Plastics II

I have said this before, but it bears repeating, humans do not “consume” anything. We are not “consumers.” We only transform things. In biological systems, one organism’s waste is another organism’s energy source (food). In our natural world, the end metabolic process of plants is carbohydrates and oxygen which are the input energy sources for animal metabolism. In turn, animals pump out carbon dioxide and protein or various nitrogenous outputs which then become inputs for plants.  Natural systems are said to be “closed loop” because everything is recycled. There is no “waste.” Natural systems are beautiful.

Not so for human systems. We have vast landfills scavenged by poor people where we deposit things that have no more utility to people. Old cars, vacuum cleaners, shopping bags, food containers, wrappers, boxes, construction materials, etc. Plastic is a particular concern, in part, because it is long-lived. No living organism can digest or metabolize plastics. This means the 400 million tons of plastic that are manufactured each year globally will accumulate in the environment somewhere. Only about 10% of that output is recycled although most of it could be. We have found plastic in Antarctic ice fields, on top of the Himalayas and at the bottom of the 35,000-foot-deep Mariana Trench a plastic shopping bag was found by researchers last year. By 2050, the weight of plastic in the oceans will exceed the weight of fish!

In 2018, China began refusing to accept plastic for recycling from around the world. Up to that point, about half of global plastic production was recycled (or at least accepted) by China. Now nations are scrambling. Parts of Africa are becoming the new dumping ground for mountains of plastic water bottles, automobile bumpers and other petrochemical detritus from humans. It is an example of avoiding solving the real problem (recycling) and simply pushing the problem onto the poor and least politically powerful.

Germany passed a law several years ago requiring automobile manufacturers to take back and recycle their own vehicles at the end of the vehicle life. Faced with the prospect of forced recycling, German engineers (in one year) reduced the number of different plastics in German cars from 300 to 5. This one step made recycling much less expensive and practical. The German example demonstrates that a nudge by government regulations can lead an entire industry to do the right thing. In the United States, the reigning ethos is “build it and throw it away.”

Today the streets of Nairobi, Kenya look like a science-fiction nightmare movie. They are awash in plastic dumped by the rest of the world. Should future generations of Americans and Europeans be surprised when the people of Kenya hate us?

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