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How plastics add to the climate crisis

On Tuesday afternoons in winter I teach sustainable design at Ryerson School of Interior Design at Ryerson University in Toronto. We have covered many of these themes on TreeHugger, but I recently turned a lecture into a post, which turned out to be popular here. It also was a great dress rehearsal for me, so I am going to do this again with my upcoming lecture on plastics. I apologize if you have read much of this before.

When I was a kid, I loved plastics. I think I was inspired to be an architect by the Monsanto House of the Future at Disneyland. It was “a glimpse of carefree futuristic living inside a plastic-walled floating cruciform structure with picture phones, height-adjustable sinks, dishes washed by ultrasonic waves, and atomic food preservation.” Plastics were the future.

Touring Greenbuild in Boston almost a decade ago, the plastic people were there, calling vinyl The Material For Life. That was during the plastics wars, where the American Chemistry Council declared war on the US Green Building Council because LEED had the temerity to suggest that certain plastics didn't belong in green building. And back then, nobody was talking about the embodied carbon in building materials.

Now, we have an entirely different ballgame, where the oil industry is spending billions on increasing plastics production. I wrote:

Consultants note that oil producers are pivoting to plastics, away from gas or diesel, and that demand for petrochemical feedstocks will increase by fifty percent. Petrochemical manufacturers are building 11 new ethylene plants on the Gulf Coast, with capacity for polyethylene growing by 30 percent. The director of the trade association says, “You are going to see over $200 billion in investment in the Gulf Coast specifically related to petrochemical manufacturing.”

So how did we get into this mess?

As Vaclav Smil wrote in Energy and Civilization, our entire economy is based on fossil fuels. It drives it. Governments and businesses will do everything they can to keep it going.

By turning to these rich stores we have created societies that transform unprecedented amounts of energy. This transformation brought enormous advances in agricultural productivity and crop yields; it has resulted first in rapid industrialization and urbanization, in the expansion and acceleration of transportation, and in an even more impressive growth of our information and communication capabilities; and all of these developments have combined to produce long periods of high rates of economic growth that have created a great deal of real affluence, raised the average quality of life for most of the world’s population, and eventually produced new, high-energy service economies.

Single-use disposable packaging, with single-use plastics, have been a big part of this economic boom.

The dawn of disposables

Cocacola bottling company© Coca Cola bottling/ Getty Images

Your parents or grandparents might remember what buying a Coke was like before disposables came along; there was a Coca Cola bottling company in every city that mixed the secret formula with soda water and put it in bottles, which were returned and refilled.

miss blacktopWisconsin Historical society/Public Domain

Then Miss Blacktop and Miss Concrete opened the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways and it became cheap enough to ship Coke longer distances, but it didn't work if they had to ship all the bottles back. The beer companies had the same problem. So they worked with the bottle companies to make disposable bottles.

Soon Coke was able to to consolidate its factories and close all the local bottlers, and Coors and other big brewers were able to build giant mega-breweries that were so cost-efficient that they drove all the local brewers out of business.

drinking coffee circa 1955© 1955: Police officer Harris from Nassau County, Long Island, drinks a cup of coffee in his local diner. (Photo by Carsten/Three Lions/Getty Images)

Restaurants also used to use refillable cups. As I noted earlier,

Back in the day, if you wanted a coffee, you sat down in a diner or restaurant and you had a coffee. You got it in a china cup and you drank it right there. It was called a coffee break for a reason: you were taking a break. You were having a coffee. You weren't driving and drinking coffee or walking and drinking coffee. When you were done, your cup was washed and then used again in the same location.

Disposable single-use packaging opened up a whole world of possibilities in food marketing for a newly mobile America.

Disposable cups created a whole new system, where the people who sold the coffee were no longer responsible for cleaning and reusing, and the customer didn't have to actually ever stop moving. No wonder it was so profitable; instead of having to pay for real estate for people to sit and drink, and equipment to wash and store the cups, we drink our coffee on city sidewalks or in our cars.

Don't be a litterbug!

