I sometimes wonder if there’s just a bias around things that sound natural versus things that are artificial. There’s flowers that are poisonous and will kill you, but it seems that there’s sort of inherent bias towards if it’s natural, it can’t be as harmful as if it’s artificial.
In my book, there is a page [explaining the work of] scientist James Kennedy. He’s got a picture of a cabbage with all the cancer-causing and toxic compounds made by the cabbage to protect itself. It’s the same with blueberries, raspberries, and all of these things that we think of as natural—[they] are just hundreds of chemicals, many of which are toxic, but because it looks like a cabbage, we don’t think twice about it.
Do you have any thoughts regarding biotech-made plastic alternatives? I’m going to assume it’s probably more labor intensive to create those, but I’d’ be curious to hear what your thoughts are.
They have been on the market for decades. 1982 was when PHB, for example, was released, and it didn’t really take off because it’s more expensive, the properties are not great, and it’s not green. If you look at the life cycle analysis of a lot of these so-called green plastics, they actually cause more harm than regular plastic. If you look at the life cycle analysis of PLA, which is a plastic made from natural materials that degrades, it actually is more harmful to the environment than polyethylene. So, there’s a lot of marketing going on. Whenever somebody sees an opportunity to make money, of course they’ll release a product, make claims for it. But the claims are not backed by science. That’s what concerns me: most people are making decisions based on fiction, decisions that are proven to actually increase harm. They’re doing the opposite of what they intended to do because they didn’t check the facts. It’s a sad outcome that people who care the most are doing the most harm with their cotton bags and their good intentions.
I think there is also a general distrust in the wider industry, say like the petrochemical industry, which is obviously where most plastic is sourced from. It’s conflicting because on one hand, it’s great that people are trying to be mindful. But what do the facts say, if there’s more of a carbon footprint on glass than there is on plastic packaging? [In a life cycle analysis of three single-use beverage containers, the greenhouse gas emissions for production were lowest in PET (1,125 per 100,000 ounces of soft drink) versus aluminum (2,766) or glass (4,848)] It’s become almost us versus them, the independent brands with their glass packaging versus the big bad plastics. Do you have any thoughts on virgin versus recyclable plastic?
People think that the plastics and the oil industry are the same thing, and they’re not. The oil companies, for the most part, are not selling plastics. There are some, but it’s not that common. The plastic companies have to buy their raw materials from the other industry, so these are not some guys who are in cahoots. About 5% of oil is used to make plastics, but plastics actually end up saving more than that amount of oil by making our cars, airplanes, and trains lighter. The net effect of the plastics industry is to reduce oil consumption. That’s been proven because it’s making you get better miles per gallon in your car, and even that alone reduces oil by more than the 5% of the oil used to make plastics. If it were up to the oil companies, they would presumably be against plastics because they’re reducing oil purchases, right? So that’s a misconception.
When it comes to recycling, that’s an interesting one. What we find is plastics are pretty easy to recycle, about 90% of our plastics can just be remelted into a new part. [Norway’s recent recycling scheme sees 97% of all plastic bottles being recycled.] You have to separate them, but that’s pretty easy. You can even do it in your kitchen right, you put a polyethylene bag in a frying pan and people have made bricks from it. It is possible, it is done, and it is green. You save 75% of the [production] energy by using recycled plastic instead of new plastic.
We know that plastic is usually the greenest solution by life cycle analysis [LCA], and when you recycle, it becomes even greener. Then you get to the question of why isn’t it recycled more? There is a conspiracy theory that the plastics companies knew all along it wouldn’t be recycled, and they’d been fooling us all along. But when you look into it, what you find is that if we can, we do things that generate money. These companies that spring up to recycle plastics go out of business, because the price is fluctuating and there’s not really any money in it. There’s a fundamental reason for that, which I discovered when I was reading more broadly, not just about plastics, but about all materials. The less green a material is, the more expensive it is and therefore more worth recycling. So platinum, palladium, and gold, which are worst for the environment, are expensive, never thrown away, and recycled more. The converse is true, so the greenest materials are so cheap, they are not worth recycling. That’s the problem with plastics, they are so cheap for the same reasons they are so green, which makes it less profitable to recycle. Does that make sense to you? The price of a material depends on the amount of energy, materials, transportation, and water needed to make it. The life cycle analysis depends on the same factors. So, you have a choice between something that’s horrendous for the environment, but expensive and well worth recycling, and something which is cheap, green, and not really worth recycling in terms of money. That’s the paradox we’ve had. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s down to profitability.
