How Big Oil and Big Soda kept a global environmental calamity a secret for decades
Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone, March 3, 2020
Every human on Earth is ingesting nearly 2,000 particles of plastic a week. These tiny pieces enter our unwitting bodies from tap water, food, and even the air, according to an alarming academic study sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, dosing us with five grams of plastics, many cut with chemicals linked to cancers, hormone disruption, and developmental delays. Since the paper’s publication last year, Sen. Tom Udall, a plain-spoken New Mexico Democrat with a fondness for white cowboy hats and turquoise bolo ties, has been trumpeting the risk: “We are consuming a credit card’s worth of plastic each week,” Udall says. At events with constituents, he will brandish a Visa from his wallet and declare, “You’re eating this, folks!”
With new legislation, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, Udall is attempting to marshal Washington into a confrontation with the plastics industry, and to force companies that profit from plastics to take accountability for the waste they create. Unveiled in February, the bill would ban many single-use plastics and force corporations to finance “end of life” programs to keep plastic out of the environment. “We’re going back to that principle,” the senator tells Rolling Stone. “The polluter pays.”
The battle pits Udall and his allies in Congress against some of the most powerful corporate interests on the planet, including the oil majors and chemical giants that produce the building blocks for our modern plastic world — think Exxon, Dow, and Shell — and consumer giants like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Unilever that package their products in the stuff. Big Plastic isn’t a single entity. It’s more like a corporate supergroup: Big Oil meets Big Soda — with a puff of Big Tobacco, responsible for trillions of plastic cigarette butts in the environment every year. And it combines the lobbying and public-relations might of all three.
Americans have occasionally crusaded against “problem plastics” — scapegoating packing peanuts, grocery bags, or drinking straws for the sins of our unsustainable consumer economy. We’ve been slow to recognize that we’re actually in the midst of a plastic pandemic. Over the past 70 years, we’ve gotten hooked on disposable goods and packaging — as plastics became the lifeblood of an American culture of speed, convenience, and disposability that’s conquered the globe. Plastic contains our hot coffee and frozen dinners. It is the material of childhood, from Pampers to Playmobil to PlayStation 4. It cloaks our e-commerce purchases and is woven into our sneakers, fast fashion, and business fleece. Humans are now using a million plastic bottles a minute, and 500 billion plastic bags a year — including those we use to bag up our plastic-laden trash.
But the world’s plastic waste is not so easily contained. Massive quantities of this forever material are spilling into the oceans — the equivalent of a dump-truck load every minute. Plastic is also fouling our mountains, our farmland, and spiraling into an unmitigatable environmental disaster. John Hocevar is a marine biologist who leads the Oceans Campaign for Greenpeace, and spearheaded the group’s response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Increasingly, his work has centered on plastics. “This is a much bigger problem than ‘just’ an ocean issue, or even a pollution issue,” he says. “We’ve found plastic everywhere we’ve ever looked. It’s in the Arctic and the Antarctic and in the middle of the Pacific. It’s in the Pyrenees and in the Rockies. It’s settling out of the air. It’s raining down on us.”
More than half the plastic now on Earth has been created since 2002, and plastic pollution is on pace to double by 2030. At its root, the global plastics crisis is a product of our addiction to fossil fuels. The private profit and public harm of the oil industry is well understood: Oil is refined and distributed to consumers, who benefit from gasoline’s short, useful lifespan in a combustion engine, leaving behind atmospheric pollution for generations. But this same pattern — and this same tragedy of the commons — is playing out with another gift of the oil-and-gas giants, whose drilling draws up the petroleum precursors for plastics. These are refined in industrial complexes and manufactured into bottles, bags, containers, textiles, and toys for consumers who benefit from their transient use — before throwing them away.
“Plastics are just a way of making things out of fossil fuels,” says Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network. BAN is devoted to enforcement of the Basel Convention, an international treaty that blocks the developed world from dumping hazardous wastes on the developing world, and was recently expanded, effective next year, to include plastics. For Americans who religiously sort their recycling, it’s upsetting to hear about plastic being lumped in with toxic waste. But the poisonous parallel is apt. When it comes to plastic, recycling is a misnomer. “They really sold people on the idea that plastics can be recycled because there’s a fraction of them that are,” says Puckett. “It’s fraudulent. When you drill down into plastics recycling, you realize it’s a myth.”
