One of my neighbors recently organized a small trash pickup at McAllister Park, one of San Antonio’s most popular parks, where locals walk, run, cycle, roller-blade, and celebrate birthdays on 976 acres of natural area. I covered less than a mile of trail and knew that we would hardly put a dent in the trash problem. From my observation, there wasn’t a square yard that was trash-free. This story’s cover image reflects roughly 234 pieces of plastic waste I collected, not including aluminum and glass. Seventy-seven percent of the plastic pieces were single-use food and candy wrappers, bottles and styrofoam. By reflecting on the plastic waste in my city’s backyard and the knowledge I have on plastic’s environmental impact, I hope to glean a better understanding of what our best bet is to solve the plastic crisis.
Ever since a young age, I’ve felt a certain closeness to nature, but as I grew older, that closeness was felt alongside an emerging guilt. I realized that I may not be giving to nature as much as is given to me.
While nature is experienced differently for everyone, most people I run into have an instinctive positive feeling that arises from their time in it. Perhaps it’s evidence of the interwoven relationship between us and the natural world. Plants, for example, give us the gifts of oxygen, food, and shelter. And in return, we give them carbon dioxide as we breathe out, spread their seeds and nurture the land. This life sustaining relationship is under threat by climate change caused by humans. Another urgent crisis caused by humans, that threatens life in our own backyard all the way to the ocean floor, is single-use plastic, which is disposable plastic produced to be used only once. A prime example is the infamous plastic bag used on average for 12 minutes, but according to estimates may take anywhere from 10 to 1,000 years to decompose.
Microplastic and the Ocean
Through storm water runoff, plastic pollution makes it’s way from city streets and parks to rivers and streams, disrupting ecosystems along the way, and eventually leading to the ocean where it kills marine life. The majority of ocean plastic is land-based, meaning it comes from activities that occur on land. These include littering, illegal dumping, and inadequate waste management. Larger plastic pieces break apart into smaller pieces, which are termed microplastics once they are smaller than 5 mm. As the documentary, A Plastic Ocean, shows in graphic video a seabird’s stomach filled with plastic pieces, up to 1 million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals are killed yearly by plastic debris they eat, mistaken for food, that can be toxic or suffocate them. This problem has the potential to cause widespread extinction and contamination in the food supply, and as plastic is set to outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050, won’t be going away anytime soon.
During my trash pickup, I noticed the majority of plastic pieces were smaller than an average sized chip bag. And most of the pieces were not whole, but small, broken off fragments. While it was easier to pick up chip bags and bottles, the smaller wrappers and microplastic pieces were harder to locate and finicky to pick up. Seeing the overwhelming amount of smaller pieces I collected and the ones I didn’t bother to, made me wonder, how much microplastic is out here and not clearly visible to the human eye?
In these images, you can see close ups of styrofoam cups breaking off into tiny balls and a solo cup stripped into small sharp pieces. It became clear that it would be physically impossible to remove all the microplastic from the park without removing the land itself. This means, inevitably, more plastic will accumulate at the ocean surface, thousands of feet down in the deep ocean, and at the ocean floor.
Management solutions and single-use alternatives to plastic are varied with complex environmental and financial impacts to consider. Environmental experts tend to agree that many have large carbon footprints, won’t significantly curb waste contamination, and disproportionately have harmful impacts on communities of color.
The Recycling Myth
Inside McAllister Park, at pavilions and near trails, there is no shortage of recycle receptacles, which is encouraging considering how common it is for soda cans and water bottles to be brought in by the ice chests for celebratory gatherings. But if the overwhelming majority of plastic pieces I found were not recyclable, is the idea of recycling mostly a highly effective distraction from the real problem?
Recycling has been touted by the plastic industry since the 1980’s as the solution to the plastic waste problem, with advertising spending in the tens of millions, however the reality is that less than 10% of plastic has been recycled in those 40 years. Recent investigation by NPR and PBS uncover that the recycling myth was spread by oil and gas companies that produce plastic to deceive the public into thinking that recycling works. This way, they could ramp up production without scrutiny. Yet, they knew all along that much of the plastic could not be recycled, and that municipalities did not have the infrastructure or programs to manage it in the first place.
The plastics that can be recycled, such as water bottles, are often down-cycled into lower quality products. These types of PET plastic bottles and jars had a recycling rate of only 29% in 2017, according to the EPA.
