Plastic Planet: Stopping Big Oil, Big Plastic, and Big Misdirection
After World War II, the U.S. government worked with industry to create a single-use, disposable consumer culture as a way to ensure ongoing market prosperity. Who benefited? Consumer product companies like Coca-Cola, and the fossil fuel industry, whose petrochemicals are at the source. The result? Plastic pollution is now found in virtually every living organism – including humans – and is one of the worst threats to ocean ecosystems. Now, a global resistance movement is rising to abolish petrochemical plastics and to shift to a zero-waste, circular economy. With: Anna Cummins, Deputy Director and Co-Founder of the Five Gyres Institute.
- Anna Cummins, Deputy Director and Co-Founder of the Five Gyres Institute. With more than 20 years experience in environmental non-profit work—including marine conservation, coastal watershed management, community relations, and bilingual and sustainability education—Anna is an expert in the field.
- Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
- Written by: Monica Lopez and Kenny Ausubel
- Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
- Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
- Producer: Teo Grossman
- Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
Our theme music is co-written by the Baka Forest People of Cameroon and Baka Beyond, from the album East to West. Find out more at globalmusicexchange.org.
Additional music was made available by:
This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.
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NEIL HARVEY, HOST: Life magazine celebrated the glorious coming age of plastics in a 1955 article cheerfully titled, “Throw-Away Living”.
The magazine’s glossy imagery is painfully ironic from a 21st century perspective.
Picture a smiling family gazing skyward with arms joyfully outstretched as plastic plates, fake flowers, and diapers float around them like dreams coming true.
The caption reads: “In this picture, the objects flying around would normally take 40 hours to clean, except no housewife need bother, because it’s all designed to be thrown away.”
Plastic fantastic! A single-use, disposable consumer culture by design. It was the realization of post-war goals set by government and industry to create – in the words of a White House economist at the time – “the need for ever-increasing consumption” so that the U.S. might ensure its ongoing prosperity.
Today some scientists are suggesting that plastics comprise a new geologic age where future archeologists will find an Earth coated with a geological layer of plastic. Call it the Cellophane Prophecy – the time when Earth shall be shrink-wrapped. Not to mention the fact that plastic is now found in virtually every living organism – including us humans.
Over the past decade, a global resistance movement to abolish petrochemical plastics has risen to meet the challenge and to transition to truly biodegradable nontoxic plastics and a zero-waste economy.
Advocates are organizing to hold corporations accountable, while pushing for circular economic systems that mimic nature’s no-waste approach.
In this program, we hear from pathfinder Anna Cummins, Deputy Director and Co-Founder of the Five Gyres Institute. This is “Plastic Planet: Stopping Big Oil, Big Plastic, and Big Misdirection”.
I’m Neil Harvey. I’ll be your host. Welcome to The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.
ANNA CUMMINS: I want to start by focusing on one word, one single word that I think illustrates some of the challenges we’re up against in this plastics issue, and that is the word “accountability”. In the 1960s in the United States, lung cancer rates were skyrocketing while doctors and scientists were proving the source of the problem – smoking. But the tobacco industry managed to mislead the American public for years. And it wasn’t until the ‘90s that scientists, lawyers, and advocates teamed up to finally hold the corporations accountable for the damage they had done to the American public.
HOST: Anna Cummins is the Co-Founder and Deputy Director of the nonprofit 5 Gyres Institute. Its bold mission is to empower action against the global health and environmental crisis of plastic pollution. She spoke at a Bioneers conference.
AC: In the same way that the tobacco industry managed to blame consumers for their choices in smoking, the plastics industry is working to shift the blame to we the people for littering or for not recycling enough, instead of taking accountability for profiting tremendously and making ever-increasing amounts of unrecyclable and frankly toxic plastic products.
HOST: In fact, the connection between big tobacco and beverage container companies isn’t an abstraction. In the 1950’s, Big Tobacco and Big Plastic joined forces to emulate the tobacco model to shift responsibility for throwaway packaging from producers to consumers. Like Big Tobacco, Big Plastic developed an insidious ad campaign of classic misdirection.
AC: Now at the time, we were celebrating the advent of this miracle material, fossil fuel-based, lightweight, cheap, durable, you can’t break it. And most importantly, it was designed to last forever. Well, these same qualities are the ones that are coming back to haunt us.
Plastics really enjoyed an advent of incredible, exponential growth back then, and it didn’t take long for the effects of that to be seen. As early as the ‘50s and ‘60s, people were starting to see beverage containers littering our roadsides.