Since 1950, the world has created 6.3 trillion kilograms of plastic waste — and 91 percent has never been recycled even once, according to a landmark 2017 study published in the journal Science Advances. Unlike aluminum, which can be recycled again and again, plastic degrades in reprocessing, and is almost never recycled more than once. A plastic soda bottle, for example, might get downcycled into a carpet. Modern technology has hardly improved things: Of the 78 billion kilograms of plastic packaging materials produced in 2013, only 14 percent were even collected for recycling, and just two percent were effectively recycled to compete with virgin plastic. “Recycling delays, rather than avoids, final disposal,” the Science authors write. And most plastics persist for centuries.
As the globalized economy boomed, the toxic reality was hidden overseas. Plastics tossed out here were picked over at domestic recycling facilities, which targeted easier-to-sort-and-reprocess clear plastic bottles, milk jugs, and detergent containers. The leftovers were tied up in dirty bales and shipped to Asia. “China took them because there was some high value of material in there,” a former Waste Management executive tells Rolling Stone. Oftentimes, he says, Chinese recyclers “would dump those bales into the river to separate the materials and pick the better stuff out. And then they simply let the rest just go downstream.” The target plastics weren’t recycled in state-of-the-art facilities, rather shredded and melted down in rudimentary factories — often staffed by whole families, children included — eking out a toxic living amid mountains of imported trash.
Seeing political danger in its growing pollution crisis, China blocked most plastic imports in 2018, and this “National Sword” policy roiled international recycling markets. Attempts to re-create the China model in less authoritarian economies of Southeast Asia have backfired in pollution and protest — pulling back the curtain on what one waste executive describes to Rolling Stone as “our dirty little secret”: Americans who believed they were diverting plastic from the trash were, ironically, fueling a waste crisis half a world away. “It is easy to find American and European packaging polluting the countryside of Southeast Asia,” states a 2019 report from the Break Free From Plastics coalition, which coordinates an annual global audit of plastic waste. “When people in the global north throw something ‘away,’ much of it ends up in the global south because there is no such thing as ‘away.’”
The worst of our global plastics crisis is borne by the oceans. Roughly 8 billion kilograms of plastics enter the world’s waters every year, and the problem is most acute in emerging coastal economies. The volume entering oceans can be hard to comprehend, admits Jenna Jambeck, an engineering professor at the University of Georgia who has published pathbreaking science that quantifies plastic “leakage” to the oceans. “It’s equal to five grocery-size bags full of plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” she says. “If you imagine us all standing, hand-to-hand, covering the coastline of the entire world, this is what’s in front of each one of us.”
Marine plastics picked up by the currents collect in massive ocean “gyres” — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now twice the size of Texas. These are swirling petrochemical spills, but unlike crude oil, the long molecular chains in plastics don’t exist in nature and don’t meaningfully biodegrade. “The same properties that make plastics so versatile,” the Science Advances authors, including Jambeck, write, “make these materials difficult or impossible for nature to assimilate.” Instead, bulk plastics wear down into microplastics — a category for particles smaller than 5 millimeters, or roughly the width of your pinkie fingernail — deteriorating further into nanoplastic particles.
In the open water, plastics are consumed by fish, seabirds, and mammals — which are washing up dead in harrowing numbers. Last year, whales in Italy and the Philippines died just weeks apart, their stomachs packed with indigestible plastic bags. In December, a sperm whale washed ashore in Scotland with more than 200 pounds of plastic in its gut. The pollution visible on the ocean surface represents just one percent of what humans have dumped into the oceans. The rest lies beneath, including seven miles deep in the Mariana Trench, where researchers have spotted plastic bags and measured microplastics at concentrations of 2,000 parts per liter. Without dramatic change, the amount of plastics entering the oceans every year, already intolerable, is projected to more than double by 2025.
What If Nestlé and Coke Had to
Clean up Their Own Plastic Pollution?
By Julie Wilson, EcoWatch, March 6, 2020
It’s great when consumers take responsibility for using less plastic, and for cleaning up plastic waste in their communities.
But wouldn’t it be better if the corporations that put all that plastic into the marketplace and environment had to take responsibility for cleaning it up?