7 Dangerous Lies About Plastic
Photo Credit: NOAA Photo Library: fish1968 by LCDR Eric Johnson, NOAA Corps.
To receive a Ph.D in industrial chemistry in the United States, no American university requires candidates to take even a single toxicology class as part of their course work. We churn out new chemists with the divine power to manipulate the very structure of nature itself, without teaching them the divine wisdom of how to wield that power.
Nearly everything we consume or even interact with these days is made of plastic. The industry that produces plastic, largely represented by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), has an annual budget of over $120 million to protect its interests. But as the plague of plastic that wreaks havoc on our environment slowly gains the attention of policymakers, concerned citizens and the media, the makers of plastic resins and the companies that package their products have become increasingly aggressive about defending their respective bottom lines.
Taking tactics from Big Tobacco's playbook, the industry engages in bully tactics, politician buys and wide-scale misinformation campaigns meant to confuse the public and turn truth to speculation. Big Plastic is big money and survives regulatory scrutiny by creating big spin.
Because of slashed budgets to regulatory agencies, little private-sector money for watchdogging industry, and a lazy mainstream press that simply regurgitates its claims, the petrochemical industry goes largely unchecked. Here are some of the biggest whoppers.
Lie #1: Plastics are safe.
To date, we use over 248,000 chemicals in commerce and we don't know which ones are harmful or safe. Why? Because the vast amount of research on plastics we use in our lives comes from the plastic industry.
Much of the plastic we see on a daily basis we know by its designated recycling numbers 1 through 7. These plastics are not pure; rather, they're a proprietary formulation of additives, some of which have been shown to be endocrine disrupters, carcinogenic and pose countless other health concerns, but very, very little data exists on additives, toxicologically speaking. In the United States, chemicals that make plastics are innocent until proven guilty, leaving the burden of proof of toxicity to the vastly underfunded and under-staffed Environmental Protection Agency. With 248,000 chemicals on the market, don't expect any light shed here anytime soon.
Perhaps the best-known additive is bisphenol-A, or BPA. Though it's gained media traction having been shown to cause sexual mutations, cardiovascular disorders, obesity, and diabetes, the $6 billion annual industry makes the plastics industry protect it fiercely, even though Centers for Disease Control studies have shown that 93 percent of the adult population has BPA present in their urine. BPA has been on the radar of environmentalists for years but few policy victories have been won because industry-funded studies repeatedly don't show adverse effects, though all the independent studies do.
Lie #2: The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch does not exist.
In a 25-page report for the Save the Bag Coalition, meant to refute claims made by the media and environmentalists about the presence of plastic in the ocean, attorney Stephen Joseph wrote that the "so-called 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch,' which is alleged to be twice the size of Texas, does not exist." To keep the speculation on the table, industry hammers on a single point; in early 2011, Oregon State University issued a press release titled, "Oceanic "Garbage Patch' Not Nearly As Big As Portrayed By Media" and a huge media storm ensued calling out environmentalists as a result.
Why this press release was so widely distributed is strange, because the woman who issued it isn't even a relevant name in the plastics research world. But seeing an opportunity to pound environmentalists, the plastic industry created a PR blitz sending press releases to media and form letters to lawmakers. What's interesting is that no one can attribute who first made the Texas-sized analogy, and no primary source for the quote exists, though it certainly went viral.
The researcher from OSU, Angelique White, is correct in her assessment from the best available data, but the data available isn't enough by several degrees of scale to accurately predict spatial distribution of plastics in the gyres (which any scientist who works on the issue will tell you, explicitly), or the ocean in general. To do so would mean that 70 percent of the surface of the earth surface had been sampled.
Well, that's not going to happen anytime soon, as research vessels cost about $30,000 a day and funding is very limited in this field, because so many corporate interests that might sponsor such research depend on plastic to deliver their products. What scientists do know is that 200 billion pounds of plastic are produced each year, and that number is on the rise, and mitigation strategies for keeping plastics out of the ocean are failing, horribly. Greenpeace estimates that of the 200 billion pounds produced annually, 10 percent makes it into the ocean.
To date, the best estimate of how much plastic is in the gyres comes from Columbia University. Researchers took all the major data sets (of which there are very, very few) that exist and calculated 73,878,000 pounds of plastic in the area of the gyres, which accounts for just 16 million of the earth's 315 million square kilometers of ocean surface.
Another problem with determining the scale of plastic pollution is that half of the plastics that are made sink and to date no data exists on how much plastic lies beneath the surface of the water. But when speaking only of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles, a type of plastic that sinks, we know that Americans alone discard 22 billion a year. Scientists who work on plastic in the ocean often refer to it as, "the world's largest dump." But without "conclusive" data, industry can stay on the offensive.
