Dear EcoNews: Plastic Perturbed

Dear EcoNews, 

I read an article about how little plastic actually gets recycled. Can you please weigh in on what we should be doing with plastics?

-Plastic Perturbed

Dear Plastic Perturbed,

We here at Zero Waste Humboldt (ZWH) also wrestle with the question of what we should be doing with plastics. To help us visualize this monumental task, we use the Waste Management hierarchy. Shaped like an inverted pyramid, the hierarchy is a useful tool for centering our thoughts before action on a problem like plastic. At the top, the largest portion is given to the concept of Rethinking/Redesigning (some European hierarchies include Refusing here also). 

Naturally that will lead to a lot of questions and that is a great way to start thinking about plastics. What did we use before plastic? Should we still produce plastic? How can we Rethink plastic, plastic waste, and plastic dependency? How can we Redesign the systems that currently rely on plastic? What are we doing locally about plastic, plastic waste, plastic contamination, etc.? 

The second largest portion of the hierarchy is given to the Reduction of Waste At Its Source, also known as, Point Source Reduction. This is helpful to remember when we feel guilt and shame about our plastic consumption because it reminds us that plastic is being manufactured by large, massive, profit generating oil/gas companies, not us. In fact, looking at the source, plastic starts its miserable life with fracking. The fracking process to suck natural gas from the earth provides the oil/gas companies with a component called Ethane. Very large industrial facilities called Ethane Crackers take this ethane and process it for the creation of plastic pellets which are then used in every imaginable plastic product on earth and in space. The newest of these facilities just came online during the pandemic in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania courtesy of Shell Oil. This ethane cracker was approved to emit 2,248,293 tons of carbon dioxide per year while pumping the market with 1.6 million metric tons of plastic pellets a year.

Something that the hierarchy does not directly mention, although absolutely required, are the metrics. We have to track plastics in order to understand how to apply the tools in the hierarchy. We can improve the plastic problem if we start measuring it. Locally, many civic leaders, business owners, and nonprofit managers are starting with measurement while simultaneously launching actions from the hierarchy. For example, Zero Waste Humboldt conducted packaging research, led by Dr. Julie Layshock, for the North Coast Co-op. The recommendations made have been a reference tool for several businesses looking to reduce or eliminate plastic packaging. 

Unfortunately the answer to your question of what “we” should be doing with plastics is far past the point of only consumer action. We are not alone in the limited choices we face. That is why we are stronger together using measurement and the hierarchy tools of change. Join one of our many nonprofits dedicated to keeping the balance and help to end the tragic plastic saga. 

– Krista Miller, Zero Waste Humboldt