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Issue # 1414      10 June 2009

Culture & Life

Buried in a plastic coffin?

Plastic, a by-product of coal and oil, first appeared at the end of the 19th century, but really took off in the mid 20th century, helped along in a big way by the Second World War. During the War the US developed a tremendous productive capacity making cheap, flexible and disposable products for the war effort. After the War it sought other outlets to maintain its profit flow, and plastics were applied to all manner of uses and products.

By 1979, the US was making more plastic than steel.

So what’s wrong with that? One small but significant fact: there are almost no micro-organisms that can degrade plastic. Except for what has been incinerated, most of the plastic that has been made since the end of the 19th century is still around. And burning it, bear in mind, generates toxins and a large amount of CO².

“For anyone who’s wondered what eventually happens to all the plastic in water bottles, packaging, and hundreds of other everyday uses, the feature-length documentary Addicted to Plastic offers a visually compelling, entertaining, ultimately frightening explanation”, says Jeffrey L Meikle, Professor of American Studies at the University of Texas in Austin. Meikle is the author of American Plastic: A Cultural History.

Addicted to Plastic is screening on the ABC next week (ABC1 Thursday June 18 at 9.25pm). It should be essential viewing for anyone concerned about the environment and the future of the planet.

As Meikle says of this Canadian film: “Addicted to Plastic is an absorbing, shocking, only partially reassuring odyssey. Candid interviews, especially a particularly revealing one with a representative of the industry’s American Plastics Council, permit viewers to form their own opinions.”

Erroneously deemed to be disposable, plastic is dumped in landfill or simply thrown away, to be washed – or flushed – down drains and gutters to the ocean. The film starts in the heart of the Central gyre in the northern Pacific. In the five large areas of ocean in the world (the north and south Atlantic, north and south Pacific and the Indian Ocean) the weight of atmosphere pressing down on the ocean surface causes a shallow depression around which currents rotate, rather like a slow but gigantic toilet bowl. These are called gyres.

Sea-borne rubbish accumulates in the gyres. The one in the northern Pacific is actually known as the Eastern Garbage Patch. And it’s not a small problem: the UN estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of the ocean. And only half of all plastics float.

But won’t the action of sun and sea get rid of the problem? No. Sea water and sunlight break up the pieces of plastic into small particles (like confetti or plankton, eventually) but that’s all. In fact, research has found that there is now ten times more plastic in the ocean than there is plankton.

But when plastic is broken down to that size it becomes indistinguishable from food for small fish and other sea creatures. Additionally, there is the problem of “nerdles”.

All plastic products start out as tiny nerdles that resemble fish eggs in size and shape. Nerdles make up ten percent of the plastic waste floating in the ocean. They accumulate chemical pollutants like pesticides that wash down from farms and from factory drains. Not unexpectedly, they also get eaten by fish and other sea creatures, which are in turn eaten by bigger fish and so the pollutants accumulate in the food chain until they end up on your plate.

Ocean-borne plastic waste is not confined to the middle of the five gyres, however. In Holland, for example, seven to eight kilos of it washes ashore on every kilometre of beach every day.

Plastic was sold to the consumers in developed capitalist countries with advertising that declared the throw-away economy would free people from household drudgery and give them “more leisure time”.

Today, this disposable life-style is being foisted on India, changing its labour-intensive repair economy into an industry-dependent throw-away one. As one of the country’s environmental activists points out in the film, India is already the second-most polluted country on Earth. “We will drown in plastic waste if business is left to do what it wants” she complains.

But won’t recycling fix the problem? It depends how it’s done. One hundred billion pounds of plastic is produced in the US each year, but only five percent of it is recycled. And most recycling specialises in only a few types of plastic, but, as the film shows, there are ways of recycling that can use it all. However, private enterprise alone will not be enough.

The afore-mentioned American Plastics Council, for example, tries to sheet the blame for plastic pollution home to the consumers rather than producers and retailers, but it is clear that governments need to regulate industry and industry in turn must adopt the new products and methods that have been developed to deal with this problem specifically: use bio-plastics, vegetable-based plastics that degrade into water and CO²; the Japanese have developed a system that turns plastic back into oil, for use in heaters, cars, etc.

A company in Texas takes any plastic, uses it to make carpets for airport terminals and the like, and fuels the production process with methane from a nearby landfill. The company spokesperson anticipates that in future landfills will be “mined” for plastic waste with which to make products. Another US company exports railway sleepers made from recycled plastic (off all types) all over the world.

But they are the exception: capitalist corporations in the main are still too interested in making money from plastic to be bothered about changing to other methods or other products. Only governments backed by popular pressure can change that.

And change it we must, or else eventually our only option could be to choose to be buried in a plastic coffin, if there is anyone left to bury us.

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