Plastic as toxic trash is barely an issue with health advocates, environmentalists, and even those of us looking toward the post-petroleum world. Instead, "recycling" and future "bioplastics" distract people from keeping plastic out of their lives. As the evidence from our trashed oceans and damage to human health mounts, plastic can no longer be conveniently ignored. The days of naive trust and denial need to be put behind us, and a war on plastics declared now.
If this sounds unreasonable, decide after reading this report. One recently discovered principle about exposure to toxic chemicals is that very low concentrations can trigger worse damage in many individuals than larger exposures, in part due to the sensitivity of our genes. Also, potency is not possible to predict when various plastics' chemicals combine in our bodies and cause synergistic reactions later on.
One must acknowledge today's extreme dependence on plastics. They are pervasive, cheap, effective, and even "essential." The list of plastic types goes far beyond what we can start listing off the top of our heads. If a product or solid synthetic material is not clearly wood or metal, chances are it is plastic -- almost entirely from petroleum. Computers, telephones, cars, boats, teflon cookery, toys, packaging, kitchen appliances and tools, and imitations of a multitude of natural items, are but part of the world of plastics. Living without them would seem unthinkable. However, these plastics are essential to what? Answer: essential to a lifestyle that is fleeting -- historically speaking.
There are people who say they cannot live without something, and those who yearn to do so. People think it is a matter of choice. However, when the coming petroleum supply crunch hits and cannot be alleviated by more production -- world extraction is soon passing its peak -- a combination of factors will deprive global consumers of the constant flow of new products now taken for granted. Therefore, we will not have a choice when we must do without.
Secondly, but not less critically, the ongoing use and "disposal" of plastics is a health disaster, because we are never rid of the stuff. All the plastic that's ever been produced is still with us today... unless, of course, it has been incinerated which spews a plethora of toxic substances into the air. But wait, hasn't there been progress? Plastic grocery sacks are 40 per cent lighter today than they were in 1976, and plastic trash bags are 50 per cent lighter today than in the 1970's. However, growth of the market cancels out any gains, and plastics' pollution just accumulates whether in the air, water or soil -- or our bodies. In the case of the picture at right, paradise is clearly trashed by modern "convenience" [source: cawrecycles.org]
Most North Americans urinate plastics. Sperm counts are at an historic per capita low. Cancer is an epidemic. Birth deformities, sex organ abnormalities and eventual cancers are becoming more common -- all traceable to certain chemical exposures to the fetus. If the human race is not driven extinct by nuclear holocaust or complete distortion of the climate, it may happen through wonderful plastic and other petrochemicals. The foregoing is an "unscientific" assertion, but later in this report we provide some evidence to give everyone pause.
The movement's first U.S. battle
The current, high-profile battleground is San Francisco. Following the example of Ireland and other countries that have put a fee on plastic bags, the grocery shoppers of San Francisco may soon start paying a fee of 17 cents per bag. That figure is the cost that the citizenry is already paying in general taxes for some of the costs of plastic-bag trash, such as cleaning up the litter and unclogging the waste system.
The American Plastics Council claims that the bag fee is a crazy idea, saying in the San Francisco Chronicle that "this will hurt those who can least afford it." Just the opposite is true.
Northern Californians Against Plastic presented figures to show that if each of the 347,000+ households in San Francisco were to purchase a couple of cotton or canvas bags, over the approximate 10-year life of those bags the total amount saved -- compared to everyone using eight bags each week at 17 cents each -- by consumers would collectively be over $300 million. And, the bag fee would mean revenue to fund programs for the poor such as free reusable natural-fiber bags. The Chronicle and the Commission on Environment (the San Francisco body putting the bag fee proposal to the Supervisors for an ordinance) have this new information.
A movement to spearhead the fight against plastics is forming now. While there have been municipal bans of polystyrene (styrofoam), the plastics/petroleum industry has had a free ride at the expense of the health of the planet and our bodies. While endocrine disruptors and estrogen imitators have been targeted by researchers and public-spirited writers and health organizations, government has done next to nothing as it bows down to industry interests. The War On Plastic will encompass not just a few "problem chemicals" or "the worst plastics," because they are all bad in at least some single way. We must reject the entire toxic petroleum plague to our fullest capability, beginning now.
