After I saw a photograph of a mama albatross feeding plastic waste to her chick, I began making myself learn about plastic and became engaged in Missoula’s Zero Waste efforts.

In some ways, the path to Zero Waste seems simple. The lines from a Pete Seeger song give us a road map: “If it can't be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.” 

But somewhere along the human journey, we lost track of a fundamental truth: Life on our planet requires uncontaminated, healthy, diverse ecosystems. Humans make many products that are harmful to life at every stage of their life cycle. Products such as plastic. It is likely that, like me, you feel some level of disturbance about the toxic consequences of the plastic that have become intertwined with nourishing and taking care of ourselves and our loved ones. So what can we do?

We can work together to understand the problem of plastic and build our collective knowledge. And we can work together to share solutions that can empower us to #breakfreefromplastic. In Part 1 of this 2-part article, we will focus on the problems. In Part 2, we will focus on the solutions.

Part 1: Understanding Some of the Problems of Plastic

Understanding all of the problems of plastic is a profound and complex task. The big problem is this: There’s too much plastic. That big problem creates seemingly endless other problems that can’t be adequately addressed through palliative measures like recycling or the practice of incineration, which is harmful to human health, the environment, and the climate.

Too Much Plastic

Half of all plastic manufactured becomes trash in less than a year. About 40 percent of plastic waste is single-use (including, straws, bags and packaging). It is estimated that if you tied together the number of plastic bags consumed in the world every minute, they would circle the world seven times every hour. There are one million plastic bottles purchased every minute around the world.

While almost daily there are stories like the recent one about the dead pregnant sperm whale found with 50 pounds of plastic in her stomach, to label this a waste management problem is to miss the point. I agree that “producing plastic items like grocery bags, which we use for an average of 12 minutes but can persist in the environment for half a millennium — is a … reckless abuse of technology.”

At the same time awareness of the problems grows, plastic production is accelerating. Over 99 percent of plastic products are produced from fossil fuel chemicals such as ethane, and shale gas fracking in the U.S. has created an ethane glut. Oil and gas companies are building 325 new and expanded petrochemical projects with a goal of a 35 percent increase in plastic commerce by 2025. Plastic refineries in low income communities of color such as Manchester, Texas are harmful to public health; the cancer rate in Manchester is 22 percent higher than nearby Houston.

Recycling is not the solution

Consider this: “Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled.” For more than 25 years, “recycled” meant shipped to China, importers of 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste during that time. In early 2018, in response to devastating environmental consequences, China refused to take any more.

It has been “cheaper to crush unwanted plastic into bales” and “send it across oceans” than to deal with it at home. Now, across the U.S., “recycling” is being warehoused, sent to the landfill, incinerated or being sent to countries unequipped to safely manage it. Even communities still collecting plastic for recycling are having a hard time finding places to sell it and many programs are losing money. Thanks to that ethane glut, virgin plastic is currently cheaper than recycled plastic for production and, besides, plastic can only ever be “downcycled” into less and less valuable products.

Incineration is really not the solution

Incineration contributes to global warming and releases dangerous chemicals and particulates into our air. In addition to air emissions, pollutants captured by air filtering devices remain concentrated in “ash, slag, or wastewater after incineration, and leach into the environment through various pathways including open yards, ash landfills, or use in cement or soil amendments.”

Like plastic refineries, most incinerators are built in low-income communities of color, which bookends the life cycle of plastic with environmental racism. Here’s one example of the human health impacts of incineration: about 200 tons of recycling material is burned in the huge Covanta incinerator every day in Chester City, PA where “nearly four in 10 children in the city have asthma,” “the rate of ovarian cancer is 64 percent higher than the rest Pennsylvania and lung cancer rates are 24 percent higher.” Despite these impacts, 23 states define incineration as renewable energy and many incinerators receive green energy subsidies (gas and oil subsidies are an issue for another time).

This short article only scratches the surface of the problems of plastic. Issues of environmental degradation from fossil fuel extraction, hormone disruption from personal contact with plastic, microplastics in our waterways, and others deserve an equally hard look.

The good news is that all of us together can reduce the enormous amount of plastic in our world. Hang in there because next week will look at some actions we can take to do just that.

Youpa Stein is a visual artist, co-founder of Living Art of Montana, Zero Waste volunteer and manager of the Working Toward Plastic Free in Montana Facebook page. Writer, farmer and activist, Wendell Berry, describes the care of the earth as our most ancient and worthiest responsibility. Youpa dedicates her work and art making in the service of that responsibility. Jeremy Drake is Community Engagement Manager at Home ReSource.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

The summer scatter is in full effect and sustainability events are few at the moment. You can always Join the Logjam Presents Green Team. The Green Team will assist with teaching patrons how to use Zero Waste stations at events. Sign up here.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for 2019 HERE.