Sunday, August 18, 2019

Plastic, plastic everywhere

When we discard a plastic bag, an electronic device encased in plastic, a plastic pen emptied of its ink or any of the myriad plastic objects which populate our lives, we usually say we are throwing the object "away." By that we mean into a trash or recycling bin and from there to a landfill or recycling facility.

I put "away" in quotes because if there were ever any piece of evidence to convince us that there is no "away" in the sense described above, it is the discovery of tiny particles of plastic in the Arctic ice, deep oceans and high mountains.

These so-called microplastics are so ubiquitous now that they are believed to be floating in the air practically everywhere. Some tiny plastic bits have been seen the lungs of cancer patients who have died. Humans not only breathe them in, but also supposedly eat 50,000 of these particles every year.

And, of course, we know absolutely nothing about the potential health effects of these microplastics on humans. We are frequently told that the novel chemicals humans design are supposed to bring us advantages which will make our lives better, more productive and less toilsome. The problem is that once these are released into the environment, they go everywhere.

The industry line is that these releases are small, and that any which end up in the bodies of humans and animals will have little or no effect. But this has proven to be merely an industry ploy designed to delay the recognition of hazards as I wrote a few weeks ago.

There has been for some time a movement called "green chemistry" which aims to reduce the hazards associated with synthetic chemicals significantly. It does not, however, aim to eliminate them, at least in green chemistry's current form.

That means that even if industry adopted the principles of green chemistry widely, the same releases of synthetic chemicals into the environment would take place. There might be fewer of them, and they might be less toxic, but the releases would not stop.

Some will say it is hypocritical to enjoy the fruits of modern chemistry and yet complain about their side effects. After all, I am typing this piece on a plastic keyboard. I would say more accurately that it is impossible even to live in modern industrial society without participating in the degradation of the planetary environment.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to change things. There appear to be two clearly distinguishable paths available: 1) a path away from a society dependent on plastics and myriad other dangerous chemicals and 2) a path that continuously increases the toxicity and hazards of our environment until good health among humans and animals becomes an impossibility.

The rising concentrations of industrial toxins are already implicated in the twin epidemics of diabetes and obesity. Judged by the scale of these diseases, we are not far from a universally devastating soup of chemical toxins.

With apologies to the fictional Borg civilization of Star Trek fame, resistance is not futile. Individuals can reduce chemical exposure significantly through such measures as eating organic food, drinking filtered water, and filtering air in our homes through filters that remove toxic chemicals, either in central ventilation systems or in stand-alone units.

Organic food, by the way, is simply what everyone ate before chemical industrial farming came to dominate our food production. The other two recommendations are really just mitigation. They do not strike at the heart of the problem. All three require the means to afford them and so are less relevant to those of limited incomes.

Most modern people of any income, however, are somehow resigned to the idea that what should be their birthright—air, water and food without industrial toxins—is simply impossible to achieve.

It's true that to achieve a nontoxic world we would have to alter radically our entire society. A voluntary move in this direction seems not just unlikely, but downright impossible given the power of the chemical industry.

The ever growing trajectory of synthetic toxic chemicals in our environment when combined with climate change and resource depletion suggest another possible path to reducing toxics:  A dramatic disruption in industrial society and a resulting substantial decline in human population.

In that regard a friend of mine puts the following tagline at end of his emails: "It shouldn’t be easier to imagine the end of civilization than the end of air conditioning." All you need to do is substitute "synthetic toxic chemicals" for "air conditioning" and you will see why we are in such a pickle.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Michael Dowd said...

Excellent, as always, Kurt!

I just sent you an email to you but I'm not sure I have the correct address for you anymore (the last time we corresponded, your provider was yahoo).

Please let me know if you received it. Thanks!

Warmly, and getting warmer every year,

~ Michael

Unknown said...

Yea, sometimes I think that the only option is to shut it all down, go cold turkey on the whole enchilada. It would not be pretty, most would die, but maybe it's be better than a slow painful death of all of us.

Shawn B said...

Reportedly, 60% of our fabrics for clothing are now made from synthetic fibers made from fossil fuels. I take this as a sign of major ecological overshoot. We are now dependent on the still relatively inexpensive-to-extract natural fossil resources to provide our water, food, and now, clothing. My guess is that the land no longer exists to grow the cotton, or graze the animals for wool, that would be required to replace that 60% of synthetic fabrics. Or if we eliminated the use of synthetic fibers, the cost of our clothing would rise greatly.

