The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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One Word: Plastics

The title for this post is, of course, a quote from The Graduate, but  the line of inquiry that got me writing today was actually triggered by a different movie. In It’s a Wonderful Life, one of George Baily’s friends tries to get him to invest in a company than makes plastic from soybeans. This detail is irrelevant to the plot–the important thing for the story is that the suggestion to invest in something functions as more pressure for George to settle down, which is does not want to do. That the “something” is plastics is arbitrary, and I ignored it for all of the 948,000 times I’ve seen the movie.

Until this year, when I saw it for the 948,001st time, and thought–wait, soy-based plastic? In the 1930’s? (the movie was actually made somewhat later, but the scene is set before World War II) If they had soy-based plastic then, why do we still bother with petro-plastics now? Why are bioplastics always talked about as if they were new, when we’ve obviously had them for at least ninety years?

The short answer is that “plastic” is not one material but several, and the types of bioplastics that existed ninety years ago were not very useful. They’re not the plastic we’re looking for.

Let me elaborate.

A Primer on Plastics

“Plastic,” originally an adjective meaning “flexible,” has come to refer to a any of a large group of organic polymers (“organic,” in this case, means including the element, carbon). A polymer is a a very large molecule made by stringing together lots of smaller molecules, or monomers. Not all polymers are plastics–DNA, for example, is a polymer made out of protein.

Depending on the polymer, how it is processed, and what additives it contains, a plastic might be clear or opaque, strong or weak, flexible or brittle, cheap or expensive, toxic or non-toxic, biodegradable or not biodegradable.Thermoplastics are made of chain-like polymers and melt and flow when heated–that makes them relatively easy to recycle. Thermo-set plastics are made of web-like polymers and do not melt. They are very difficult to recycle.

Plastics can be synthesized from various feed stocks, including petroleum, natural gas, sugar, and plant-derived oils. Some plastics can be made from either petroleum (or natural gas) or recently-living plant-matter–and the result is chemically identical either way. That is, being made from petroleum doesn’t make a plastic automatically bad, and being made from recently-living plant doesn’t, all by itself, make a plastic good.

Some plastics can only be made from a fossil fuel, but do have bioplastic analogues. But since the analogue is chemically distinct, it won’t necessarily have the same performance characteristics and might be both more expensive to the consumer and less useful.

The long and the short of all of this is that “plastics” is a very broad category and you really have to know which plastic you are talking about before you can say much of anything about it.

The Problem with Green Plastics

Because different plastics have different properties and different advantages and disadvantages, looking for an “eco-friendly” plastic is a good way to get confused or even scammed. Apples get compared to oranges through marketing, and the point of the whole exercise can get lost in the shuffle, unless you remember to think of plastics as a whole group of materials.

Ideally, for each petroplastic on the market today, we want a bioplastic equivalent that does the same job at a competitive price and then biodegrades when we don’t need it anymore.

And indeed, as noted, some petroplastics do have bioplastic equivalents, some of which are even chemically identical. Use of bioplastics would at least get us away from fossil-fuel feed stocks, a definite good thing, even if everything else remained the same. Remember, it is demand for fossil fuels, including demand by the plastics industry, that drives fracking, oil spills, and pipelines being put in where they should not go.

But bioplastics are still synthetic polymers, which means hardly anything can eat them.  They can stick around in the environment forever, clogging up animal digestive tracks and otherwise causing havoc, just like petroplastics can. And some plastics of either origin can shed their component monomers, many of which are toxins.

There are biodegradable bioplastics and there are also biodegradable petroplastics. In theory, either would be a good thing–even if the product were still made from petroleum, reducing the amount of plastic floating around in our oceans forever would be an improvement.

The problem is that true biodegradable plastic–as in, you could throw it on the ground and it will become soil in a reasonable amount of time–is rather hard to find. What you get instead is various versions of disintegration, referred by a  collection of terms that are precisely defined by industry leaders.