Lie #3: Plastics don't kill sea life or pose a threat to people eating fish.
While occasionally industry will acknowledge that marine animals do eat plastics from time to time, they make a point of stating that they don't know if the plastics are definitively responsible for the animal's death. To date, 177 species of marine life have been shown to ingest plastics and the number is likely to get much higher as more research is done. Recently published evidence has shown that shards of plastic eroded from synthetic clothing in the washing machine is so small that it can enter an animal at the cellular level.
But determining death, or eventual death of an animal based on a necropsy (autopsy for animals) is notoriously difficult in some cases. What's at issue is that again, industry takes advantage of the "unknowns" to make the assertion that their products don't cause morbidity. Scientists can't absolutely know what causes an animal's death unless it lives and dies in a controlled environment. But opening up a turtle stomach and finding pounds of plastic in it might give them a clue. How long would a turtle have survived with this much plastic garbage in his guts?
We know that most types of plastic aren't passed by a turtle and that it wreaks havoc on their digestive systems. We also know that carrying around a stomach full of plastic is going to slow him down and change his natural buoyancy. Sharper plastics, cause gut impaction and the potential for stomach wall and intestinal perforation. In the wild, everything about an animal's health and agility matters in determining his survival quotient.
In December, a study was published in Science Of The Total Environmentthat looked to see if the digestive juices of turtles could make plastic bags decay. Three common types of shopping bags (including bioplastic) were subjected to the gastrointestinal fluids of Green and Loggerheads turtles. Without exception, the ubiquitous High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) bag showed "negligible" biodegradability -- which means if a turtle can't pass it, he's stuck with it forever.
Beyond turtles, 9 percent of base food chain fish (which represents as much as 50 percent of the biomass of fish in the entire ocean) sampled in the North Pacific have been shown to ingest plastics, and along with it a toxic soup of PAHs, flame retardants, DDE (a persistent form of the outlawed DDT) and PCBs. Concentrations of these chemicals in ocean-borne plastics have been shown to be up to a million times higher than the ambient sea water around it.
Bigger fish eat the fish that eat these toxic bombs and so do humans at the top of the food chain. All humans have levels of these toxins in their blood and men can't get rid of them. Women can only pass the chemicals through the umbilical chord and through breast milk, and thus, a higher and higher chemical burden in the human body will result from generation to generation.
Lie #4: It shouldn't be called "plastic pollution" but rather "marine debris."
What's the most common type of plastic found on the surface of the ocean? According to the Ocean Conservancy's annual report, 11 percent of beach litter is plastic bags. But what happens when a plastic bag enters the ocean? Plastic doesn't biodegrade in any meaningful timeframe, but it photo-degrades. Thin, flimsy plastic like HDPE with a lot of surface area (like the common bag from grocery stores) photo-degrades faster than thicker plastic. Ultraviolet rays from the sun break the polymer chains of hydrocarbon molecules into smaller pieces and what you end up with is small fragments. So, you might not find a plastic bag in the "garbage patch" but you surely will find the remnants of them. Plastic bags are of the class of plastics recyclers refer to as "blow trash" as they tend to be picked up by the wind and blown out to sea. They're huge offenders of plastic pollution as Americans consume more than 100 billion a year.
Keith Christman, managing director for plastics markets at the ACC, maintained that "marine debris" is a better phrase than "plastic pollution" for describing the trash in the ocean even though 90 percent of the contents of the gyres is plastic. Christman, understanding the negative implications of his product's association with the word "pollution," mentioned that it's not just plastic, but derelict fishing gear as well. All modern fishing gear is made of polypropylene, i.e. plastic. This is a sore spot for the ACC, and marine plastics research and education groups that receive funding from the ACC are typically "mandated" to refer to oceanic trash as marine debris to keep the burden of guilt from resting squarely on their shoulders.
Lie #5: "Plastic retail carry-out bags are 100-percent recyclable and made from clean natural gas."
This is a direct statement issued by the American Progressive Bag Alliance to the city of Dana Point, California in a letter regarding a proposed bag ban. That plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable isn't the issue; it's that by and large, they are not recycled. Plastic bag recycling is governed by supply and demand. People assume that if they place a bag in a recycling receptacle this means the bag will in fact be recycled. That's not necessarily true. In order to show (very) modest positive trending in recycling, industry lops all polyethylene (PE) films, wraps and bags all into one category. But for bags discretely, which are high-density polyethylene, the numbers are atrocious. In 2009, the rate for recycling is 6.1 percent; in 2010, the rate is 4.3 percent.
