They’re taking over the world, we know — but the idea of ‘recycling’ only makes it worse.
Tracey Williams lives in Cornwall, England. She started beachcombing with her father as a kid, but she never thought her hobby would lead to a Facebook page called Legos Lost at Sea, with a following of over 50,000 other beachcombers. Tracey doesn’t just find Legos, but all kinds of items from cargo spills which she turns it into refuse art — which would be pretty awesome, if not for the fact that all this plastic has spent years in the ocean.
The actual Lego spill occurred on February 13, 1997 when a Japanese tanker headed for New York hit a freak wave and dumped 62 bins containing over 5 million lego pieces off the coast of Cornwall. Twenty plus years later and Legos are still washing up on the shore.
Technically, it’s an oil spill since it takes oil to make plastic Legos. You know what else is made with oil? Something we commonly hear about in this age of coronavirus — Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE.
When it comes to the environment, we seem to need an inciting incident to rouse us into action. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. The visual galvanized America and people demanded action. Three years later, the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency or EPA was born.
When I was born, I shared the water on this planet with 3 billion people. Today, I’m sharing it with 7.6 billion.
By 2030, a third of the world’s population won’t have access to clean drinking water. By 2040, there will be 9 billion of us and we’ll be fighting over water rights — personal use vs. energy, agriculture, and manufacturing needs — and water shortages will be dire. By 2050, pound for pound, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
If humans are 72% water, does that mean in the future, we’ll also be part plastic?
The problem with water pollution is that most of it is invisible to the eye. As the quality of our water degrades and our need for clean water increases, the burden on water becomes enormous. Over the next few days, I’m going to talk about some of our more difficult problems like plastics, pharmaceuticals and PFAS, and how to keep them out of our water.
Because, if you knew that something you purchased would one day wash up at sea, wouldn’t you think twice about buying it?
Spills and trash aside, has there ever been anything more amazing than plastic?
Think about it. People used to carry their lunch wrapped in wax paper. They put that lunch in a tin pail. They bought milk in glass bottles. Cars were made of steel and got 10 miles to the gallon. Everything was so heavy, but then plastic came along and revolutionized the world!
The versatility of plastic replaced steel in cars, and rocket parts that got shot into space. Would we even have computers or iPhones without plastic?
We need plastic, there’s no doubt about that. But we don’t need it the way we think we do. Let’s look at the sale of bottled water — in my humble opinion, nothing more than a lucrative scam.
A common misconception is that bottled water is safer than tap water. Bottled water isn’t regulated by the Environment Protection Agency in the same way tap water is, and that leads to poor quality control. A 1999 study by NRDC found that 33% of bottled water violated enforceable state standards.
Then there’s the water itself. Nestle — the largest food company and the biggest producer of bottled water in the world — takes out about 25 million gallons of water from the aquifer under the San Bernardino forest every year, while the U.S. Forest Service makes only $524/year on that water. Twenty-five million gallons of water for $524? Sounds like Nestle’s got itself a sweet deal.
Nestle’s not the only one draining the aquifers.
In 2016, U.S. bottled water sales reached $16 billion dollars, surpassing soda for the first time. Corporations are making great money on bottled water, but the rest of us are paying the price by losing a fabulous and once free resource and gaining a waste stream that, one day, we’re going to have to deal with.
And yet, we were so busy replacing component parts that we never thought about the health effects. Plastic is durable, long lasting, lightweight, and a great alternative to glass, but it takes hundreds, or even thousands of years to break down, and we have the waste stream to show for it. We manufactured more plastic in the last 10 years than in all of the last century and 70% of it ended up in the ocean where it sank to the bottom.
What didn’t sink is washing up on beaches or floating around as part of the great pacific garbage patch — 617,000 square miles of plastic debris twice the size of Texas — that’s too light to sink. If that’s what’s on top, the ocean bottom must be a crazy mess.
If you’re wondering how corporations have gotten around these facts for so long, I’d say it’s because of recycling.
The truth is recycling programs are a failure. When you see those chasing arrows, you’d assume something is recyclable, right? Well, you’d be wrong.
Of the seven kinds of plastic manufactured, only two are recycled. And that too,at a rate of just 30%. The rest ends up in a landfill, either because it can’t be properly separated, it’s contaminated with food remnants, or there’s been a failure to identify what that plastic was in a previous incarnation. If you started life as a cat litter container, you can’t come back as a milk jug.
If 8% of all plastic gets recycled and16% is incinerated, that leaves 76% of the 9 Billion tons sitting in a landfill, floating around in the ocean, or making its way to the river where it will take hundreds of years to break down.
The industry has known about this for decades. They know it’s not the answer to the problem. But by promoting recycling, they put the onus on the consumer, buying themselves all kind of time in the process.
Changing the situation is going to be a hard battle, and oil manufacturers aren’t going to give up easily. With oil prices declining and green energy on the rise, plastics have become their bread and butter.
But if we persist, we can surely do it. Let them have cake!
Feeling helpless? Once you see everything that’s going wrong with plastics, it’s easy to throw up your hands and give up hope. The problem’s just so big, there’s nothing you could possibly do to help…is there? Well, like many stories, this one’s going to have a hopeful ending. Before we get there, however, it’s important to know about two other substances that are damaging the environment too. Because then we can — to use an ugly metaphor — kill three birds with a stone, instead of just one. Stay tuned for this Sunday!