The Story of Plastic
Notes by Linda Whitebread (personal take on the film)
This film from ‘The Story of Stuff’ stable reviews the situation today regarding the build-up of plastic waste throughout the world. Crucial points for me were:
Plastic was first mass manufactured in the 1950s. It has many wonderful qualities – cheap to manufacture; versatile; attractive to use; durable. However its durability also represents its huge disadvantage. Elsewhere I have read that all the plastic ever produced still exists today.
The oil giants need to keep producing oil to make a profit. As well as being used as fuel, oil can be used in the manufacture of products such as fertilisers and plastic. This is especially true now that the demand for oil for energy is reducing.
So the rise of plastic manufacture has been supply- (of oil) led rather than demand-led.
A major use of single-use plastic Is in packaging. Paraphrased quotes from film:
1950’s: In response to the first laws limiting disposable packaging, US companies formed ’Keep America Beautiful Inc.’ Campaigning shifted the focus to litter, causing limits on disposable packaging to disappear for decades.
This later extended to recycling:
1990’s: The packaging industry continued to fight restrictions on disposables while promoting municipal-funded recycling. In the US, plastic recycling rates increased four-fold, funded by the tax-payer. The American Chemistry Council promoted recycling; under pressure municipalities in the US accepted hard plastics for the first time.
Figures given by the film
91% of plastic has never been recycled
Currently (? not sure at what date, or whether this is one country or globally):
32% ends up as litter
40% goes to landfill
14% recycled: but only 2% effectively recycled, ie becomes something as useful as what it was before. Most is downcycled – becomes something worse – and most is only recycled once before being incinerated, going to landfill, or ending up as litter.
2000s: The fast-moving consumer goods industry experienced slowing growth for the first time and began marketing to the rapidly developing middle class in the Global South. Packaged and processed foods replaced fresh.
Plastics have a real benefit, for example in hospitals, surgery. The real problem is packaging, especially multi-layered single-use sachets. Under the influence of aggressive marketing by the west, developing countries are moving from traditional sustainable, natural packaging to plastic packaging.
Double whammy: countries in Asia etc are encouraged to buy toxic single-use plastics, AND to receive plastic waste shipped from the west. We have exported the problem to other parts of the world and now say they are the problem.
Fossil fuel used for plastics, much of which are incinerated.
2018: As other nations joined China in banning scrap imports, plastic incineration increased around the world.
Incineration releases many toxic materials (eg cadmium, lead, mercury) into the environment. People living in the vicinity of incinerators have reported respiratory problems, dermatitis, infertility.
Yet the new incinerators need a supply of plastic to keep going. There is a huge web of infrastructure from oil refineries to incinerators all working together to increase the amount of plastics in the world and reduce recycling.
2005: US Energy Policy Act gave oil and gas companies exemptions to environmental and health regulations. Resulted in a shale gas boom and a glut of raw materials for plastic production.
As well as shale gas, the oil and gas pockets release other chemicals, eg benzene, xylene, harmful to health. Residents living near shale gas plants report headaches and respiratory problems.
2015: In the midst of the ongoing fracking boom, the US lifted a 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports, setting off a rush of oil, gas and ‘plastic feedstock’ sales worldwide.
Huge increase in number of petro-chemical plants producing plastic. Eg in2017 Exxon and Saudi-Arabia’s SABIC jointly opened the world’s largest plastic manufacturing facility of its kind, receiving billions in US tax breaks and other subsidies.
These plants must continue to maximise production in order to pay off the debts incurred by building them.
2018: public awareness of plastic pollution increased because of media coverage of plastic in oceans.
Response: plastic companies say that the fault lies with consumers and countries with inadequate waste recycling infrastructure. The clean-up message, not the use of plastic packaging in the first place, has dominated the narrative.
The Alliance to End Plastic Waste was founded in 2019 by companies that make, use, sell, process, collect and recycle plastics. It pledged $1.5 billion to a clean-up programme.
Meanwhile $204 billion was spent on 334 new petrochemical facilities (when/where?)
Nanoplastics ‘recently’ found in 83% of global tapwater sampled and 93% of bottled water.
Can we find new alternatives to plastic?
Bioplastics: (ie plant based) also have sustainability challenges, including effective biodegradability.
Cost of new fossil-fuel based plastic is artificially low because of oil and gas subsidies of $5.2 trillion pa. This disincentivises the use of recycled content and other alternatives.
Reduce and re-use.
Ban single-use plastics: recent increase in banning of different products throughout the world, eg EU, China, Rwanda, Morocco.
Fight to end fossil fuel subsidies.
Require plastic packaging manufacturers to use a minimum amount of recycled plastic.
Companies have profited by externalising the environmental costs of the plastic (eg to taxpayers who fund recycling schemes; to developing countries). They must be made to absorb these costs.
Multinational companies are locked into their need for growth; and massive supply chains forcing them to rely on plastic packaging. Try to move to small-scale firms, more local, alternative delivery systems, building communities.
Support/join Break Free From Plastic https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/about/
Linda Whitebread 21/05/2020