My hunch is that the decision to sell and buy those synthetic fabrics was based in part of their lower costs, relative to natural fibers. I know in my personal case it is much harder to find the 100% cotton clothing garments or linens I prefer, or I have to pay much more to get them than some years ago. Of course, the manufacturers/sellers tout the benefits of these synthetic fabrics in the sales literature. Wool products are of course very expensive, although perhaps in relation to a percent of disposable income historically, they are still relatively inexpensive.

Natural Gas prices in dollars in the U.S. are still artificially low, thanks in part to Federal Reserve monetary actions over the last 10 years. As long as that continues, perhaps they will be able to continue to manufacture a large volume of cheap clothing for the masses. At some point however, the depletion of oil and gas will have a direct effect on the availability clothing. Given that I have never really wear more than half the clothes in my closet, I am actually feeling ok about this aspect of changes in our future.

Unknown said...

Climate geo-engineering that everyone sees when they actually look up from their brainwashing devices is the MAJOR factor in increased nano-particle pollution. They are used to keep the aluminum particles from clumping, often called surfactants, and fall down through the air column, its fascinating how hell-bent we are on destroying our habitat, all of which is made possible by a sleeping society of fear-mongered sheople addicted to the voice of the proletariat for the crumbs that fall from the "owners" table.

Vivi said...

The plastic food packaging and the once-every-few-years purchase of a new electronic device is not the main problem here. Yes, I would prefer not to have to buy liquids in PET bottles that leak who-knows-what into my food. But on the other hand, as someone who refuses to use a car for the 1 mile grocery shopping trip every couple of weeks, I am also quite glad that I don't have to lug around a bunch of heavy glass bottles. (Though mainly, I switched to tisanes, which mostly come in paper packaging.)

And after all, at least the ocean plastic pollution problem from packaging can be solved with a competently organized recycling system for household and commercial waste. Here in Germany, all PET bottles (and glass bottles and beverage cans) are subject to a deposit return system that actually charges a higher deposit per bottle than for example a bottle of water would cost on its own, so the price you would pay for your beverage if you can't be bothered to return the bottles is considerably higher than the normal price. So most people do bring those bottles back to the shop, and the rest is picked up by people who need the money. All other glass and clean-ish paper/cardboard are being collected and recycled as well, though that system works pretty well on a voluntary basis through free curb pickup and large communal bins. (At a recycling rate of 85% for glass - there always is some breakage and things like window glass or glass dishes still go into the non-recycling trash because it's a chemically different type of glass which would contaminate the re-melting process - and 75% for paper/cardboard - the latter is relatively low because toilet paper, tissues and dirty pizza boxes and such have to be burned with the non-recycling waste or microbially digested and dried with the rest of the sewage to be used as fertilizer on non-food crops.) All plastic/paper/cardboard/metal packaging other than the deposit bottles/cans is collected free of charge in special bags, a system that is paid for by the manufacturers (they're forced to contribute by law), who pay into the system on a scale depending on how much packaging they put around their products and how easy that packaging can be recycled. The result is for example that there basically is no styrofoam packaging used any more (because that can't be recycled at all and must be burned). And I just noticed during today's grocery trip that the importer of American peanut butter has finally given in and convinced the manufacturing plant to switch from plastic containers to glass, like most German producers of marmalade, honey and the like have been using for years.


Vivi said...

Of course it’s not a perfect system by any means, and there could certainly still be a lot less packaging. And not all plastic packaging that goes into the recycling system can be truly recycled yet, due to manufacturers still using compound materials (recycled plastic can only be sold back to manufacturers if it's one pure type of plastic - hence the separate collection of PET deposit bottles), but they are making advancements there. And the rest is "energetically re-used" - i.e. burned for district heating or process heat, which at least saves on fossil fuels - or apparently a small percentage is used in some chemical way during iron smelting.

