The students at Westmeade Elementary School worked hard on their dragon. And it paid off. The plastic bag receptacle that the kids painted green and outfitted with triangular white teeth and a “feed me” sign won the students from the Nashville suburb first place in a recycling box decorating contest. The idea, as Westmeade’s proud principal told a local TV news show, was to help the environment. But the real story behind the dragon — as with much of the escalating war over plastic waste — is more complicated.
The contest was sponsored by A Bag’s Life, a recycling promotion and education effort of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a lobbying group that fights restrictions on plastic. That organization is part of the Plastics Industry Association, a trade group that includes Shell Polymers, LyondellBasell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron Phillips, DowDuPont, and Novolex — all of which profit hugely from the continued production of plastics. And even as A Bag’s Life was encouraging kids to spread the uplifting message of cleaning up plastic waste, its parent organization, the American Progressive Bag Alliance, was backing a state bill that would strip Tennesseans of their ability to address the plastics crisis. The legislation would make it illegal for local governments to ban or restrict bags and other single-use plastic products — one of the few things shown to actually reduce plastic waste.
A week after Westmeade’s dragon won the contest, the APBA got its own reward: The plastic preemption bill passed the Tennessee state legislature. Weeks later, the governor signed it into law, throwing a wrench into an effort underway in Memphis to charge a fee for plastic bags. Meanwhile, A Bag’s Life gave the Westmeade kids who worked on the bag monster a $100 gift card to use “as they please.” And with that, a minuscule fraction of its vast wealth, the plastics industry applied a green veneer to its increasingly bitter and desperate fight to keep profiting from a product that is polluting the world.
A Bag’s Life is just one small part of a massive, industry-led effort now underway to suppress meaningful efforts to reduce plastic waste while keeping the idea of recycling alive. The reality of plastics recycling? It’s pretty much already dead. In 2015, the U.S. recycled about 9 percent of its plastic waste, and since then the number has dropped even lower. The vast majority of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever produced — 79 percent — has ended up in landfills or scattered all around the world. And as for those plastic shopping bags the kids were hoping to contain: Less than 1 percent of the tens of billions of plastic bags used in the U.S. each year are recycled.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to properly dispose of the array of toys, single-use clamshells, bottles, bags, takeout containers, iced coffee cups, straws, sachets, yogurt tubs, pouches, candy bar wrappers, utensils, chip bags, toiletry tubes, electronics, and lids for everything that passes through our lives daily. We have to. But we are well past the point where the heartfelt efforts of schoolchildren or anyone else on the consumer end can solve the plastics problem. It no longer matters how many hoots we give. There is already way too much plastic that won’t decompose and ultimately has nowhere to go, whether it’s mashed into a dragon container or not.
All the Plastics in the Seas
The terrifying news about plastic seems to be as inescapable as the plastic itself, tiny bits of which are now almost everywhere. One study found these “microplastics” in the Pyrenees mountain air 100 miles from the nearest city. Another found that microplastics are being turned into sewage sludge and spread on fields that grow food. And, as we know from the plastic-filled whales that regularly wash up dead, the oceans are awash in plastic waste and now contain some 150 million tons of the stuff — a mass expected soon to surpass the weight of all the fish in the seas.
We humans also have plastic lodged in our bodies. The substance often sold to us as protection from contamination is in both food and water. Bottled water, sales of which are increasing in part because people are seeking alternatives to contaminated local water supplies, now contains plastic as well. A 2018 study found that 93 percent of bottled water samples contained microplastics. While all the big brands tested positive for microplastics, the worst was Nestlé Pure Life, which claims that its water “goes through a 12-step quality process, so you can trust every drop.”
It’s worth noting that in both 2017 and 2018, Nestlé ranked in the top three among brands whose plastic trash was most often collected in global cleanup efforts conducted by the environmental group Break Free From Plastic.
The confluence of terrible news has taken public outrage over plastic to a new level. Once regarded mostly as an eyesore or a nuisance, plastic waste is now widely understood to be a cause of species extinction, ecological devastation, and human health problems. And because more than 99 percent of plastic is derived from oil, natural gas, and coal — and because its destruction also uses fossil fuels — environmental groups now recognize plastic as a major contributor to climate change. Naturalist David Attenborough has likened the shift in public opinion over plastics to the process through which the public reached a consensus on the harms of slavery.
Between extraction, refining, and waste management, the production and incineration of plastics will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere this year alone — an amount equal to the emissions from 189 500-megawatt coal power plants, according to a report from the Center for International Environmental Law.
Recycled plastics — once seen as a sign of environmental virtue — is increasingly recognized as posing threats to our health. Plastics contain additives that determine its properties, including stability, color, and flexibility. Most of the thousands of these chemicals aren’t regulated, but it’s clear that some of those additives, which end up in recycled plastics, are dangerous. One study found that half of recycled plastics in India contained a flame retardant associated with neurological, reproductive, and developmental harms.
Black plastic, used in everything from children’s toys to kitchen utensils, food packaging, cellphone cases, and thermoses, appears to be particularly dangerous. The plastic is often sourced from recycled electronics that contain phthalates, flame retardants, and heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead, and mercury. Even at very low levels, these chemicals can cause serious reproductive and developmental problems.