In California, to complement the fledgling Campaign Against the Plastic Plague formed this year in southern California, we at Culture Change have joined with Mindfully.org's Paul Goettlich to form Northern Californians Against Plastic. One of our first projects is to support the San Francisco bag fee. We are visiting more Californian communities as you read this, promoting bag fees and bans on certain plastics. Next, the whole state. We will face increasing opposition. But when our rationale and data are considered, almost no one will be able to turn away and ignore the issues.
Waiting for technology to save the lifestyle of using unlimited plastics, by having bioplastics replace the petroleum, is no help. We find that after studying the problems with plant-based replacements (see end section), and seeing the examples of other environmental problems saddled with non-solutions, fundamental change is the only reasonable approach. Such change will address the whole -- our social system, the ecosystem and the economy -- instead of spinning our wheels on the ineffectual reforms of mere symptoms of our extremely wasteful society.
Science misleads in the cancer game
The ubiquitous presence of plastics is already killing us. Exactly "how" is never going to be completely isolated. Eighty per cent of cancers are environmentally derived. When we wonder where the epidemic of cancer is coming from, can we say that plastics gave Ms. Jane Doe cancer? Perhaps, but cancer is coming from not only plastics and their associated toxins as well as from radiation sources, smog, the modern chemically tainted diet, household and workplace chemicals, etc. To say cancer is "genetic" is to put the onus on our intrinsic humanity, so as to ignore the 80% environmental-source principle.
The absolute proof that a case of cancer came from a particular cause or chemical is usually lacking, except in the case of certain rare cancers from identifiable chemicals. Or, a massive exposure can be blamed for specific cancers when it assaults a community such as Union Carbide's mass poisoning of Bhopal, India. The lack of exact, causal evidence clearly pointing to plastics, for example, when considering cancer, is most convenient for the status quo. This points up the faulty approach of focusing on a certain chemical villain, or set of bad chemicals -- as if the rest are safe and the technocratic bureaucracy will save us. The public is encouraged by industry to think a certain cancer is caused by overexposure to a certain chemical not yet regulated, so corporate profits can roll along in the context of technological progress that the public has been trained not to question. In reality, thousands of marketed chemicals and their combinations have not been tested to see if they are harmful.
Whether or not scientists can measure a substance should not be the point. What we don't see or detect can be lethal enough. Migration and release of plastics' chemicals into our food, water and skin is of little interest to the government and its corporate friends. But certain principles won't go away:. For example, polymerizing does not perfectly bind the petroleum chemicals together, especially when substances such as carcinogenic plasticizers are added after polymerization. Did you think that cute "rubber" duckie in the bath tub was harmless? Think again.
The U.S. public is thus treated every bit as shabbily as the Third World victims of plastic pollution. In India, where much of Americans' plastic "recycling" (mostly trash) is sent, the authorities dismiss the sad public health impact there by asking, "How can you prove that these plastic and lead recycling factories are causing these problems?" [source: Plastic Task Force, Berkeley Ecology Center] In a land like India where biotech crops and corporate fast-food outlets have been sabotaged, it is possible that folks there may intensify their destroying whatever is destroying them.
When the environmental movement holds back forthright judgment, and the environment and our health are not protected, people do need to take on plastics and other threats personally. This is because the mainstream movement to protect the environment and public health is going practically nowhere. This is exactly what industry and its scientists want. It's as if industry is funding the environmental movement; in large part it is.
Your War on Plastics
We all need to be awakened, as if a "Pearl Harbor" event suddenly was telling us that plastics threaten us. However, the prevailing attitude by those already concerned about plastics is that we must just focus on reducing the use of one or two key plastics while continuing to push recycling. This philosophy of compromise, without stating the whole truth that plastics must be eliminated as much and as fast as possible, is a deadly mistake. The funded environmental movement and public health officials are needlessly resigned to accepting a plastic world just because ignorant consumers have habits. The approach of promoting only the bringing of one's own bag for shopping, along with the recycling con game and waiting for bioplastics, has failed and needs to be abandoned publicly.
Paul Goettlich is the director of Mindfully.org, a nonprofit dedicated to exposing the effects and costs of technology on our bodies and society. The plastics section on Mindfully.org is the most extensive wholistic set of documents and scientific data that exists on plastics. "There are no safe plastics," Goettlich says. "The tendency of environmental organizations is to proclaim what the worst or the best plastics are, so we can go on using them. It is ill conceived and does not address the relevant issues. All plastics migrate toxins into whatever they contact at all times. It does not matter if it is water- or oil-based; hot or cold; solid or liquid," says Goettlich.
