starbucks wanted that alternative material, they’d need several billion of those straws suddenly. Then it goes back to the land issues. So it’s complicated.

ANNA: What if all of us – plastics people, climate change people, food sovereignty people – dedicated 1% of our time and resources to campaign finance reform? How else are we going to wrest ourselves from corporate control in order to be able to get rid of subsidies, make products their real cost, and make companies pay for the externalities. I don’t see that happening unless we shift the way corporations control our policymakers.

CONRAD: These companies pay much more attention to their customers than to groups like us. Let’s be honest. Go into Starbucks and say, “I’m tired of seeing all this crap,” or “Why don’t you offer me a mug?” That needs to happen. We need to organize as consumers.

ANNA: There are some great case studies showing that restaurants, when they switch from disposables for dine-in to reusables, can save anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 a year. For small restaurants, that’s considerable, just by making that switch and not investing in disposables.

Also, if we create policy that mandates a significant mandatory threshold content for recyclable material, that can start to even the playing field so that virgin plastic isn’t as artificially cheap as recycled material. If we enforce that, then companies are going to have to get a hell of a lot better at getting their materials back. So that’s a policy tool that we’re looking at in Los Angeles, and hopefully in San Francisco.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.