What we hear is people suggesting, let’s use glass or aluminum because of how much energy we used to make it. That’s exactly the same reason why we shouldn’t be reusing glass and aluminum, because there’s so much energy in it. You have to remelt them again and again, at thousands of degrees, so you’re just redoing the harm again and again. It’s a terrible argument. What we need to do is stick with what we know is greenest according to science and life cycle analysis. It might be wood in some cases. We need to start with that and then recycle it and make it economically viable to do so. If you put a deposit on a plastic bottle, people return it because now it has a value. They don’t want to throw away $1. This ensures that it’s returned, recycled, and so forth. There are mechanisms for making that plastic waste valuable enough to be recycled.
Something that was mentioned to me in a previous interview was that the trouble with recycled or recyclable plastic is that you can only reuse it a certain number of times before it ends up in a landfill, and that also, at least in the US, it has to go to a specific type of facility and that there actually aren’t enough facilities to process all this recycled or recyclable plastic that we’re using.
It’s true, pretty much everything has a certain number of cycles. They talk about glass and aluminum being infinitely recyclable, but if you check that, it’s not true. [During the recycling process, there is a certain amount of dross, or aluminum lost, due to the heating; estimates are around 3%]. Every process has waste, you always have to put in new raw materials. That idea that they’re infinitely recyclable, in theory they are, but in practice they’re not.
The other thing we have to do is realize that plastics are proven to have massively reduced the amount of material that goes to landfill. A plastic bag weighs about six grams, a paper bag is 60 grams, that’s ten times more weight. If you weigh a plastic straw it’s less than a gram, whereas a paper straw is about two grams. A pound of plastic ends up being replaced by three or four pounds of another material on average. We know for a fact that although our waste generation has gone up over time, plastic has reduced the amount of material going into landfill. That’s a misconception that plastics are filling up our landfills, when food waste is more than plastic waste. Paper waste is more than plastic. When they go into a landfill, building rubble is usually more than plastic waste. The overall amount of waste generated by plastic, if you look at all waste including industrial waste, accounts for 0.5% of all the waste that humans create. That’s disturbing to me, because environmental groups, material producers, brand owners, and individual consumers are out on this crusade. They’re spending trillions of dollars on plastics, advertising, all up in arms, and there’s no way you can solve a problem by obsessing over half a percent of it. It’d be like me cleaning my cutlery drawer and thinking the rest of the house is going to clean itself. I’m never going to get anywhere with that approach. Ignoring the other 99.5% of materials and waste will doom us to failure.
There’s also a socioeconomic factor to it, in the sense of people practicing zero waste and plastic-free lifestyles are often in a place of more privilege, where they are able to dedicate more time and money to it. If someone is living paycheck to paycheck and it’s between a 10-cent plastic bag and a $10 cotton tote bag, of course they are not going to go for the expensive alternative.
That’s a great point, for a couple of reasons. One is that the cheapest solution is usually the greenest one because that’s the one that needed the least energy, the least transportation, the least water to make. That’s why it’s cheaper, for the most part. Ironically, these rich people go and buy their cotton bag, and they feel like a saint, when in fact they’re actually increasing harm. They’re on their private jets, going to Davos, and talking about how the environment is being ruined. These people are so busy trying to look virtuous, and they’ve got the money to do it, but they’re doing all the wrong stuff.
You mention stabilizers to help with the lifespan of plastic. What do you think are the best options currently out there, or do we even need to expand the life cycle of plastic?
