Death by Plastic

Cuvier’s Beaked Whales (Ziphius cavirostris) are known for their extreme diving abilities. Researchers using satellite-linked tags to measure the diving behavior of the species off the Southern California coast have recorded one dive to 9,816 ft (2992 m) in depth, and another lasting 137.5 minutes, “both new mammalian dive records.” The work, carried out by Gregory Scharr and colleagues of the Cascadia Research Collective, was published March 26, 2014 in the open access journal, PLOS ONE.

Phot of Cuvier’s Beaked Whale
Cuvier’s Beaked Whale. Image: Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit, Banff, Scotland.

Because of the animal’s preference for deep water, typically far from shore, the living habits of this marvellous creature are poorly understood. Most of the collected knowledge about the species comes from the study of dead specimens. A week ago (March 16), marine researchers in the Philippians learned that a young Cuvier’s Beaked Whale could hold 88 lbs (40 kg) of plastic trash in its stomach before dying of “gastric shock”.

According to an article in the National Geographic, the young 15ft long, 1,100 pound whale was still alive when it washed up on the shore of the Davao Gulf. The people who found it said it looked emaciated and was vomiting blood before it died. The magazine quotes Darrell Blatchley, the marine biologist who performed an autopsy on the body: “Plastic was just bursting out its stomach”. Blatchley describes the contents as being like two densely packed basketballs, but hard as a baseball, some of it calcified from being in the stomach for so long. The trash, 8% of the animal’s total weight, included plastic shopping bags of various sizes, rice sacks, banana bags, and tangles of nylon rope. According to the National Geographic piece, the animal’s “stomach acid, unable to break down the plastic waste, had worn holes through its stomach lining instead.”

Writing about how much plastic trash can fit inside the belly of a whale has reminded me of the email I sent last December to James Quincey, CEO of the Coca-Cola Co. concerning his talk on ‘sustainability’ published on YouTube, August 30, 2018 – see below. The Coca-Cola Company reportedly generates — world wide — about 3 million tons of plastic packaging annually, all of it destined to pollute land, sea, or air, in one form or another. What concerned me about Mr. Quincey’s comments on plastic, was that, rather than talk about alternatives, he went on about how improved ‘recycling’ of plastic waste could ultimately fix the problem of plastic waste pollution.

My email to Mr. Quincey’s was intended to remind him that recycling plastic waste is not a ‘sustainable’ solution to the pollution problem. The email listed the following three reasons why it isn’t:

First, the collection of discarded plastic is driven by local demands for the cleanup of unsightly trash, and it depends on the availability of municipal taxes and/or government subsidies to pay for the work. There are many places, including whole countries, that cannot afford decent garbage disposal, let alone the facilities needed to extract plastic from the stuff.
Second, even in places where the collection of trash is good, there is no profit motive to drive plastic recycling. The cheapest way to make plastic is to use fossil fuels – oil, gas, coal – as the raw material. It’s far more expensive to extract used plastic from garbage and then reprocess it.
Third, even if increased levels of plastic recycling could be achieved, the amount of plastic in the environment would continue to rise. That’s because recycled plastics remain in the environment as potential pollutants. For example, lawn chairs made from recycled plastic bottles eventually return to the trash pile. Recycling merely delays the pollution caused by the recycled stream.

Promoting the idea of recycling to reduce plastic pollution is a useful PR position for a corporation like Coca-Cola to adopt— in the short term. But what, I asked Mr. Quincey, is his company’s actual, sustainable, solution for the long term? I’m expecting a positive reply; something like: plastic is an abomination, a scourge, there’s no choice but to phase it out, we must use glass instead, the quicker we act the better.

I haven’t received any reply from Mr. Quincey yet, but I’ll update this post when I do.