Well it didn’t take long before people started saying we need to fix this problem with policy. And as soon as the first piece of legislation to mandate returnable, refillable beverage containers came into the sphere, this group came into being – Keep America Beautiful. And this was their signature crying Indian campaign that some people may remember from the ‘70s. Well, the fact that the Indian here was actually an Italian-American actor named Iron-Eyed [actually Iron-Eyes] Cody is not the only disingenuous thing about this campaign.
The whole point of this campaign was to create the concept of litter, because people make litter, corporations don’t make litter. It’s your fault. It’s our fault for littering. Don’t be a litterbug. Give a hoot, don’t pollute. All of these things that we’ve all been inundated with our entire life absolves corporations from their responsibility in making products that are designed to be part of a linear economy.
HOST: Today, science has documented where plastic begins and ends, and how it ends up everywhere on Earth including in your body. And no, it’s not fundamentally your fault.
Enter gyres. In oceanography, the term refers to a large global system of ocean currents. As Anna Cummins organization’s name suggests, there are five major gyres in the oceans. She spoke with us at a Bioneers conference.
AC: We kind of call it like a toilet bowl that never flushes. It’s the spinning of the Earth, its currents, and prevailing winds. And it creates a huge vortex in the ocean. So plastics that enter our oceans every single day, from rivers, from our watersheds that flow from land to sea, get swept up into these currents. They can circulate for decades. For example, the North Pacific gyre, which is between California and Asia, that entire region, if you were to chuck a bottle into the water, which you wouldn’t do, it could take six to ten years to do that whole circulation, from California to Japan and back.
So I got deeper involved in just researching, and eventually got myself invited on a research trip out to Guadalupe Island. And there I saw it firsthand. This was 2004. And Guadalupe is just at sort of the beginning of the gyre. There’s a healthy population of Laysan albatross, and every single stomach sample we collected from these birds – they were all full of plastic, and this really drove it home for me.
HOST: When Anna Cummins was a grad student in environmental policy, she went on a fateful research expedition to study plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean. There, she met the group’s lead researcher – and her future husband – Dr. Marcus Eriksen.
AC: So the two of us went on board a trip from Hawaii to Los Angeles. Every single day we pulled up samples that were full of microplastics. But when you were standing on the bow of the boat, it was blue water everywhere you could see. So there was no island, there is no patch of garbage the size of Texas. It’s really more like a plastic smog.
HOST: Cummins and Eriksen became curious about how widespread the issue was, and whether it was a global phenomenon. They used their wedding money to found a new organization called the 5 Gyres Institute.
AC: So we went to all five gyres. We collected samples, and we published that data in 2014 as the first global estimate on plastic in the world’s oceans – roughly 270,000 metric tons from 5.25 trillion particles. What that really tells us – those are big numbers to wrap your head around – is that the solutions to ocean plastic are not in the ocean. The solutions are upstream with policy change, with design change, with corporate engagement.
We spent a lot of time as a movement banning this, banning that, banning straws, banning bags, and it’s exhausting. We wanted to look at what are the problem products, and can we start to not look at the top problem products only, but also the brands associated with that. So that was the basis for doing the ban list, coming up with a list of the top 20 products that have no place in a zero-waste society, and then looking at who are the brands responsible.
HOST: Those brands and their parent companies are identified through brand audits.
In 2016, Filipino activists in Manila came up with the idea to combine beach cleanups with a careful cataloguing of the brands and package types for each piece of waste collected. It was on-the-ground evidence gathering. The tactic soon spread from the Philippines to other countries in Asia and around the world.
In 2018, member groups of the #breakfreefromplastic movement conducted brand audits in over 50 countries in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe.
The results? Coca Cola, Nestlé, and Pepsi-Co were the world’s top three plastic polluters. The activists used this data to create a series of global campaigns designed to return attention to the real culprits: the corporations producing plastic.
In the U.S., Cummins and 5Gyres realized that focusing exclusively on oceans and coastlines was leaving out the vast numbers of people needed to build the kind of movement necessary to transform the system. They traveled to the Midwest to conduct the largest investigation to date into inland plastic pollution.
AC: So we went to the Great Lakes in 2012 and 2013, and there we found our largest samples of plastic by count in Lake Erie. More plastic in Lake Erie samples than any of the 50,000 miles we’d surveyed before. And what we found there was microbeads from personal care products.