The greenest things are things that last forever. It’s ironic that everyone’s saying we can’t make these plastics degrade fast enough, when we know that when things degrade, they give off carbon dioxide. This is exactly why we put things in a landfill where there’s no oxygen. We don’t want them to degrade because that means giving off carbon dioxide and warming the planet. That’s what landfills are for.
This whole argument that plastics aren’t degrading fast enough or don’t degrade in the landfill, that’s right, food doesn’t even degrade in the landfill. In Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, archeologists literally dug into landfills and saw newspapers from 50 years ago, avocados, steaks, and stuff that hadn’t degraded for decades. The argument that something’s not degrading in the landfill is not a good one because landfills are meant to prevent degradation.
When it comes to stabilizers, there’s been a quest for 50 years to improve them. I’ve even come up with new stabilizers and published in this area. They’re always trying to improve how we stabilize plastics. That’s far more important now because plastics are like spaghetti chains—once you’ve broken the molecule, they lose their strength. If you take an item, use it for 10 years, and then it’s ruined, you can’t remelt it and make a good part. That’s what the stabilizers prevent.
In the old days, you would let the thing degrade and say, “Oh, who cares? It’s going to be used once. I don’t care about what it’s like at the end of its life.” But now because our mindsets are changing and we know we want to recycle it, we have to put in a lot more and better stabilizers.
On a personal level, what have been your biggest revelations when writing The Plastics Paradox?
After the book was finished, I found out that because I was focused on household waste, and plastics are about 13% [of that], I had missed the bigger picture. I later discovered that household waste is just 3% of all waste we create, and the other 97% is industrial waste. So, it turns out that plastics are half a percent of all the materials we use and a half a percent of all the waste we create. That’s mind boggling. To think that people are so focused with a microscope on this tiny, tiny fraction of our problem, it’d be like trimming my toenails and thinking I’m going to be healthy. That was the biggest revelation.
The second-biggest revelation has been that there’s nobody doing more harm than the environmental groups. They’re just out there saying things which are patently untrue. Even if you correct them as a scientist and you send them 100 articles to show that they’re wrong, they don’t care, they never update their website. They perpetuate these lies and are getting hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re misleading the public and misleading politicians. I hope somebody sues them, to be honest, because they’re just, according to their own members in some cases, defrauding the public.
Our politicians are making decisions based on fiction. India just banned plastic bags when we know for 100% certainty that is going to increase harm based on 28 LCA studies. Countries are banning things which are proven to be the best solution. It’s insane. Of course, these bans end up being reversed some years later. Even if you are a politician, don’t set yourself up for failure by failing to Google “LCA bag.” It takes 30 seconds.
It’s an odd irony, isn’t it?
Everyone assumes they must have good hearts. They all started out that way, but as you see, there are many books now where people have left those companies and said this has just turned into a big money-grabbing business like any other, and they lost their principles along the way.
Since plastic only accounts for such a minuscule amount of total waste, what material or aspects should we be focusing on instead if we actually want to make an impact?
Whenever you have a problem, you always have to address the biggest one, right? Maybe it’s your finances, maybe it’s cleaning the house, maybe you need a new car. You can’t focus 100% of your attention on everything. If we look at what materials are the biggest, 80% of the materials we use are concrete and ceramics. Then we have metal and wood, which are about five or 10%. I would attack the biggest piece of the pie first, it just makes sense, but people aren’t doing that. Everyone’s so distracted on this tiny sliver that they’re completely ignoring the things that could make an impact.
I think it’s also because it’s one of the most visible ones. When you mentioned concrete and ceramics being so big, my first thought was okay, concrete makes up buildings and things like that, but with ceramics I just think of fancy porcelain tea cups. Who’s using a bunch of that? In some ways it’s like, what is the most obvious target that we can replace? Even with the landfills, what you mostly see in those pictures that are published are plastic. Also, the fear around ingesting plastics, fear is a really powerful tool if you want to get people on board, that’s for sure.
If you want to get your hands in people’s pockets, make them angry or make them scared. That seems to be the way that these green organizations work, according to insiders.