While the whale that died from gastric shock will disintegrate and return harmlessly to the earth, the trash removed from its stomach continues to exist. Conceivably the same trash could some day find its way back into the ocean to once again kill more creatures — assuming there are any creatures left to kill. That’s the problem with plastics. Like the fossil fuels from which they are derived, once let loose into the environment, the damage they cause lasts indefinitely and becomes virtually impossible to control. Perhaps next time Mr. Quincey and his fellow Coca-Cola board members meet to discuss corporate business, they’ll consider more carefully the implications of their product-packaging decisions. To use a business jargon term, the company needs to get out ahead of the curve.

Photo of Coca-Cola Co. Board of Directors
Coca-Cola Board of Directors. James Quincey 7th From left. Image from Coca-Cola Co. website

 

Plastic packaging overwhelms humanity — industry looks to increase the supply

Image of plastic water bottles on production line
A few of the 50 Billion plastic water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. in one year

Since its invention in the early 20th century, plastic has been put to a multitude of valuable uses. Plastic packaging is not one of them. It’s a scourge. The stuff keeps piling up in landfills and garbage tips. It accumulates along beaches and floats in the oceans as micro particles. It slowly degrades in sunlight, releasing methane and ethylene, potent greenhouse gases. When burned with trash in the open air (as happens routinely in poor countries) it releases a range of deadly fumes, including dioxin. When burned in an incinerator as a source of energy (plastic is made from fossil fuels) it releases its carbon content into the atmosphere, thus increasing global warming.

Image of discarded flexible packaging
Discarded flexible packaging. Image: RecycleBC

Plastic trash is a highly visible form of pollution. That’s a problem for the plastics industry.  Stung by public criticism, manufacturers and users of plastic packaging have begun to react. Amcor, a leading manufacturer of plastic packaging, together with some of the big users (including, Coca-Cola, Danone, MARS, Novamont, L’Oréal, Pepsi, Unilever, and Veolia), say they have committed themselves to the New Plastics Economy, an initiative by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is what the organization’s website says it wants to achieve:

In a new plastics economy, plastic never becomes waste or pollution. Three actions are required to achieve this vision and create a circular economy for plastic. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

If those statements sound to you like the kind of New Year resolutions a weak-willed glutton might make, you’re right. Plastic products are cheap, most of the public accepts them, and the industry wants to continue feeding the market with as much of the stuff as it will swallow. According to the industry newsletter Plastics Today, the plastic packaging market is expected to grow in value from about $200 billion in 2017 to $270 billion in 2025, a 35% increase.

Of course the industry wants something to be done about the trash. It’s an embarrassment. Look at the last statement in the committments they made about circulating all the plastic items we use. The question is, who do they think will execute that part of their commitment? Right now, municipalities handle garbage collection and recycling, provided they have a tax base to support it. Municipalities in poor countries don’t have that luxury. Does the plastics industry intend to fund the collection and recycling of plastic trash in all those places in the world where that work falls short of 100% efficiency? Of course not. What the industry is angling for is a commitment, by others — governments, municipalities, you and I — to pay for it.

Suppose, as is likely, no one wants to pay the cost of dealing with plastic pollution on a global scale, what then? In the case of plastic packaging, the obvious solution would be to switch back to non-polluting materials such as paper and glass. People lived without plastic before. We can do so again.
Industry representatives opposed to the idea raise the usual objections: impractical; ill informed; too expensive; jobs would be lost, etc. Or they imply that there is no alternative. For example, Amcor CEO Ron Delia, quoted in his company’s website, says: “Plastic packaging is vital for products used by billions of consumers around the globe. It’s highly effective and easy to adapt, so that those products are safe, nutritious and effective.”  So . . . Plastic packaging is not just useful, it is vital. Foodstuffs that are not packed in plastic are unsafe, ineffective, lack nutrition. Use plastic or billions will suffer. Those are the messages Mr. Delia’s statement implies.

We humans have a tendency to eat until we burst. Our excessive consumption of plastic is just one example.  Fortunately it’s a habit we can easily break. But to succeed, the break will have to be made despite the New Plastic Economy crowd.

The following YouTube video by Ravi Bajoria shows a primative garbage sorting line in operation. Poor countries cannot afford to buy and operate the automated, high-tech systems that are available. If we stop using plastic packaging, they won’t need them.