Degradable means the plastic breaks up into lots of little, hard-to-see pieces that you can ignore if you want to. The term does not say anything about what happens to those little bits–they could just go on being plastic, which is very bad, because eventually they end up in the oceans where they get mixed up with the plankton that forms the basis of oceanic food webs. Already a really scary proportion of ocean life have tiny bits of plastic in their bodies. Remember that, next time you eat ocean-caught fish.

The first plastics marketed as “biodegradable” in fact did exactly that–broke up into tiny pieces of permanent plastic. These days industry standards require stricter labeling, but fancy terms such as photodegradable and oxydegradable still just refer to how any why plastic breaks down into bits–they promise nothing as far as avoiding the Tiny Plastic Apocalypse.

If you want something that actually breaks down because microorganisms digest it, you’re looking for biodegradable plastic. And it does exist, but that term promises nothing about how healthy the resulting soil is–you need compostable plastic if you want soil that, say, does not kill plants.

And even compostable plastic might not break down unless it is processed in a large-scale, municipal composting facility which, by the way, hardly any municipalities actually have. Your back-yard compost pile might not work, and throwing the stuff in the ocean (which is what will happen to virtually all plastic eventually anyway, even if it gets delayed in a landfill for a few thousand years first) definitely won’t work. You’ll get tiny bits of plastic again.

Even under ideal circumstances, I’m not sure that compostable plastic actually avoids the tiny-bits-of-plastic scenario. The standard tests involve sieving the composted product to make sure all the pieces are small, testing for the presence of heavy metals, and trying to grow plants in it–but they don’t test for the chemical signature of the synthetic polymer itself. Some plastic could get through.

Some people argue that biodegradable/compostable plastic is actually a bad idea. It’s not going to get a chance to compost, and a lot of it probably gets dumped in with plastic recycling by mistake, where it can contaminate whole batches. Some compostable plastics are recyclable in theory, but virtually no facilities are equipped to handle it.

I would not say compostable plastics are bad–rather, I’d say this is another example of why we should not try to simplify our choices into blanket pronouncements: PLASTIC=BAD, COMPOSTABLE=GOOD, etc. There are some circumstances under which a compostable plastic might be the better option. Other times, it might not be.

At this time, the most effective thing we can do is probably to minimize the use of all plastics, while continuing to call for compostable bioplastic options for those times we’re unwilling to do without. Half of the oil used in plastics production actually goes into energy generation, not feed stock. If we can shift the industry over to renewable energy, we can substantially shrink the carbon footprint of plastics.

Bioplastics, Past, Present, and Future

The first plastics–cellophane and rayon–were bioplastics. They still have a place in the market, but the market has grown to include many needs that these products can’t meet. Newer, petroleum-based plastics can and do. Much of the early promise of bioplastics never panned out–Its a Wonderful Life is fiction. Henry Ford’s famous attempt to make a plastic car using soybeans actually involved soy fibers in a phenolic resin. Phenolic resin is Bakalite, a petroplastic.

Over the years, hardly anybody has ever been able to make bioplastics work as a business model except, again, in niches. Modern environmental awareness might expand some of those niches, and ongoing technological development might give us new bioplastics that function better as competitive analogues to some of the petroplastics. Various authors have analyzed the probable economic effects of a shift to bioplastics–production would likely shift to the Midwest, for better access to raw materials, for example.

Sooner or later, we’re going to have to get off fossil fuels entirely. When that happens, bioplastics will be all we have–and we have the technical know-how to make the conversion already. It may be comforting to know that the future need not leave us without plastics, since they are very useful materials for some things–medical equipment, for example. The downside is that we will still be faced with the problem of plastic waste–barring a radical change in technology, it seems likely that even the most compostable bioplastics will still require specialized circumstances to break down. The key will be to keep plastic use to a minimum and to diligently recycle or compost all used plastic items.

The important thing to remember is that, however ubiquitous plastics are now, they didn’t exist much more than a hundred years ago, and most are more recent than that. Most uses of plastics today are simply unecessary.





