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We Can’t Solve the Plastics Crisis With Other Disposables

Corporations are pushing alternatives to plastic, but many come with severe ecological consequences.

Corporations are pushing alternatives to plastic, but many come with severe ecological consequences.

A South Florida nature center recently posted a picture of a baby turtle that its staff found along the coastline. The animal died shortly after washing up on the shore. When they dissected it, they found 104 pieces of plastic in its stomach. Like other social media posts showing turtles harmed by plastic waste, the picture went viral.

Scientists have found that every minute, the equivalent of one dump truckload of plastic gets into the ocean. That plastic is not only ingested by half of the world’s sea turtles but also kills 1 million seabirds every year, encourages the growth of pathogens that can harm coral, and releases cancer-causing and endocrine-disrupting pollutants.

Plastic that doesn’t end up in the oceans still poses a global threat. In 2019, the production and incineration of plastics will create 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, according to a 2019 study from the Center for International Environmental Law. That’s equivalent to the pollution released by 185 500-megawatt coal power plants.

Public concern about both plastic pollution and climate change is growing, but Nadia Nazar, the 17-year-old co-founder of the environmental justice organization Zero Hour, fears that people aren’t connecting the two crises. “What inspired me [to become an environmental organizer] was just generally species being killed and losing their lives,” she told Truthout. “But I think a lot of people don’t understand that direct correlation between plastic and climate change. They kind of see [them] as two separate issues.”

In fact, public interest in the climate crisis could actually be fueling plastic production, says Judith Enck, former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator under President Obama. “As the nation moves away from fossil fuels and invests in energy efficiency and renewable energy, the fossil fuel industry is panicking and scrambling to find a substitute market,” she said. That’s why fossil fuel executives are building new plants to process ethane, a waste product of fracking that’s used to make plastic. By the most conservative predictions, plastics will produce 300 coal plants-worth of greenhouses gases by 2030, the Center for International Environmental Law study shows. By 2050, that pollution output could double.

“Policymakers need to connect the dots between plastics and climate change, and adopt new laws and regulations that address both problems before it is too late,” she told Truthout.

Laws regulating plastic are catching on. This October, the state of California implemented a ban on travel-size hotel toiletry bottles; Los Angeles rolled out limitations on plastic straws; and Portland, Oregon, rolled out a policy regulation on plastic straws, utensils and individual condiment packs.

The bans are being implemented despite vocal concerns from disability rights activists, who point out that some people with strength, mobility and coordination disabilities cannot lift cups, and for others, bendable straws provide a way to avoid spilling liquid as they’re drinking. Additionally, as the Center for Disability Rights notes, some medications are intended to be taken through straws, and even if businesses are supposed to have straws available upon request, not all of them do. Yet the straw bans are multiplying.

And it’s not just the West Coast: City and state lawmakers in Baltimore, Maryland; Norwalk, Connecticut; Chatham, New Jersey; and Worcester, Massachusetts, are also considering regulations on single-use plastics. Many of these bans explicitly state the relationship between plastic production and the climate crisis.

Corporations are taking notice, too. Major fast food chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks have vowed to replace plastic lids, straws and packaging with their paper and compostable plastic counterparts. Grocery chains Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have also announced plans to reduce their plastic use, and food producers like Nestlé are developing packaging made of plastic alternatives.

But a new study from Greenpeace shows that replacing plastics with other single-use products is a false solution.

“Due to public concern about the plastic pollution crisis worldwide, we are witnessing a parade of corporations scrambling to look greener by putting forward false solutions to justify their addiction to single-use packaging,” said Greenpeace USA Global Project Leader Graham Forbes in a statement.

In an effort to phase out plastics, many major companies have switched to paper products. Aardvark, one of the few companies that produces cardboard straws, has seen its sales increase by 5,000 percent in just a few years. The trend has persisted despite criticism from disability justice groups, which have pointed out that paper straws can pose real dangers for people with mobility and strength issues, putting them at risk of choking. But as Greenpeace’s report says, increasing the production of paper products will put massive pressure on global forests, which sustain Indigenous communities, house much of the planet’s biodiversity and store carbon — a crucial function in the face of the worsening climate crisis.

In theory, recycling could help circumvent this supply chain, but that’s not currently a viable alternative, “partly due to contamination in the recycling stream, leading municipalities to incinerate or landfill vast amounts of paper collected for recycling,” the report notes. Last year, for instance, McDonald’s announced it would phase out of using plastic straws in the U.K. and Ireland, but the company’s new paper straws can’t be recycled because they are too thick and contain adhesives.

