PLASTIC!

How you are you doing sheltering in place? My family is healthy and able to adjust and continue with work and schooling. The biggest impact so far is psychological; it’s difficult to think or converse about anything else. My family is incredibly fortunate so far. However, it does mean that we stop thinking about other things.

For example, I normally attempt to purchase as little food as possible packaged in single use plastic. For example, I usually purchase parmesan cheese whole instead of grated in a plastic tub. I hope the thin shrink wrapping on the wedge of cheese has a smaller ecological footprint than the plastic tub labeled with a “5” in the recycling symbol on the bottom. I’ve opted for the shrink wrap though not recyclable and the tub technically is as our community collects and attempts to recycle plastics labeled 1-7.

While the tub is recycleable, I am not confident it actually gets recycled. And even if it did, one must consider the resources that were required to make the plastic in the first place. I suspect the plastic wrapping had less of an environmental footprint in terms of resource consumption to make than the thicker, more dense, larger tub. But, I don’t really know, which is also a problem.

The reality is studies have found that at most 10% of plastic ever produced has been recycled. I bet you think, and I thought, that the symbol meant that it was recycleable to some degree. That isn’t the purpose of that symbol. The purpose is merely to identify what kind of plastic it is so you can know if it is recycleable or not. This was a purposeful decision by the plastic industry.

Recognizing that we had a plastic problem, the decision was made not to reduce or reuse plastic, but instead to recycle. Focusing on the first two would hurt profits, so recycling was the only course of action and industry could take. What happened was that plastic production and consumption dramatically increased. We consumers thought erroneously that by recycling we were doing our part to “save the planet” and we could wash our hands (for 20 seconds remembering to wash the back of your hand, get between your fingers, and don’t forget about the thumb!). See, always thinking about the pandemic, even when not.

This dramatic increase in plastic production means the recycling market cannot keep up with the amount produced. Recycling only works if there is a market to purchase the plastic and reuse it as a raw material for more plastic production. We have a significantly greater supply of raw recycled plastic material than a demand for it. And when there is a high demand that is because we are producing more plastic (which 90% of will not be recycled). That means that most of the plastic doesn’t ever get recycled. The plastic that does not get recycled does not often end up in a properly designed landfill since it was separated from the traditional refuse pickup. 32% of plastic packaging ends up in the ocean.

That puts us into a positive feedback loop. We make more out of plastic, so we purchase more plastic. But, if recycling it is too expensive, the material is contaminated with the wrong kind of plastic or other refuse, then it is not usable as a raw material. If oil prices drop, as they have dramatically now, it is cheaper to make plastic from new raw materials rather than recycled. It is a sure bet that as oil prices drop and we shift to other sources of fuel, the oil industry will shift to plastic production as a market for their oil and we will see increased campaigning for the need for recycling instead of reducing or reusing plastic.

So what does this have to do with the pandemic? The last time I shopped I purchased the tub of parmesan. I don’t even really know why. I wasn’t thinking about the packaging. I was consumed with purchasing 2-3 weeks of groceries instead of my typical 1 week of groceries. I was thinking about convenience, what will keep longer, what can I fit in the freezer, etc.

It is of course natural to be consumed with the largest disruption to our economy and daily lives since WW II. At some point, however, we will have to return to normalcy, even if that normalcy is somewhat different. We will still have a plastic production and consumption problem. We will still have a climate crisis. We will still have a water and air pollution problem. The longer we are consumed with other thoughts and efforts of mere survival of one crisis, the other crises will expand. That’s a real problem, because all of these crises are interconnected, and none can be ignored as an increase in one will compound the others.

For now, shelter in place as much as possible so we can all get through this crisis. Then, when life begins to resume keep these other crises in mind. They are all interconnected, and ultimately these environmental crises will make this pandemic like like child’s play by comparison. In the end, it won’t be Mother Earth that will lose, it will be us fragile Homo sapiens economicus that will lose.

Here’s a link to a useful article that explains the recycle symbol and number key: https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/g804/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321/. Check with your local municipality to get a precise list of what plastic can be recycled in your area.

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