Every litter bit hurtsKeep America Beautiful/Promo image

The problem with all of this at the time was that people didn't really know what to do with the packaging. They just threw it out the car window or let it blow away. It was a mess everywhere and people were getting upset. So the bottlers and the brewers got together and started Keep America Beautiful to teach us how to pick up after ourselves.

Susan Spotless flew into action to make sure that dad learned not to throw stuff on the ground. As Heather Rogers wrote in Message in a Bottle, the goal of all of this was to shift responsibility to the user, the purchaser of the product, not the maker who used to be responsible for taking the bottle or plate back, cleaning it and reusing it.

KAB downplayed industry's role in despoiling the earth, while relentlessly hammering home the message of each person's responsibility for the destruction of nature, one wrapper at a time… KAB was a pioneer in sowing confusion about the environmental impact of mass production and consumption.

The trouble with this was that the burden was now shifted to the municipalities, which had to pay for the waste bins, pick the stuff up and take it to landfills, which was very expensive and all paid for by the taxpayer. Many states and municipalities started talking bottle bills, with mandatory deposits.

bottle billsCalPIRG/Public Domain

The companies were horrified and got together to fight these bills, and started promoting the idea of recycling as an alternative, saying that the plastic, paper and aluminum was all valuable. They put money into lobbying, marketing and advertising the benefits of recycling, which I have been complaining about for years, describing it as

…a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America. Recycling makes you feel good about buying disposable packaging and sorting it into neat little piles so that you can then pay your city or town to take away and ship across the country or farther so that somebody can melt it and downcycle it into a bench if you are lucky.”

PlaymobilPlaymobil recycling truck/Promo image

They kept marketing recycling, almost turning it into a religion. From childhood, people were indoctrinated with it as being one of the greatest virtues. Many people think that it is the greenest thing they can do:

A recent study by the USGBC confirmed that people think recycling is more important than dealing with climate change or energy or water. But it was all a sham; it was cheaper to send it all to China where the labor was cheap enough to separate the plastic types from each other and there was an endless supply of factories to make stuff to ship back to us.

When China closed its doors to foreign garbage, it all fell apart. As I noted earlier, “The entire worldwide system of recycling is breaking down because China doesn't want to take contaminated and dirty plastic and fibre, much of which is single-use disposables. If they won't buy it then the municipalities can't sell it.”

energy bag© Hefty Energy Bag

The Keep America Beautiful people got busy trying to come up with alternatives; they even tried to reposition plastic waste. As I wrote in That's not a bag of garbage, it's a bag of energy!

The KAB has been relentless in its campaign to keep America safe for single use packaging, but the EnergyBag is the most egregious greenwashing yet. For years they fooled us into thinking that separating their garbage was virtuous, instead of designing their products to reduce waste in the first place. Now, when they have a pile of garbage that they actually can't recycle, they are fooling us into thinking that burning it is virtuous, that we have a bag of energy, not a bag of garbage. How stupid do they think we are?

Citizens of Boise, Idaho, were told that all their orange bags were going to be turned into diesel fuel in Salt Lake City. Instead, they have “been sent all over — California, Louisiana, Texas, even Canada. They’ve mostly been burned in cement manufacturing plants, in place of coal as an energy source in the production process.” This despite the fact that burning plastic emits more CO2 per kilowatt of energy or heat generated than burning coal does.

Let's get circular.

One way out of this mess was to recognize that the process we are in is linear, with only 14 percent getting collected for recycling and a tiny 2 percent actually getting truly recycled in a circular loop. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation has instead been proposing a circular economy, where everything is recovered and reprocessed.

The overarching vision of the New Plastics Economy is that plastics never become waste; rather, they re-enter the economy as valuable technical or biological nutrients. The New Plastics Economy is underpinned by and aligns with circular economy principles. It sets the ambition to deliver better system-wide economic and environmental outcomes by creating an effective after-use plastics economy (the cornerstone and priority); by drastically reducing the leakage of plastics into natural systems (in particular the ocean); and by decoupling plastics from fossil feedstocks.