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Do you actually like plastic bags? I mean, yes, they’re useful for picking up behind a dog and so forth, but they clutter up the landscape, clog the intestines of animals, and take forever to degrade. Seems a high price to pay for an item designed to be used only once.

Have you ever thought you could do something about it? Something beyond bringing your own bags to the grocery store?

Danielle Baudrand is an artist and activist in Keene, New Hampshire. After working with plastic bags as an artist for several years, she found herself very aware of everything wrong with these ubiquitous objects. She decided to write a letter to her city council to ask for a ban on plastic bags and a five cent fee on paper bags. That letter became attending council meetings and organizing public support. The ban is not in place yet, but she’s still working on it–and making progress.

Except where noted with links, the facts stated in this post are hers.

What, Exactly, Is Wrong with Plastic?

A lot.

Most obviously, discarded plastic bags are themselves a pollutant. At least a hundred thousand marine animals die from eating or otherwise interacting with plastic bags every year, according to some estimates; not only does swallowed plastic obstruct the digestive system, but it also releases estrogen-like chemicals that can render male animals sterile.  And while plastic does physically degrade, it doesn’t chemically degrade–that is, it breaks up into tiny pieces that are still, now and forever, plastic. Tiny pieces of plastic are now a significant component of the world’s ocean water, even turning up in culinary-grade sea salt. These plastic bits are the same size as the plankton that forms the base of the world’s marine food webs, and there is no way that filter feeders can avoid eating it, with sometimes dire results. Oysters fed plastic, for example, have trouble reproducing, possibly because of endocrine disruption or malnutrition or some other cause. And because most things on land eventually wash into the sea, most plastic becomes marine pollution eventually, no matter where it was initially dumped.

Yes, all this is true of all plastic, but plastic shopping bags are so unnecessary. They didn’t even exist until the 1960’s and weren’t commonly available until the mid-1980’s. It took another decade after that–and a great deal of industry pressure–before they became popular with shoppers. Switching back away from plastic should be easy. In the struggle against the plastification of the world’s oceans, this is low-hanging fruit.

But beyond the obvious, plastic bags are also also a serious contributor to global warming.

Plastic is a byproduct of fossil fuel production. At over 311 million tons and rising, global plastics production is a major part of demand for both petroleum and natural gas, and therefore is partly responsible for all environmental problem associated with fossil fuel production, including methane leaks (a very serious greenhouse gas). he production of plastic is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions, and the breakdown of plastics into those tiny bits releases even more carbon dioxide.

America’s plastic bag habit alone–30 million bags!–consumes 12 million barrels of oil a year in manufacturing alone–that’s enough to make 220 million gallons of gas (a small percentage of America’s total usage, but our total usage is insanely large). And demand is still growing.

Can’t We Just Reuse and Recycle?

We can but we don’t.

Plastic bags are recyclable, but they are not accepted by most curbside recycling programs or most recycling depots because they are made of a different kind of plastic. Some grocery stores do accept plastic bags for recycling, but that doesn’t mean they actually recycle them–I used to work for a grocery store, and was sometimes instructed to literally throw the recycling in the trash dumpster (same with returned plastic bottles). I have no idea how prevalent that particular problem is, but clearly some grocery stores say they recycle and don’t.

(Yes, I protested. The store manager found me a few minutes later and told me to stop asking questions. It was kind of scary. I quit not long after.)

Plastic bags are also reusable, at least up to a point, but the fact of the matter is most people don’t recycle or re-use their bags, which is why so many bags end up wrapped around trees, snagged in bushes, or floating around in the ocean in ten million pieces, killing turtles and sterilizing oysters. Obviously, we have to do something else.

