The future depends on our ability to decrease the production of new plastics while also eliminating the plastic waste that is already sitting in our ocean, on our soil, in our deserts, and even on Mount Everest! It’s everywhere and every single one of them needs a solution.
Every solution that is known and unknown to us that tackles the problem is all part of the necessary path. It’s an end-to-end problem that requires an end-to-end solution. As frustrating as it might sound, no matter where on the “plastic is the enemy” scale we stand — we need to consider solutions that address every part of the current plastic life-cycle. Sure we’d all rather not have any plastics being made, sold and none ending up in our ocean — this is a longer-term goal, and we all need to work together to get there.
The world ultimately needs to avoid producing and using plastic in the volumes it has been. This is a long-term goal and we all need to take the steps to get there.
The topic is complicated and can be daunting when you think about it. It’s not just avoiding single-use items, it’s not just things that you use and reuse, it’s not even alternatives that can save the planet. It’s truly complicated. Should you just throw your hands up and give up though? NO please don’t! Below, is an attempt to break things up into more manageable parts and give some guidance to how you could incorporate each into your life. It’s not an all or nothing thing. It’s not a place to be discouraged. It’s doing all that you can do, anything and everything, knowing all that you know today.
From a consumer standpoint, we can look at “waste” in three different phases — pre and during use of a product, post-use, and post-waste. In each phase of the life-cycle, what can you do, what are the considerations that can help move our cause forward.
Pre and During Use:
This is the first phase that the consumer interacts with the product. The product has been designed, manufactured and shipped to a distribution location.
Avoidance — do you actually NEED that thing you’re about to buy? Whether it’s a bag, shoes, an extra pair of socks or something else… do you REALLY need it? What will happen to the older one you have or to this once you’re done with it? Having a plan to address the end of life for the product you’re about to purchase is usually an eye-opener about needing something.
Another part of avoidance is also avoiding waste. So that thing you’re about to throw out — can you make another use of it? Use it a little longer? Donate it? Recycle it?
These questions — though sometimes not readily a deterrent, always makes us more aware of the action we are about to take and the impact it might have on the environment.
Package Free goods — The same consideration is also helpful when looking at packaged goods — if you really need that product is there an unpackaged alternative you can buy? The majority of the 400+Billion tons of plastic produced this year is used in packaging. Manufacturers certainly need to make less packaging. But it’s not just that the manufacturers need to make unpackaged goods — also consumers need to favor them.
Alternative materials — whether made from natural/biodegradable resources, or is a compostable type of plastic, or made of an alternative product altogether (ie. wood, stone, metal) it’s most impactful to seek out alternatives. However, it helps to know your alternatives. What is usually claimed to be compostable/biodegradable is mostly not so within the waste services that are widely available in your municipality. Also, if you are using an alternative it shouldn’t be thrown into the “recyclable” bin. Alternative materials contaminate recycling lines and reduce the quality of recycled materials.
Recycled materials — ok you really need to buy that product and there is no alternative material it is made of but plastic — ie. electronics etc. Are there brands that use more recycled plastics to make their consumer goods? For instance, for vacuum cleaners Electrolux has been using recycled plastics for years and not making their products from raw plastic. Pilot — the pen company makes pens from recycled plastic bottles. Preserve even makes toothbrushes from recycled caps. Many more options are available.
The extended benefit of using alternatives is that you impact reducing plastic demand — less demand means less production. Using products that are made of recycled plastic means a stronger recycling process and industry, which means less plastic left to go into landfills and waterways. To have the impact the world needs, the number of people using less plastic needs to increase dramatically. And the world is really getting there, the shift is happening, it just needs to be pushed further and faster.
This is the phase immediately following the useful lifecycle of the product for the consumer.
Recycling — is truly not the answer and yet such a big part of the solution. In a nutshell, recycling isn’t an efficient process — it’s high energy and high cost — most plastics that we use in our lives are not recyclable within common municipal recycling facilities. With the Chinese import ban, unrecyclable plastics end up in landfills and oceans. Most Western countries were sending MOST of their “recycling” to China to be recycled. To top it off even recyclable plastics have a limited time that they can be recycled before they turn into plastic “pulp”. Basically, the benefit of recycling, if the item IS in fact recycled, is that it increases the number of uses we get out of the resource we’ve created and, delays the time plastic ends up in a landfill, incineration plant, or the ocean. So use and reuse plastic items for as long as you can, then make sure that plastic item ends up in a recycling facility that can process it. But better yet — get an alternative material to begin with.