But most of the additives aren’t tracked or well studied. “The industry has no idea what they’re putting in the plastic and who’s putting it in,” said Andrew Turner, a British chemist who recently found toxic chemicals in 40 percent of the black plastic toys, thermoses, cocktail stirrers, and utensils he tested. In some plastic, he found the chemicals present at 30 times safety standards set by governments.
Even chemicals that are regulated often have limits set for electronics but not for recycled products. “You’ve got something that wouldn’t be compliant with the regulations as an electric item because its levels are too high, but because it’s turned into a fork, there’s nothing to stop it from being used,” Turner said. Antimony, which Turner found in food containers, toys, and office supplies, “is restricted in drinking water, but not in electrical waste.” Turner and Zhanyun Wang, another scientist I spoke with who studies chemical additives to plastics, told me that they no longer use black plastic utensils. “Given the option, I’d prefer something white or clear,” said Turner, adding that he tries to avoid utensils made of any kind of plastic.
The solution to this global mess clearly has to be much bigger than personal cutlery choices. Among the organizations demanding that we push past the idea of recycling and require corporations to limit plastics production are Greenpeace, the Surfrider Foundation, As You Sow, the Rainforest Alliance and 5Gyres, an organization started by a couple who sailed across the Pacific Ocean on a raft made out of discarded bottles. Fueled by a spike in consumer frustration with products that make them complicit in the problem, plastic-free restaurants and grocery stores are now emerging.
Taxes, bans, and fees on plastic products have been catching on around the world. In March, the European Union voted to ban single-use plastics by 2021. In June, Canada followed suit, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowing to not just ban single-use plastics such as bags, straws, and cutlery, but also to hold plastics manufacturers responsible for their waste. One hundred and forty-one countries, including China, Bangladesh, India, and 34 African countries, have implemented taxes or partial bans on plastics.
In the U.S., the Trump administration has worked against international efforts to crack down on plastic waste, so cities and towns are leading the way. While only eight states have enacted plastic restrictions, more than 330 local plastic bag ordinances have passed in 24 states. Some federal lawmakers have also recognized that federal action is necessary to beat back the mounting tide of plastic. “Plastics recycling is not a realistic solution to the plastic pollution crisis. Most consumer plastics are economically impractical to recycle based on market conditions alone,” Rep. Alan Lowenthal and Sen. Tom Udall wrote in a letter to President Donald Trump in June, noting that the “spread of single-use plastic products has led to widespread pollution of plastic in the U.S. and has caused a growing financial burden on state agencies, local governments and taxpayers for remediation.”
Recycling or Burning?
One of the latest solutions industry is offering to the plastics crisis isn’t recycling exactly. While many questions remain about what exactly the Hefty EnergyBag program is, it is making it clear how expensive and difficult it is to find a use for plastic waste.
In April, 49 years after protesters kicked off the first Earth Day by dumping single-use waste at Coca-Cola’s doorstep, Dow Chemical was a “forest green sponsor” of Omaha’s Earth Day event, despite the fact that it is the largest plastics manufacturer in the world. With a $5,000 gift, Dow’s Hefty EnergyBag program, a joint effort of Dow and Reynolds Consumer Products, was one of the two biggest donors for the event. Held in Omaha’s lush Elmwood Park, the day’s festivities were as green and wholesome as any corporate sponsor could want. Native American folk music played as locals strolled the grass from table to table learning about urban beekeeping, rain barrels, microchickens, and tree planting. Children stroked a soft gray rabbit. And dozens of environmentally concerned Nebraskans participated in an outdoor yoga class, bending and stretching in the sun along with their neighbors.
Dow and Hefty first rolled out the program on Earth Day 2016 as a way for Omaha residents to dispose of plastic forks and knives, chip bags, and other single-use plastics that the city hadn’t been able to process. They just had to put the plastic trash into special orange Hefty bags, put them out on the curb, and the city would pick up and recycle the trash. “They were very definitely calling it recycling,” recalls Richard Yoder, a local sustainability consultant. But Yoder and other Omahanians soon learned that rather than being melted down into reusable plastic, the contents of their bags were being burned in an incinerator in Missouri that had a history of Clean Air Act violations.
Last year, after Yoder argued at a local debate over the program that calling the Energybag program recycling was misleading, Hefty stopped using that term. Yet, in labored language, the company’s website still pitches the program as an environmental good, or “a groundbreaking initiative that collects hard to recycle plastics.” The Hefty EnergyBag program “complements existing recycling programs,” according to Ashley Mendoza, a spokesperson for Dow. “Our long-term vision is to keep more plastics out of landfills by collecting them for recycling or recovery if they cannot be reused.”
After the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives called out the Omaha program for creating more pollution, the Dow and Hefty initiative also stopped sending the orange bags to the incinerator. Since then, the plastic waste has been put to several purposes, including being compressed into fence posts and railroad ties and going “to a Canadian firm that made some sort of decking,” according to Dale Gubbels, CEO of FirstStar Recycling, the Omaha company partnering with Dow and Hefty on the project.
Sharon Lerner (2019)