Thus one of the main targets legislatively, is plastic shopping bags. The biggest player in the bag market, Hilex Poly, has become a master of spin tactics to attempt to paint a rosy picture of its business. Hilex, the largest recycler in the US, writes posts on its Web site patting itself on the back for increased recycling rates claiming that PE rates are up from 2009 to 2010. What it fails to mention is the distinction between the different types of PE, and that EPA itself doesn't independently audit the recycling industry, it just compiles industry's reporting.
There's another problem with plastic bag recyclability. According to Mark Daniels of Hilex Poly, only 30-percent post-consumer HDPE can be used to make a new bag, which means 70 percent of a "recycled" plastic bag comes from virgin sources (natural gas). Sometimes, recycled HDPE gets down-cycled into other products like decking materials. The problem here is that plastic decking materials have a lifespan as well, and no strategy for reclaiming them at the end of their lifespan has been introduced to the recycling markets.
When speaking of plastics in general (including plastic bags), even when there is a modest gain in recycling rates, those rates are far outpaced by higher consumption. From 2009 to 2010, plastics generated in the municipal waste stream jumped from 59,660,000 to 62,080,000 pounds. This is an increase of 2,420,000 pounds. In terms of recycling gains, the EPA reports 440,000 more pounds of all plastics recovered from 2009 to 2010.
So, if we subtract the increase in gains in recovery from the increase in generation we still get an increase of plastic generation of 1,980,000 pounds. This is the central conspiracy of the plastics industry tactically. If industry can convince the public that the environmental consequences of their consumption habits are offset by the industry-backed solution of recycling, industry is guaranteed that its bottom line will grow by hoodwinking the public into believing the myth of recycling.
What about natural gas, the stock for plastic bags? It is becoming scarcer and dirtier to get. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 35 percent of domestic natural gas drilling comes from fracking, and will reach 47 percent by 2035. Though natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, getting it out of the ground by fracking creates potent greenhouse gas emissions of methane and other undesired consequences. According to a congressional report released in April, the 14 biggest fracking companies released 3 billion liters of fracking fluid into the environment, including 29 chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogenic to humans. This is where your plastic bag comes from -- or at least 70 pecent of it.
Lie #6: Reusable bags are dangerous.
The American Chemistry Council is worried that Americans might not understand the danger of things when they get dirty. Like your underwear, if you don't wash your reusable bag, bacteria might grow in it. So, rather than issue a press release telling people to wash their bags, they funded a study looking at bacterial contamination of reusable bags.
Bacteria are myriad on everything we touch, but the presence of bacteria is natural and the microbe kingdom has a pretty good system of checks and balances. The study found that 12 percent of its 84-bag sample size found E. coli, and all samples but one contained bacteria. This finding spawned scary headlines in newspapers such as the Washington Post that read "Reusable Bags Found To Be Full Of Bacteria." But here's the problem: None of the bacteria (salmonella and listeria were not found), or the strains of E. coli present in reusable bags are harmful to humans.
The ACC, though absolutely knowing this, still went ahead on a PR blitz trying to scare the hell out of people about bacterial exposure. Thankfully, the study was officially debunked by Consumer Reports. My favorite bit from the article comes from a senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports, who said, "A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study."
Lie #7: We care about polar bears and recycling.
Coca-Cola is one the world's largest producers of plastic waste. Coke creates cause marketing campaigns with corporate-aligned NGOs like World Wildlife Fund which is working with the Canadian government to to find an area of ice that can withstand climate change to create a sort of polar bear refuge, hoping to save the white bears from drowning because Artic ice is melting.
In total, Coke has pledged $2 million and another $1 million matching funds to consumer donations. What's ironic is that Coke uses a plastic bottle for much of its product's packaging and one-third of the volume of a plastic Coke bottle is what it takes to produce it from oil, and another third is what it takes to transport it to market. That's a lot of fossil fuel burning. Fossil fuel burning that melts polar ice that kills polar bears.
But perhaps the most egregious offense is that Coke vehemently opposes the only program proven to reduce its bottles' impact on the environment: bottle bills. Statistically, for states that have bottle deposits, the recovery rates for recycling are off the charts compared to those that don't. In California, recovery rates top 70 percent for PET bottles.
So what's a citizen to do? Unfortunately, cutting through the spin is a difficult task, but as always, when there is a lot of money to be had, injecting oneself with a healthy does of skepticism about the intentions of chemical companies that manipulate nature for profit is a good start. What's the best solution? Remember this: if you don't consume it in the first place, it can't damage you or the environment.
Avoiding plastics is not just a personal responsibility, it's an environmental mandate and should be as common in our global society as turning off the lights when you leave the room. There is no silver bullet solution to plastic pollution, more like a silver buckshot, but it all starts with you saying two words: "No Plastic."