The non-recycling trash (which costs about $6 for each pickup of where I live, though with all the recycling options we only fill the bin once or twice a year, mainly with bathroom waste that really has to be incinerated for hygiene) is also sifted for metals and burned or microbially treated (to capture the methane from organic waste if that isn't collected separately in your community to be municipally composted) - there actually was a law passed about a decade ago that says that no municipal waste may be put on a landfill without such treatment first. The upshot is that according to a 2018 publication by the Environment Ministry (the data itself is from 2016), 80.7% of the total waste stream in Germany is recycled in some way, with 69.9% being truly recycled by reusing the materials (so that's only about 11% that are "energetically reused" - i.e. burned for energy). Only 16.9% of the total waste created in Germany still ends up in a landfill - and remember that we are talking about the TOTAL waste stream here. That means it includes industrial waste and trash from construction/demolition - the latter being by far the biggest source of waste in the country, constituting more than half the total waste; municipal waste created by households and non-manufacturing businesses is actually just about 13% of the total, so consumer recycling of packaging materials isn’t really the most important thing in the big picture of excess consumption and waste. (The municipal waste actually has a considerably higher recycling rate than the industrial waste, despite being far more mixed and dirty. Don't ask me why industry has such difficulty sorting their left-over materials into the recycling stream...) Almost all the waste that still goes to landfills is building materials that cannot be reused or burned (e.g. broken concrete) and the rocks/sand they have to remove while mining. (Just like in the US the waste water from fracking is dumped on landfills - no matter how toxic or radioactive.) For years now, only 0.2% of the municipally collected waste has been going to a landfill, and most of that in the form of ash/slag. (The about 2.4% of the total waste that leaves us with by my calculation “were removed by other means, for example by burning” – presumably they mean burning without making any use of the energy here.)


Vivi said...

As for just the plastic waste (from municipal waste, not industrial sources), the Environment Ministry publication had a lot to say about that (with the major message being that it would be better to just produce less in the first place), but the data isn't all that bad either: 46.7% truly recycled by reusing the materials, 17.9% used as replacement fuel in industry (i.e. replacing coal for process heating), 34.8% burned in waste incineration plants that use the heat for district heating or electricity production, and only 0.6% landfilled. (That's probably the ash/slag left over from the burning - as I said, it would be illegal to put the trash onto the landfill without some form of mass-reducing treatment first.) The ‘true material reuse’ recycling rate rose by about 6% between 2015 and 2017. And before you ask, in the year of data-gathering (i.e. before China put up their waste import stop), Germany exported 1.5 million tons of plastic waste for recycling and at the same time imported 0.6 million tons of plastic waste. 1.5 million tons is about 25% of the total plastic waste produced in the country, and most of the plastic waste that is shipped is in the form of pre-sorted material destined for reuse in manufacturing – so there’s not too much trickery with the numbers here. So, as long as you don’t litter, you can at least be fairly certain that any plastic packaging you buy and throw away in Germany will not end up in the ocean.

And by the way, we do not use those old trash collecting vehicles that are open at the top, so that any gust of wind can pick up light-weight plastic bags and blow them away into the landscape like little parachutes. (Apparently, this is a major cause of plastic bag littering; it's not so much people just being too lazy to throw them in a bin.)

As I said, the packaging problem is solvable, if you actually have a society that is willing to seriously try. And if you teach people not to litter with their on-the-go food packaging and plastic forks and such. This hasn't worked very well in Germany either. (Though apparently US expats/soldiers are still amazed how clean German towns are in comparison to American ones. It think it may just be the ready availability of public trash bins, at least in cities.) Which is probably why the EU is currently trying to outlaw often-littered single-use plastic stuff like drinking straws and plastic cutlery. I hope that will work out, but I don't think it will make much of a difference with the microplastic problem.


Vivi said...

No, the real problem – the problem that cannot be fixed without completely outlawing some products and totally changing our modern lifestyle – is the non-packaging plastic stuff we use in our lives. Not because we throw it away without thought, but because it constantly sheds particles into the environment just by normal use. I’m talking primarily about artificial fabrics (e.g. polyester clothing, carpets, car seats, etc.) that shed microscopic fibers everywhere – and especially into our sewage system while the clothes are being washed. Of course any decent sewage treatment system will try to eventually use as much as possible of the sterilized and dried sewage as fertilizer, in order to recycle the nutrients back into the soil. (For this reason and for river protection, it’s illegal in Germany to put old medication, oil/petrol or petroleum-based solvents, or anything else seriously toxic down the drain, and they do screen the sewage-fertilizer for too high heavy metal contamination; though of course this law is unenforceable and you still get all the medication (hormones, antibiotics, highly toxic cancer chemotherapy, Vaseline-based salves, etc.) that people use and then excrete/wash off.) So you end up with all those microplastic fibers in your fields and rivers, and from there they eventually flow into the ocean. Also, gardening and agricultural plastics (e.g. clear sheets for tunnels and black sheets to warm the soil to increase the growing period and to suppress weeds without chemical herbicides) will break down within a few years from exposure to frost and UV radiation, and you’ll never be able to pick up all those little bits even if you had the manpower to try. And then there’s the constant abrasion of car tires (and bicycle tires) from the friction of just driving down a road – rubber and latex may originate in nature, but they don’t actually rot well (at least once vulcanized) and for that reason they are counted as a type of plastic waste. Why else do you think car tires get collected in huge piles to be eventually burned?