The problem is that it still faces all the problems that recycling faces now; somebody has to dispose of the plastic in the right place, someone has to pick it up and separate it from other plastics, and then somebody has to reprocess it all to turn it back into feedstocks or whatever else they are going to turn it into. That's why the linear system works so well. I wrote:

Linear is more profitable because someone else, often the government, picks up part of the tab. Now, the drive-ins proliferate and take-out dominates. The entire industry is built on the linear economy. It exists entirely because of the development of single-use packaging where you buy, take away, and then throw away. It is the raison d'être.

processes© Closed Loop Partners

The circular economy people propose all kinds of new technologies to break those plastics down, but these are all new and experimental and expensive. Meanwhile, remember what the oil companies are doing: pivoting to petrochemicals.

Demand for gasoline is flatlining as electric vehicle sales surge and conventional cars become more efficient. But oil is essential for much more than just transportation: It’s broken down into chemicals and plastics used in every aspect of modern life. Growth in demand for chemicals already outstrips the need for liquid fuels, and that gap will widen in coming decades, according to the International Energy Agency.

Really, the circular economy cannot even get started in competition with the linear economy when they are almost giving natural gas away. It makes no sense. I wrote that it is really just another sham like recycling:

This sham of a circular economy is just another way to continue the status quo, with some more expensive reprocessing. It is the plastics industry telling government “don't worry, we will save recycling, just invest zillions in these new reprocessing technologies and maybe in a decade we can turn some of it back into plastic.” It ensures that the consumer doesn't feel guilty buying the bottled water or the disposable coffee cup because after all, hey, it's now circular. And look who is behind it – the plastics and recycling industry.

Change the culture, not the cup.

Ultimately, it is really hard to bend a linear economy into a circular one, especially when the answer is right there in black and white, as Katherine Martinko noted in Straw bans won't fix the plastic problem, but something else can.

What needs to change instead is American eating culture, which is the real driving force behind this excessive waste. When so many people eat on the go and replace sit-down meals with portable snacks, it's no wonder we have a packaging waste catastrophe. When food is purchased outside the home, it requires packaging in order to be clean and safe for consumption, but if you prepare it at home and eat it on a plate, you reduce the need for packaging.

She continued in another post, suggesting that we should drink coffee like an Italian, where you knock back a tiny cup and return it to the bar. I noted that “there is no waste because of the difference in the culture, in what they serve and how they serve it. In North America, where you got to take the cup with you, it just got bigger and bigger. More consumption, more waste.”

This is the key. This is the truly circular economy, when you sit down and enjoy your coffee instead of carrying it with you. Forget about purifying and decomposing and converting your plastic cup, just wash the damn thing. There is no need for this complexity. There is, however, a need for cultural change.

Our lives have been co-opted by the Convenience Industrial Complex.

EisenhowerPresident Dwight D. Eisenhower/Public Domain

In his farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans about the Military Industrial Complex. But he also warned us about the dangers of convenience, speaking to a nation that he said was “giddy with prosperity, infatuated with youth and glamour, and aiming increasingly for the easy life.”

To paraphrase him, I call our obsession with this easy, linear life the ‘Convenience Industrial Complex'. Some, like Katherine Martinko, think that we are well on our way to breaking away from this. She wrote:

While municipal bag bans, the zero-waste movement, and anti-straw campaigns are miniscule when faced with the construction of multi-billion-dollar petrochemical facilities, remember that these alternative movements are far more noticeable than they were only five years ago – or even a decade ago, when they didn’t exist yet. The anti-plastic movement will grow, slowly but steadily, until these companies cannot help but pay attention.

I am not so sure. As Vaclav Smil noted, these are some of the most powerful forces on Earth, the companies that pump the fuels and the governments that depend on the revenues from their exports. Look at what is happening to the world's economies right now because of oil. And again, you get six pounds of CO2 for every pound of plastics, possibly more if you count for the leaking methane and inevitable incineration. As I noted,

The problem is that, over the last 60 years, every aspect of our lives has changed because of disposables. We live in a totally linear world where trees and bauxite and petroleum are turned into the paper and aluminum and plastics that are part of everything we touch. It has created this Convenience Industrial Complex. It's structural. It's cultural. Changing it is going to be far more difficult because it permeates every aspect of the economy and our lives.

Think about all of that the next time you order a coffee.

They are basically solid fossil fuels, putting out as much as 6 kg of CO2 for every kg of plastic.