Well, this leads to some good news, and really leads into the story of why we’re here – the power of collaboration. So we took that science in hand, we went to Procter & Gamble, and they basically said more research needed. So as a coalition we worked together. We passed a bill in California with many groups working together – Story of Stuff and NRDC, and on and on and on – passed a bill in California. And if you can pass significant legislation in California, which is a major economy, you’ve essentially passed a federal bill. And that’s what happened.
HOST: In 2015, California passed a landmark ban on the pervasive plastic microbeads in so-called “rinse-off” cosmetics such as shower gels and toothpaste.
Meanwhile, other states had actually loosened restrictions on microbeads used in rinse-off products. But in 2015, Congress enacted a ban like California’s that superseded those less restrictive state laws.
By July, 2019, billions of microbeads were no longer delivered via “rinse-off” products to the U.S. market. Other countries have followed suit. Eleven nations and eight U.S. states have enacted their own microbead bans.
But these microbead bans still do NOT apply to “leave-on” cosmetics and other products such as lipstick and household cleansers.
When we return… Anna Cummins reveals how much of the plastic we diligently separate at home is actually recycled into new products, plus more steps people can take to produce less plastic in the first place.
This is “Plastic Planet: Stopping Big Oil, Big Plastic, and Big Misdirection” on the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.
You can explore more Bioneers radio programs, podcasts and videos online at bioneers.org. For information on attending the National Bioneers Conference and Bioneers events in your area, please visit bioneers.org or call 1-877-BIONEER.
Reduce, reuse, recycle… with an emphasis on “recycle.” It’s been the mantra of good citizenship for decades.
But what we once thought was the answer for removing the inconceivable quantities of single-use plastics from incinerators and landfills is turning out very differently.
In 2017, a recycling crisis exploded when country after country including China stopped accepting the literal mountains of used plastics shipped by the US and other countries in the global north.
In some cases, even the term “recycled” has come to be a misnomer.
AC: So there’s been this myth for a long time that the ultimate solution to plastic and our consumption is recycling, and that 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, and abdicate themselves from the responsibility for 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.
The truth of the matter though is that we’ve created products, especially when you think of 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 do we recover and how do we “recycle” those products. The vast majority go to landfill or escape in the environment.
HOST: After the international market for recyclables shut down, cities across the U.S. – from California to Idaho and New Hampshire – started either burning or burying plastics and other recyclables in landfills. This manufactured, throwaway economy has long since busted past its expiration date. Now we’re in overtime to close the loop A.S.A.P. One way to do that is to change the rules.
AC: So another approach to this glut in this increase in plastic production would be to actually mandate recycled content thresholds. So 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. So that’s an example of producer responsibility where you’re really mandating that companies innovate their packaging and that would also reduce the artificial cost of virgin plastics. Virgin fossil fuels and virgin plastics are artificially cheap, because no ones paying for those externalities, but if we demand that recycled content hit a really significant threshold, then that kind of evens the playing field out a little bit and makes recycled materials more competitive with virgin.
HOST: “The polluter pays” has long been the legitimate public and legislative demand. When you hear the economic term “externality,” it means the public pays. Not to mention animals and the web of life.
Another proposed solution is the development of alternative materials, such as bioplastics. According to Cummins, while there are some promising approaches, once again, the industry is selling us a bill of goods about just how “degradable” these biodegradable materials actually are.
AC: Well, let me preface it by saying we absolutely will need new alternatives that are not made from fossil fuels. That’s a given. Of course we could learn a lot from the way nature designs products. There is no waste.
So there are bioplastics. You can make plastic out of biological materials – corn and starch, and I’m sure you’ve seen some of these at green events. There’s PLA, which is a corn-based plastic, and there’s PHA, which is made from a sugar-based bacteria.
Some of the bioplastics that are currently on the market, though, won’t break down in the ocean, and they give people a false sense that it’s okay to use this, because I can just throw it in the compost bin.
Ideally, we’d go beyond this idea of replacing one disposable product with another less bad disposable product, and we start looking to systems of delivery. That’s a ways off yet, so in the meantime, yes, we can make alternatives that are compostable, that are fiber-based, that are made from trees, that are made from plants.
We’ve gotten really good at making synthetic franken materials that need to be taken apart and most of which are wasted. But we’re talking about some really valuable natural materials – petroleum and fossil fuels – that we’re just turning into throw-away materials every single day. So it’s a crazy system when you think about it, and I think part of the reason we’re having this explosion of interest is that the externalities, the impacts, and the pollution from that flawed system are really catching up with us big time.
