The Current State
The Problem with Plastic
Plastic has become an essential material of society. Its ubiquity and low cost has led to a disregard of its finite nature. Plastic shapes the consumer experience. The mold-able, durable, and cheap material enables companies to package and ship products around the world. However, the life of a plastic product is short. The consumer buys the product, uses the product one time, and disposes of it. But plastic does not go away or decompose. Think of all of the toothbrushes, plastics bottles, and plastic bags that you have used in your lifetime. Almost every piece of plastic ever created still exists today. These products will represent the fossils of modern humans. When consumers dispose of plastic, it ends up in oceans, waterways, and communities instead being re-purposed as recycled products. Plastic pollution negatively impacts many ecosystems, the environment, and public health at large.
Plastic in the Environment
For 25 years, many developed countries, including the U.S., sent their plastic and solid waste to China instead of recycling domestically. Since 1992, China has imported 106 million metric tons of plastic waste. Collectively, China and Hong Kong imported 72.4% of ALL plastic waste generated since 1988. In 2017, China adopted the National Sword policy banning plastic waste entering its ports beginning on January 1, 2018. Plastic waste comes from many different markets and sources globally. However, the U.S. plays a significant role in reducing plastic waste and every piece counts. This ban indicates a shift in responsibility; developed countries must start managing their waste properly. Most waste management systems were created with sustainable intentions; but sorting and processing costs coupled with market factors steered programs to simply export the waste.
To this day, plastic continues to enter our food chain and eventually arrives on our dinner tables. The sun’s UV radiation combined with the physical motion of ocean currents causes plastic to degrade into small particles called micro-plastics. These along with larger plastic and waste materials coalesce in gyres located throughout the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. There are 5 major gyres of garbage spanning areas larger than Texas. The surrounding ecosystems have been drastically impacted. Researchers have found birds starved to death with stomachs full of over 250 pieces of plastic, totaling over 14% of their total body masses. Microbes within these ecosystems also digest the plastic particles through chemical conversions that form new fat-soluble compounds. These compounds readily enter surrounding organisms and in this way plastic chemicals make their way up the food chain and onto our plates.
Several legislative acts were implemented during the 1970s environmentalist movement with the intent to generate sustainable interactions between society and the environment. The Clean Air Act of 1963 was created to control air pollution by establishing national standards for monitoring and removing atmospheric contaminants. The Clean Water Act of 1972 was created to manage water pollution through discharge guidelines, technical tools, and financial aid. The Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976 represents the most comprehensive framework for managing solid waste from “cradle-to-grave”. Particularly, RCRA defines hazardous and nonhazardous waste and establishes methods for the disposal of heavy metals, chemicals, electronics, and oils. RCRA propelled the U.S. to reevaluate energy and natural resource conservation, reduce the volume of waste generated through better sourcing and recycling, and protect human health by managing waste with environmentally safe methods. However, there is no current national policy regarding domestic recycling or sustainable development.
Plastic pollution affects bodies of freshwater as well. Lake Erie represents a great natural resource that has been neglected in recent years. Every year, 18 tons of trash are removed by volunteers and more than 85% of the debris is made up of plastic. There are 46,000 parts of plastic per square kilometer of plastic in Lake Erie. This is the second highest portion among the great lakes. To better protect this valuable resource; the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and local activists developed a bill of rights for Lake Erie. This bill of rights not only outlines resource preservation within the lakes, it personalizes the Great Lakes and demonstrates the community’s moral responsibility to engage in resource stewardship.
Ohio currently has 41 municipal landfills offering more than 600 million tons of solid waste capacity. In 2017, Ohio landfills received 22.2 million tons of waste, but only 10.01 million pounds of that came from within Ohio. Over half of all imported waste is received by only 10 facilities in the state; including the Franklin County Sanitary Landfill (FCSL) which serves Columbus. Every year the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO) collects over a million tons of waste at a current tipping fee of $39.75 per ton. Many states and businesses gladly pay this expense to enjoy the luxury of our space. Landfills and subsequent recycling programs are operated for-profit; therefore, economically unable to process a wide variety of consumer products. For example, SWACO does not accept bottleneck containers, wires, bags, or styrofoam. This encompasses yogurt cups, butter tubs, drinking cups, plastic utensils, electronics, and egg cartons. In 2016, over 70 percent of land-filled material could have been recycled at the FCSL. On their website, they recognize the potential value of the plastic, estimated at $41 million, and the potential challenges at an industrial level. Recycling is subject to hyper-local supply and demand chains. If no one capitalizes on the potential value, then it is land-filled or expensed out elsewhere.