Analogy:: When war is used as a solution in reacting to an alleged threat or terror, etc., (Saddam, Noriega, ad infinitum) we fail to focus on the real problem -- the cause of the war, which is usually corporate America. We are distracted by one alarm after another, while war profiteers and jingoistic politicians bleed us dry. It’s the same with plastics -- the chemicals are the battles but the war is really about plastic and petroleum dependence. The focus of environmental organizations is the individual chemical, while refusing to promote real solutions such as reusable nontoxic, nonplastic replacement of containers and bags. Instead of wondering what plastic might be safer to microwave, we say "None. And don't microwave anyway. It creates free radicals -- the precursors to cancer -- in your food." This is war, and we've already been critically damaged. Join us!
As discussed in "Plastics your formidable enemy," published last August in this column, the supply of petroleum products such as plastics will dry up thanks to the extreme market response that we can anticipate as soon as geologic reality triggers panic. The peak of oil extraction is imminent, with natural gas to follow soon after. Most plastic bags are made from natural gas (methane).
A host of poisonous chemicals are imbedded in plastic that are unstable, causing genetic damage and resultant disease. To reiterate, as it is not possible to attribute most environmental diseases to specific chemicals or products, industry gets a free ride in killing people and the planet for profit. The reductionist approach of science, and the domination of research by corporations and corrupt government agencies, tricks citizens into ceding their power to specialists wedded to the economic/academic system and its inherent flaws.
Here are a few of the critical, insurmountable challenges from plastic's production and disposal:
Who is the enemy in this war on plastic, besides you and me? At the December 1, 2004 meeting of the Campaign Against the Plastic Plague, a spy from Dart packaging was present and kept entirely to himself. Dart touts its "single-use foodservice products worldwide." Another adversary is the American Plastics Council (APC) which has sent its "suits" to interfere in the city of San Francisco's process of cleaning up the plastic bag mess. APC has a website that promises to answer all your questions about plastics. But its search engine comes up empty for "migration", "endocrine disruptors" and "estrogen."
"A lot of bio-engineered row crops, using petroleum fertilizers and plasticizers to make the throw away society perpetuate itself, is not appropriate. A mess of slowly degrading rubbish on our fences and shores could be worse than non-degradables." - Captain Charles Moore, plastics pollution researcher.
Because of our huge population size and high consumption levels, there would not be much arable land or species-diversity left over if the consumer demand for plastics, for example, were to come from agriculture (no matter if it were organic or GMO-maximum pesticide), even if it were possible to do this to the Earth and our communities. We cannot imagine a plant-based approach only for plastics and not expect that other fossil fuel needs would not be part of the same approach of agricultural strip-mining. There would be competition for land from many pressures and interests, trying in vain to replicate the petroleum economy with a plant-based one..
That is another reason the real solution comes down to just cutting consumption of petroleum to the max. How about no plastics -- not using plastics to the extent we can manage doing so. We will be forced to deal with virtually total shortage of plastic production due to imminent petroleum crash. So there goes bioplastics and other technofixes right out the window, because they will not be in place to ramp up. Better not to dream about them, but rather get on with preparing for a sustainable future based on reality.
The promise of the technofix (bioplastics in this case) gives the consumer the idea that tomorrow and for some years one will probably do just what one did today as to consuming. The rationalization is that although we are doing wrong and it can't go on long, "human ingenuity" and "science" will "solve our problems" some day; as "they" will "think of something."
As we've seen with energy issues, this mindset of the technofix and "clean" energy down the road just puts off facing the fact that consumption must be slashed immediately, particularly when the infrastructure for the "green" Utopia for energy consumption would rely on the present petroleum-based infrastructure. The critical context is vast overpopulation, already achieved thanks to petroleum dependence.
I would predict that plant-based plastics will be niche products and used very locally, similar to alcohol fuels which are only realistic for meeting very local, limited needs possibly, in certain parts of the world.
Bioplastics would also attract toxins in the ambient sea water, as petroleum plastics do. All the more reason to declare War on Plastics. Period!
The following is from a government analyst friendly to the campaign against plastics:
"Biodegradable plastics are often (not always) made from soy and corn. Making plastics from agricultural products will encourage a massive shift of production from petroleum-based products to products that rely on petroleum-based pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers. So, we are not moving away from reliance on petroleum products, rather we would be encouraging the use of more toxic forms of them. Mass agriculture on the scale that would be necessary to produce the plastics to feed our consumer society will significantly increase the degradation already caused by industrial-style agriculture -- that is, the use of water, energy, the use of pesticides, the depletion of top soil, and the resulting sedimentation of rivers and nearby waterways caused by soil erosion.
