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The Problem with Plastics

Since the 1950s, we have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste.

Mr. McGuire had no idea how right he was when he told a young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate: “I just want to say one word to you: Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”

Since the 1950s, we have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste. Most of it is single-use.

Originally Published in Earth Island Journal, Winter 2020

That was 1967. The year Mike Nichols’ now-classic film made waves plastic was just taking off as an everyday consumer product. By 2017, the world would be producing 348 million metric tons of it every year.

Since the 1950s, we have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste — the equivalent in weight to 25,000 Empire State Buildings. That’s a lot of plastic. And most of it is single-use, ending up in landfills or littering the environment — never to be reused or recycled. At our peak, we recycled only 9 percent of plastics; today it’s even less.

What many don’t realize is that 99 percent of plastic is produced from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. As the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) put it in their “Fueling Plastics” report: “Fossil fuels and plastic are not only made from the same materials, they are made by the same companies. Exxon is both the gas in your car and the plastic in your water bottle.”

As the fossil fuel industry comes under scrutiny for its starring role in the climate crisis, many energy sector companies are quietly turning their attention toward plastics and emerging markets for the industry’s growth. As global energy markets shift toward renewables and electrification, the move toward plastic looks like a smart business decision for these companies.

If trends continue, the consumption of oil by the plastics industry could account for as much as one-fifth of the world’s total oil usage within the next several decades, according to CIEL, making plastics a bigger and bigger climate burden. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050 emissions associated with plastics could account for 15 percent of the global annual carbon budget. These predictions make it clear: If we want to keep our planet to a limit of 1.5 degrees warming, we’ve got to take on plastics. Not doing so puts in jeopardy our ability to stabilize the climate.

So, what can we do? My small city of Berkeley, California — home to just over 100,000 people — made headlines earlier this year when it passed the most aggressive municipal ban on single-use plastic foodware in local restaurants and businesses in the country. (The ban on plastic straws got the most ribbing.) Will changing how we sip in one small town change the world? Of course not, but it is a step in the right direction.

The local ordinance was designed not just to ban plastic forks, spoons, containers, and yes, straws, only to have businesses replace them with some other throwaway materials. The effort “rejects throwaway culture altogether,” say Greenpeace’s Annie Leonard and The Ecology Center’s Martin Bourque, who developed and championed the policy, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. The policy requires that all local businesses make compost bins available, all takeout containers be made from 100 percent certified compostable materials, vendors charge 25 cents for all takeout cups, and all eat-in dining be in reusable foodware. The Ecology Center and other local leaders are also championing reusable alternatives for individuals. The Center even sells stainless steel boba tea straws.

Bans on single-use plastic bags are another policy measure that’s taking off, despite industry push back. In the US, California and Hawai’i have joined 32 countries with bans on single-use plastic bags. Across the world, advocates are increasingly getting organized to tackle this global problem. The Plastic Pollution Coalition, an Earth Island project, boasts 1,000 organizations in more than 60 countries working to take on the industry.

ExxonMobil may be hoping that McGuire is still right, but if we want a future for the planet, we better hope the future is not in plastics.


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