HOST: So what to do? First, we have to really know what we’re up against.
According to the World Economic Forum, in 2014, companies manufactured a mammoth 311 million metric tons of plastic. Picture 800 Empire State buildings. And just 2% of that is recycled in a closed loop fashion.
Now toss in some twists of fate. The technological breakthrough of fracking in 2008 created a vast surplus of natural gas, driving down the price of oil. At the same time the onset of climate change and competitive costs of renewable energy made the steady market decline of fossil fuels inevitable.
Naturally, the ever-adaptive fossil fuel industry decided to use all that excess natural gas to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into petrochemicals to make and sell MORE plastics and chemical fertilizer.
AC: The increases in production are terrifying. And this brings up a whole other issue in terms of the connections between plastic, fossil fuels, and climate change. So 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 U.S. alone, or expanding some of the existing facilities. Plastic is really what’s driving that increase. So 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.
HOST: A 2018 report informed by the petrochemical industry estimated that over a third of all plastics were produced to make food and beverage packaging. Fifteen percent were used to make textiles like polyester, which has surpassed cotton as the largest mass-produced fiber in the world.
In the face of these powerful forces, what would success look like in 10 to 15 years to move society toward a circular economy that ultimately produces zero waste?
AC: We shut down the expansion and the building of new petrochemical plants in the U.S. and stop making so much plastic. There’s no reason we should be drilling for new sources of materials to make more plastic. So that would be a huge success, that we’d get away from fossil fuel-based materials, period – which we need to do not just for packaging, but we need to do for our transportation and for so many of the things that we do, and move to renewable sources of energy.
There’s a lot of talk of going out to the ocean to clean up plastics. My husband has been working on a lot of research with ocean modelers, and showing that it gets kicked back out, and 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 to sea, we could see a huge difference in our ocean environment.
HOST: One part of the solution to protecting the ocean is to get serious about moving to a circular economy.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has been promoting and researching this model for many years, “A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”
So how would nature run a manufacturing economy? In nature, there is no such thing as waste. Everything is someone’s lunch of food or energy and it starts from the bottom up.
Using circular economic principles, some cities are moving forward by enacting zero-waste policies.
AC: We’re seeing some really, 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 – the Global Alliance of Incinerator Alternatives, Gaia, the Mother Earth Foundation. They’re really scaling up some of these zero waste techniques in cities, and getting huge reductions in the amount of plastic that’s either going to landfill or escaping out into the environment. And it’s a good counter to this idea that we should burn plastic to produce energy.
HOST: Anna Cummins and 5 Gyres are supporting one U.S. city in charting a path toward zero waste by identifying hotspots of plastic pollution and figuring out how that pollution arrived there.
AC: So looking not just at shoreline and sea surface, but inland and air borne, and rivers, to get a sense for where are the priority problems in a city, and then how can we translate that into policy. We’ve been doing something like that here in San Francisco through a two-year project called the San Francisco Microplastics Project, looking at sediment, sea surface, biota, looking at fish stomachs, to find out what are all the primary problems with microplastics in the San Francisco Bay, and then how can we use that data to inform solutions at the city level.
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 how microfibers are getting into our waterways.
You know, 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.
HOST: In other words, it’s all connected.
One harbinger of this “solve-the-whole problem” approach is visible in the strategic collaborations among diverse groups and movements – intersectional alliances among environmental, scientific, and advocacy groups which all hold a piece of the puzzle.
From a systems viewpoint, one fact is crystal clear: The same 50 companies worldwide responsible for the massive carbon emissions causing the climate emergency are responsible for the plastic pollution damaging the health of people and nature on whose health our human health depends.
So many groups are mapping out what’s called a “just transition” off fossil fuels entirely, which is both inevitable and imperative.
AC: I went to a meeting that was a coming together of plastic pollution groups who work on more consumer-facing and environmental justice groups that work on toxics issues and fracking and things like that. And it was an incredible coming together where we realized that there are all these connections, there are all these synergies, and that we’re ultimately all fighting for a just transition off of fossil fuels.
We’re seeing the movement becoming much more organized and starting to engage in more intersectional collaboration, so connecting with the fracking movement, connecting with the justice movement, really looking at how plastic is really 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.
HOST: It’s all connected and we’re all connected. In nature, the surest way to heal an ecosystem is to connect it to more of itself. As this movement of movements gets more connected to itself, Anna Cummins is showing how we can heal both nature and ourselves.