In 1940, we entered the Plastic Age, declared Fortune magazine in its prophetic October issue.
Writers and graphic artists swooned at the rapid evolution of miraculous new plastics, and hailed them for their vibrant color, lightness, versatility, malleability and durability. They forecast a time when practically anything could be pressed, squeezed, rolled, sawed, drawn, cast, or carved from plastic — even cars and houses.
Feverishly, the Fortune writers and artists mapped a “synthetic continent of plastics,” where the cardinal points were those of the chemical compass — carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen. Its plastic countries included Melamine, Petrolia, Cellulose (“something like Texas”), Acrylic, and Phenolic, “the greatest plastic country of all — a heavy industrial region of coal-tar chemicals fed by the Formaldehyde River.”
This continent evinced great plastic cities (Bakelite, Plexiglass, Petropol, Cellophane), “great chemical river systems,” big lakes (the Acetic Acid, the Phthalic Anhydride), largely unexplored forests (Lignin, “the dark forest of the North”), famed islands (Nylon and Rayon, famous for its “glittering nightlife”), and mountains high and low (the Crystal Mountains of Acrylic, the Crystal Hills of Styrene).
In 1940, the major drawback to plastics was cost, which is why the idea of a plastic car or house still seemed out of reach. Since then, however, plastic has become so cheap that we’re now awash in it, especially single-use plastics, which is more than 40% of the plastic produced.
The nightmarish prophecy of a great world of plastic has become manifest: We have great islands of plastic in our oceans (just the Western Pacific patch contains 79,000 tons of plastic, comprising an area bigger than Texas), major river systems overwhelmed by plastic, and, according to a recent U.S.G.S. report, plastic-infused rain in the Rocky Mountains.
China produces the most plastic of any country, but we produce the most plastic waste: 46 million tons of it per year. We sort about 8% of it for recycling, and recycle some of it (especially nos. 1-2), but mostly we bury, burn, or export it. (Just to China before 2017, when it stopped accepting our ill-sorted plastic waste, we exported 4,000 containers per day.) The recycling rate for plastics nos. 3-7 is practically nil. New plastic is simply too cheap to make, especially with the low cost of fracked natural gas.
The critical problem with plastic waste is that it does not decompose. Instead, it continually breaks down into smaller and smaller particles down to the microscopic level (microplastics), releasing toxins along the way. Microplastics then sneak into everything. We don’t see them, but they’re in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink.
A study commissioned by WWF International concludes that we consume (mostly drink) the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic per day. Out in the world, microplastics choke our oceans and overheat our planet. In us, they cause cancers and birth defects.
Who pays for all this damage? We all do, of course, with our tax money, our health, our ever-increasing insurance premiums and health care bills. As always, low-income and/or communities of color fare the worst because they’re closer to where the damage is densest and they have fewer resources than richer, whiter communities. An investigation by the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School in New York City, for example, reveals that 80% of waste incinerators are located in low-income communities and/or communities of color.
Who doesn’t pay? The Plastics Industry Association, which is worth upwards of $4 trillion and is still growing rapidly. By 2050, it’s estimated to increase threefold and consume one-fifth of global oil production. So far, though, the Plastics Industry Association has eluded responsibility for our plastic-filled world. It’s managed to convince us that we, not they, are the real problem. It’s even found a way to double-dip: At the same time that it actively blocks efforts to curb its rapaciousness, it sets up nonprofits to promote ineffectual recycling campaigns that it then uses as tax write-offs.
Only by tackling the Plastics Industry Association can we truly begin to address the plastics problem. State and local efforts — like bans on single-use plastic bags and Northampton’s recently adopted Plastic Reduction and Sustainability Ordinance — do good, but they hardly make a dent. Big problems require big solutions, and, for the first time, we have one on the table: the game-changing Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 (H.R. 5845, S. 3263).
Introduced in February 2020 by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA-47), along with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), this act shifts the responsibility for plastic waste management from the taxpayers to where it belongs: the industry. It requires the Plastics Industry Association to take responsibility for designing, managing, and financing plastic waste and recycling, encouraging it to focus on production of plastic that’s actually recyclable; introduces a national beverage container refund program; reduces or outright bans single-use (non-recyclable) plastics; sets minimum and gradually increased recycled content for packaging (80% by 2040); and requires investment in the recycling and composting infrastructure while banning new plastics facilities until the problem is under control. (Currently, there are 264 new plastics facilities or expansions in the U.S. with a price tag of $164 billion, often subsidized by state and local tax incentives.)
With the Biden/Harris administration in Washington and a majority in the House and Senate, we actually have a shot at getting this important legislation noticed, maybe even passed, in an effort to move beyond the Plastic Age into a new age of environmental sustainability, clean air, seasonable weather, clean oceans, organic foods, and healthy bodies, an age whose cardinal points are not those of the chemical compass but those of the ecological compass: education, conservation, efficiency, adaptation. Plastics will stay, but only when there is no viable alternative.
Julio Alves lives in Northampton.