We need to work on developing a solution to return plastics and packaging to the appropriate facilities BEFORE they end up in the ocean.
Collection — we need to work on developing a solution to returning plastics and packaging to the appropriate facilities BEFORE they end up in the ocean. This part falls a lot on the consumer in the Western countries — just as we don’t expect the companies and the government to bring it to our door without us taking action and paying for it (i.e shipping), we also need to take the responsibility to make sure what we have NOW ends up in the appropriate facility. Sure, the companies and governments need to provide the services, however, the consumers need to use those services for them to be effective. And it is mostly up to the conscious consumer and citizen to know/learn how.
Re-purposing — not just for yourself necessarily — but it can be donated to GoodWill, Diabetes Association, Vietnam Veterans, Purple Heart, Red Cross, and whatever else is available in your area. Sometimes it can be sent to an NGO where they can deal with the “waste” factor effectively. Some organizations, like Soles-For-Souls, can take shoes and recycle them into roads while providing new shoes to the population of the developing nation. The possibilities are practically endless. There is no reason to throwout household items or clothing.
Post-waste (Ocean, Beach, Waterways, Environment):
This is AFTER the plastics have escaped the landfill or recycling facilities for whatever reason. Each region, each community has a different truth about this.
Capturing pre-ocean plastics — I’ve been seeing articles and posts about this net that is being used in Australia — they capture the waste that is coming into the waterways through the catch basins or other water outflow channels. It seems to be something to be considered in more developed areas, but likely to have its shortcomings in more populated and less developed high waste areas.
Cleanups — if every single person on the planet was collecting a pound of trash from the ocean — it would still not clean the entire ocean. The manpower and the cost and time that the cleanups require are simply not sustainable and they will not be the efforts that solve the problem. However, they are necessary to make a difference in especially island and coastal communities. We need to increase the amount of effective beach and ocean-cleanups — and at the same time focusing once again at the end-to-end process.
Solutions like “The Ocean Cleanup Project” isn’t going to save the ocean and the world, unfortunately. It can, though, provide a way to capture much of the plastic that is already in the ocean — especially those by the coastal areas before they make their way into the Gyres. Another solution out there is Mr. Trashwheel in Baltimore that has effectively turned the Baltimore Harbor into a refreshing space to be enjoyed. Though it might be costly to first implement — it has proven itself to be a very effective little solution. Seabin is another product that is specifically available for use in marinas or similar locations. The important thing to consider for the clean-up projects — whether they are beach cleanups or otherwise, is to have an effective approach to handling the collected material. Each of these projects works together with local municipalities setting up a special handling process to ensure the collected waste is diverted from landfills.
We further need to work on developing and implementing solutions to plastics that are collected from beaches and the ocean.
Recycling “waste” plastic — There are multiple solutions available today that turn ocean and waste plastic into usable materials — such as the ecothreadfrom plastic water bottles. TerraCycle is able to make use of “waste” materials, the technology exists. TREX turns plastic bags into composite materials for decks, parks, marinas, walkways, boardwalks, etc. The Plastic Bank created social plastic to encourage and incentivize people to return their “waste” plastic in exchange of a service, and their collected plastic is used as “ocean plastic” in products like Norton Point sunglasses.
Imagine a future where all plastic is collected and turned into a product that is necessary, used and properly discarded at the end of it’s lifecycle to either become another product or to be turned into energy.
Waste to Energy is not the answer at the moment — it is also not the enemy, but a necessary process of the future. With the technologies available today, they are more effective with every iteration — such as this Sierra Energy plant near San Francisco. The amount of carbon produced from these facilities is declining. Due to the nature of plastics, we cannot have a solution where at least Waste to Energy doesn’t exist. In the end — plastic comes to an end in its usefulness and quality, and either it’s buried where the toxins might be absorbed into the soil and fed back to us via water and farm produce, or it’s incinerated/openly burned and we breathe the toxins in. There isn’t a perfect solution — yet. Perhaps in the future, somebody will invent a technology where burning plastic creates more oxygen than carbon, until then, the plastics that are already here still need to be dealt with and the world needs “dirty” energy to run on.
Imagine a future where there is no “waste” plastic — and all products created with the resource are being captured and turned into another product or energy without any of the harmful pollutants.
There’s nothing wrong with favoring a solution or disliking one. However, to completely try to remove one of these from the process will only make things slower and less effective. We need to work on new solutions AND make use of the ones available today in the best way possible.