Another emerging alternative to traditional plastics, which are made from petroleum, is bio-based plastics. Bio-based plastics are made from biological matter such as vegetable oils, straw or cornstarch — at least they are in part. The NaturALL bottle, a bio-plastic bottle developed by major water companies Danone and Nestlé Waters and used by the likes of PepsiCo, is still 70 percent traditional plastic. And the biological material in bio-based plastics is problematic, too. Most of it comes from agricultural crops, which compete with food crops and can thereby threaten food security. Agriculture is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Even biodegradable and compostable plastics come with major ecological problems. These alternatives are engineered to fully decompose in certain conditions, but those conditions are rarely met in the natural environment. If these materials aren’t disposed of properly (and most aren’t — the Greenpeace report says more than 90 percent of all plastic ever produced hasn’t been recycled or composted), they’re more likely to end up in landfills or incinerators, where they behave no differently from petroleum-based plastic. Both landfills and incinerators emit greenhouse gases and other toxic chemicals, and unsurprisingly, both are often constructed near poor people of color.

The report says the only way forward is to move away from all disposable materials. “To truly tackle the pollution crisis without exacerbating other crises, we must shift toward systems of reuse and refill, fundamentally rethinking how products are brought to people,” Perry Wheeler, a senior communications specialist at Greenpeace, told Truthout. “Any solution that is based around continuing a throwaway culture must be looked at skeptically.”

Even if some disposable alternatives take less of an ecological toll than their plastic alternatives, Wheeler says environmental movements should realize they won’t solve the fundamental problem. “There is currently no silver bullet to solving the plastic pollution crisis in the form of an alternative material,” he said. “And by pushing these false solutions as temporary fixes, we risk locking ourselves in to decades of environmental harm in other spaces, including deforestation, at a time when we need to be advancing new business models based on reuse and refill.”

Enck agrees but doesn’t discount the potential of regulations on plastics specifically. “The key is to ban the worst plastic packaging and provide incentives for reuse,” she said.

As environmental movements gain visibility, reusable materials have become more popular — and even trendy. The reusable water bottle market has exploded in recent years. Celebrities and influencers are often seen touting “status” insulated bottles from brands like Hydro Flask, Bkr and S’well, and style publications like New York Magazine and Women’s Health often trend-forecast the “coolest” reusable straws.

Zero Hour’s Nazar has seen reusables catch on amongst her peers. “I have this reusable spork I’m kind of known for using all the time,” she said. “Some people thought it was kind of funny at first that I was just randomly pulling out a blue spork out of my bag … but now, they’re like, ‘Oh, she’s being conscientious.’”

Nazar says part of that trend has come from marketing initiatives. “I do think branding has played a role in this, but I do think that there are good intentions throughout the [movement against] plastic pollution,” she said.

The production of reusable materials also has ecological impacts — especially if people are buying a lot of them. One study found that the energy used to produce a single metal straw is equivalent to the energy used to produce 102 plastic straws, and the carbon emissions used to produce one metal straw is equivalent to producing 150 plastic straws. That means consumers must use these reusable alternatives 90-120 times to make them more environmentally sustainable than their plastic counterparts. Producing reusable water bottles from materials like glass and steel is energy intensive, and many of these bottles aren’t recyclable. Reusable grocery bag alternatives also have a footprint — they’re often made of cotton — which, like bio-based plastics, can add to agricultural emissions and compete with food crops. And purchasing any of these materials online can create additional emissions from shipping, which is particularly problematic if people purchase new reusable items frequently to ensure their belongings are the latest model and in perfect condition.

Still, if these materials are used enough times, they do have less of an ecological impact than disposables. “While the materials and energy that go into reusable systems are not perfect, if we put systems in place to ensure they are actually used as many times as possible, our environment will be much better off,” said Greenpeace’s Wheeler.

But moving toward the ethos of reuse will take time. “Corporations have pushed a throwaway mindset for decades, and shifting that toward reuse won’t happen overnight,” Wheeler said. “The companies that have sold us on convenience and throwaway culture must be leading on investments into innovating truly sustainable alternatives and new business models. Whenever possible, that should mean package-free and reusable alternatives that do not add to the strains on the Earth.”

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