"If additional criteria were added to plastics that are biodegradable or compostable that made them sustainable, then I might feel more comfortable with the shift away from plastics made from hydrocarbons. Specifically, sustainable agricultural practices should be used with the development of any agricultural materials grown for plastic production (i.e. no GMOs, no pesticide/insecticide/ fungicide use, and other principles of sustainable agriculture that prevent soil erosion). Use of waste agricultural materials, such as byproducts from growing sugar cane, should be given a higher priority since it closes the loop on production.
"Another concern is that the ASTM standards for biodegradable and compostable plastics do not address the issue of plastic additives. So, there is no reason to believe that the plasticizing additives that cause cancer and hormone disruption will not be used in these new plastics. Prohibition on the use of harmful chemicals additives should be added to the criteria for sustainable plastics. For example, Dupont is marketing "Greenpla." When you check their website about biodegradable plastics and see Dupont's "Biomax," we see its generic name is "Polybutylenesuccinate/terephthalate" [Note that the last phrase, phthalate, is in a class of highly toxic compounds. - ed.]
From Paul Goettlich, whose comments were directed, as were the above comments in this section, to the Campaign Against the Plastic Plague participants in early December 2004:
"The concept of "biodegradable plastic" is at best a ploy by industry meant to divert our focus away from the real problem: single-use containers and packaging.
"The concept that something can take on the properties required for containers to then be composted into its original components -- just as found in nature -- is a stretch at best. Engineers and scientists may come up with any number of standards that attempt to define nature, but what it conforms to is a reductionist model that does not work when applied to whole systems.
"I am completely against promoting biodegradable products. They are the happy alternative that allows people to continue consuming without regard to many associated issues. PLA plastics utilize corn grown on corporate monoculture farms and will be some variety genetically engineered corn that will be resistant to Monsanto's Roundup.
"This type of farming will never be sustainable. It uses more pesticides than normal conventional farming, and nearly 100% more than sustainable organic farming. Conventional farming uses pesticides because it is a monoculture -- one crop is grown on thousands of acres. That fact alone is the very reason why pesticides must be used. Monoculture farming's lack of diversity is the chief cause of the pestilence require pesticides.
"In genetically engineered crops such as Roundup Ready corn -- as opposed to normal conventional corn -- pesticide use is actually increased rather than decreased. Crop output is also reduced rather than increased. And it is impossible to contain the pollen from genetically engineered crops, making organic agriculture a doomed concept at best. Everything that the industry claims about its GMO crops is categorically false.
"Industrial farms also destroy communities they are in. Unions are busted. Communication between farmers is destroyed. An adversarial mood is instilled in the community. The farmer is rapidly being disappeared by the likes of Monsanto. It will do anything and say anything to make a buck. Percy Schmeiser [sued by Monsanto for having Round-Up-ready plants inadvertently growing on his farm) is a perfect example. It is not wise to ignore the consequences of dealing with Monsanto, Cargill, and any of the other agribusiness giants.
"Consolidation of farms is having an enormous effect on farmers. So many farmers have left farming that it is no longer a category in the US Census -- disappeared on paper. And the ones that remain generally need to supplement their income with one or more extra jobs, meaning that farming is almost considered a hobby rather than a profession.
"The message I'd like to leave everyone with is "watch the doughnut not the hole." In other words, watch the real issues and don't be distracted by corporate smoke and mirrors. The hole is the allure of being able to maintain our current lifestyles while not causing environmental and social harm. But there is no easy way out. Consumption is consumption no matter what pretty picture is painted of it. Corporate America has many millions of dollars to invest in promoting products.
"At first look, the concept of biodegradable seems admirable. But follow the links out in all directions until you think there are no more, and then dig deeper. It is not enough to merely see that a plastic degrades. What we don't see amounts to so much more and must be considered before any new technology is accepted."
"Alternatives to (petroleum) plastics," according to the Berkeley Ecology Center's Plastic Task Force do not include bioplastics:
Reduce the use – source reduction.
Require producers to take back resins.
Legislatively require recycled content.
Standardize labeling and inform the public.
Could it be that the solid waste nightmare precludes their embracing bioplastics? The Berkeley Ecology Center is the oldest and one of the most thorough recycling operations in the U.S.
- December 9-20, 2004, Berkeley/Oakland, California
[See the original article for resource links and for ways to help Culture Change and Northern Californians Against Plastic.]