How Bag Bans Work

Baudrand is not the first person to pursue plastic bag bans–a small minority of Americans are living under such bans already. California has a statewide ban on single-use plastic shopping bags, though it makes an exception for those bags without handles used for meat and produce. Hawaii does not have a statewide ban as such, but every one of its counties has banned the bags. Several other jurisdictions have partial bans, bag recycling programs, or other efforts to at least minimize plastic bag use. None of the places have succumbed to any bag-deficiency-induced apocalypse.

Have the bans helped?

American bag bans are still quite new, but the European Union, China, India, and others all have bans in place as well, and some of them are reporting significant reductions in plastic trash and litter. On the other hand, it’s fairly easy to find counter-arguments online to the effect that other types of bag use more resources and are often used only once anyway. Such arguments (assuming they are based in genuine fact, which they might not be) are certainly important food for thought–clearly, it is possible to switch away from plastic bags badly. But I looked up one of these websites, read through its various forms of insistence that plastic bags are actually greener, and then looked at the bottom to see who actually owns the site: a company called NOVOLEX does.

NOVOLEX makes plastic grocery bags.

How to Enact a Ban

I expect there are multiple ways to accomplish the goal and that the specifics depend on the legal and political realities of your area. But in Danielle Baudrand’s story, we have a clear example of exactly how one person is going about it. Let her tell the tale:

When I started [working], Portsmouth also had been working on a plastic bag ban and spearheaded the Senate Bill 410 effort that was later killed in March. The Senate Bill 410 was intended to get explicit permission, per Dillon’s Rule, to avert any potential litigations on town’s passing plastic bag bans since New Hampshire is a non-home rule state. Several representatives felt that the law already gave towns the authority and voted down the legislation due to it being duplicative.

Dillon’s Rule” is a principle used in most state supreme courts that says, in essence, that any power not explicitly granted to local governments reverts to the state government. It’s basically a mirror-image of the Tenth Amendment. The Rule and the Amendment together mean that all power defaults to the state, from both above and below. A town can’t ban plastic bags unless the state says it can. The important part about Portsmouth trying to get its own ban first is that its lawyers, together with the organization, Surfrider (which has also been involved in the fight against oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic) discovered that New Hampshire towns and cities do have the authority to ban bags. The power is already granted under the 149 NH Solid Waste Statute. So Baudrand doesn’t have to worry about it.

With that being said, we have been to several city council meetings trying to get them to pass it through…. This involves lots of research and convincing them that we do have the authority and the effects of plastic bag pollution are worth taking a stance on. The New Hampshire Chapter of Surfrider also provided the city council with documentation on how it’s affecting the states shorelines.

In the last meeting, without any opposition, four of the city council members voted to put the plastic bag ban as informational. Arguments made against having the full council listen to the issue were disappointing. One council member stated it was not a great time to enact this type of legislation. While another member advised that it would cost too much. In the end the council gave very little attention to the ocean toxicity and climate change. Only one out of the five members even noticed that as an important factor.

The next step is to rally support for the city council meeting on June 2nd.  We feel confident that the chair, David Richards, will be bringing this issue back up at this meeting asking the mayor to let this issue be heard by the full council. We hope the mayor of Keene will allow this democratic process to happen.

The nuts and bolts of passing a new ordinance vary by town, but generally you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the issue first (as Baudrand clearly has) and find a sample ordinance on the same issue from another jurisdiction so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel when you write the ordinance. Then find a sympathetic member of the town council to introduce your ordinance. Then set about applying public pressure in favor of your ordinance at every step of the rule-making process. The details for these processes seem surprisingly difficult to look up–neither of the towns in my area describe their own political structures on their websitess

Town websites do have contact information, however, so you can call up and just ask questions. There are probably also other activists in your area who already know how it works and you’ll want to get to know those people anyway because they’ll either be your allies or your adversaries before long.

So, Do You Like Plastic Bags?

The point of all of this is that if you don’t like something, you can change it. If you live in or near Keene, NH, you can support Baudrand’s ban at the city council meeting on June 2nd. If you live elsewhere, you can introduce your own. You have the power to do that.