And one type of product that really should have been outlawed years ago is the kind of body peeling wash where they intentionally put in microplastic beads, which then go straight into the sewage system during use. (Or, in my experience, it’s not so much “beads” as horribly scratchy irregular bits that feel like they’re leaving cuts on your face. I used this stuff once, and went straight back to my old sea sand + almond meal mix, which is a lot more efficient (you can use much more than the few beads they put in peeling wash, and mix it with some basic ph-neutral soap, thus creating more of a rubbing paste), it’s a lot less scratchy, and environmentally more or less unproblematic. Aside from the usual water use problems with growing almonds and the problems with mining sea/river sand, of course. But really, a pound of this mix will last you for years and you could pick it up at the beach yourself, if you don’t mind having a lot of microscopic life in there. The major problem with sand mining is large construction projects that need the stuff to make concrete.)


Vivi said...

And why the hell do almost all tea companies still put around 10% nylon into their tea bag fabric, instead of using all-natural fibers?! Everyone, including the Environment Ministry and various environmental NGOs, says you should still compost the tea bags instead of throwing them into the non-recycling trash, as the fabric will “break down” eventually. Yeah, it will break down and leave a lot of microplastics in my compost – and even that takes years, in my experience. Every time I use the compost (usually 2 years after I drank the tea, because I don’t hot-compost, partially because that would kill the beneficial soil microorganisms, partially because I’m just too busy to make that much of a fuss with the compost heap) I find lots of intact tea bags, which are pretty much the only thing other than bones, walnut shells and large, woody fruit stones that still haven’t broken down at that point.

By the way, while I was studying, one of my microbiology professors mentioned once that she’d been part of a pilot project to use (slowly) bio-degradable plastic made from a polymer naturally produced by certain bacteria instead of pertroleum-based chemistry. They even got so far as to produce packaging for yoghurt out of this type of new bio-plastic and had a product test in supermarkets. And people weren’t buying it, because it made the yoghurt cost about a dozen cents more. You can imagine how frustrated my professor was. Granted, this would have been at least 10 years ago, so perhaps attitudes have changed enough now. In any case, there are alternatives – they just aren’t as cheap as petroleum-based plastics still are. (Even with the extra that the manufacturers have to pay for the recycling system.)


Sorry for the spamming. I didn't realize how long this had gotten, and then I didn't want to have done all the research for nothing. Besides, I thought you might fight it interesting how this is whole issue of packaging and recycling is handled in other countries - specifically, in a country with a Green Party that's actually part of the parliamentary opposition (and even in a junior partner in government, which I think may have given us that anti-landfilling law and the paid-by-manufacturers packaging recycling system). American expats/soldiers (at least those that put up youtube videos about their experiences) always seem to be totally amazed and/or annoyed at how complicated and involved the German household waste recycling system is that they are expected to participate in.
(I didn't even give you all the details. There are whole separate collection systems for electronic devices, toxic but recyclable waste like batteries or energy-saving lightbulbs, petroleum-based chemicals and solvents, old medication, large stuff like mattresses and furniture, and garden cuttings or leaves in the fall. And of course there are recycling centers where you can bring almost everything else that you would normally have to throw in the non-recycling bin because there's no curb-side-pickup or bring-back-to-the-shop system. Though most people don't bother with making that extra tour, since these centers don't exist in every little town.)

Kurt Cobb said...

Thanks to commenters for the thoughtful responses and especially to Vivi for the detailed information about German waste handling policies and processes and other observations. A German national clued me in about Germany's unusual recycling and waste handling policies which resulted in this piece five years ago. I'm glad to know more. Very interesting!