Dorwart & Wu: We can take action, not just hope for the best

This commentary is by Dan Hibbs, a resident of Underhill who is studying community entrepreneurship at the University of Vermont. 

Did you know that Chittenden Solid Waste District no longer accepts compostable food ware? The technology that decomposes plant-based bioplastics is too expensive

But without industrial composting, bioplastic pollution is nearly as harmful as petrochemical plastic pollution. The bioplastic industry was valued at $9.2 billion in 2020, representing about 2 percent of the global plastic market

This industry needs government support to make bioplastics more effective and less expensive. Doing so would allow bioplastics to be more competitive and help reduce the negative impacts of petrochemical plastic pollution on Americans and natural resources.

Our economy needs bioplastics to become more affordable and effective because petrochemical plastic contaminates food and jeopardizes the productivity of natural resources like soils and fisheries. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is the world’s largest marine deposit of plastic garbage. 

Small fish and crustaceans often mistake plastics for food and get sick. When big fish eat lots of small fish, the toxins become concentrated in the big fish. This is problematic because consumers like to buy big fish such as tuna and salmon. 

Chemicals like phthalates that compose petrochemical plastics are endocrine disruptors, which are known to cause developmental, reproductive, brain and immune system problems. 

A 2019 National Geographic article found that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch could cause seafood to become less available and more expensive, suggesting that petrochemical plastics may be less cost-effective than consumers realize. This article also found that “increasing the use of biodegradable resources will be the best way to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” 

Public investment toward the innovation of effective and affordable bioplastics would conserve productive ecosystems that provide valuable sources of food, materials, tourism, carbon sequestration and oxygenation.  

Innovation that makes bioplastics more competitive could reduce the consumption and market share of petrochemical plastics. Since the production of petrochemical plastic is reliant upon petroleum refinement, a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, investments in bioplastics present an opportunity to mitigate climate change and local air pollution that disproportionately impacts BIPOC communities. 

Elected officials should steer public investment toward bioplastic innovation to address the consolidation of lobbying power. The fossil fuel industry, which produces inputs for petrochemical plastics, exerts immense lobbying power in Washington, D.C., and has a record of exploiting crises like the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine to roll back regulations and increase profits. 

A 2021 memo released by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, criticized the fossil fuel lobby by indicating that “public claims about their efforts to reduce emissions have often exaggerated the significance of their actions while hiding or downplaying their continued investments in fossil fuels.” 

In addition, a 2020 NPR report explains how Big Oil has misled the public for decades about the efficacy of recycling to downplay the social costs and sell more plastic. 

Oligopolistic influences jeopardize the ability of governments and consumers to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their deception and pollution. Innovative bioplastics could shrink the market share of petrochemical plastics, and chip away at the influence of the fossil fuel oligopoly. 

Bioplastic products hold a lot of potential to make our economy more equitable and sustainable. But that potential is tossed into a landfill when bioplastics cannot be composted by waste districts like the Chittenden Solid Waste District. 

It seems that our society is only beginning to understand the long-term impacts of petrochemical plastic pollution because plastics have only been popular since the 1960s. However, plastics are incredibly useful and have promising future applications like 3D printing. Can you imagine our lives without plastics? 

For better or for worse, plastics aren’t going away. That’s why I think we need to make bioplastics work.

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Tags: Big Oil, bioplastics, Chittenden Solid Waste District, dan hibbs, greenhouse gas emissions, petrochemical plastic, Rep. Carolyn Maloney

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