Environmental experts and even the EPA admit that “reduce and reuse” in the “reduce, reuse, recycle” motto are most important when it comes to protecting the environment. “Reduce” comes first as it is the top priority, with “reuse” being the next best. Recycling should be considered the last resort. So why is it that we haven’t seen large scale campaigns in advertising and the media to reduce plastic production? Perhaps we can find the answer in the balance sheets of plastic polluting companies.
For now, I’ll keep on organizing my plastic trash into the proper bins since at the very least, a small percentage might be recycled into a park bench. I do think, however, that it’s time we come to terms with the reality that recycling was always meant to be our last ditch effort.
Toxic Pollution: Environmental Racism
When we dutifully take the proper avenue to dispose of plastic waste, whether in the trash or recycle bins, the majority ends up in landfills, illegal dumping sites or incinerator sites, which are sources of toxic pollution. These toxic sites are commonly set up in communities of color, making the environmental justice problem also one of racial justice.
A PBS news report from June of 2019 cited that of the 72 operating incinerators in the U.S., 58 were in places with 25% or more of residents being people of color or low-income. Air pollution at one incinerator site in Pennsylvania is causing health problems, such as asthma for four in ten children, among the community, 70% of who are black.
In the Gordon Plaza subdivision of New Orleans during the 1980’s, black New Orleanians were persuaded to buy up affordable housing that they were not warned was built atop of a toxic landfill. In the years following, cancer rates rose among the residents. To this day, they still have not been relocated, with no choice but to live in an unsafe environment or lose their investments.
The U.S., unable to handle the load of recyclable plastic waste since China stopped accepting it in 2018, began selling and sending off unwanted plastic waste to other countries, like Thailand. In the PBS Frontline documentary Plastic Wars, you can see footage of illegal dumping sites in Thailand filled with American plastic. These illegal dumping sites are wreaking havoc on crops, contaminating water and causing air pollution.
I share in the suffering caused by George Floyd’s death and other victims of racism, and I feel energized to be a part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Marching peacefully, we protested in our streets demanding justice for all and an end to racism, which we know can’t happen until black lives matter. As I continue to educate myself on the workings of systems we live by that are inherently racist or environmentally damaging, I’m reminded that to be an environmentalist must also mean to be anti-racist. This is because racism has long made it okay for some communities to bear more of the environmental brunt than others.
Due to COVID concerns, I routinely end up getting curbside versus dining in from my nearby eco-conscious restaurant, and rest assured my food and coffee are served in earthy green containers. But are these containers really better for the earth than the conventional ones?
Bioplastic, an alternative to conventional petroleum-based plastic, is a catchall term to include a variety of plastic products made from plant material that may or may not biodegradable, photodegradable, or compostable. They are also commonly mixed with fossil fuel derived plastic.
Greenpeace USA calls terminology such as “bioplastic” to be greenwashing, since there isn’t an industry standard to define it and the environmental implications can vary. The marketing of bioplastics is mostly a cunning attempt to dupe suckers like me that want an eco-friendly version of everything, often paying a premium.
Fully plant-based, or bio-based plastic, represents only 1% of plastic. Yet, as plastic made with plant material becomes more popular, food insecurity, agricultural emissions and deforestation will continue to rise.
Some “compostable” plastic containers, such as the trendy one below you’ve probably seen before, are lined with PLA, a plant-based plastic. Their website’s FAQ states, “if you are not lucky enough to have a commercial composter in your area, these cups should be sent to the landfill,” and the reality is the majority of people do not have access to industrial composting programs that will accept this plastic. On top of that, you can’t use them in your home compost and they are not recyclable. Inevitably, they will remain on the planet for centuries, just as conventional plastic.
A Trillion Dollar Industry
In the image above, you can see many of the plastic waste pieces I picked up belong to recognizable brand names popular among children and adults. I calculated the cumulative net worths’ of the companies represented and the total came out to $1.16 trillion!
It’s no surprise that seven out of the ten food companies that control almost every large brand in the world were advertising along trails, in the soil and nestled in fallen tree branches of McAllister Park in San Antonio, Tx.
Reduce and Reuse
I think we can benefit from more effective recycling, but as even the EPA states, our best practices to protect the environment are reduce and reuse. After all, we’ve been recycling for 40 years to no avail. For reducing to be effective, industry wide shifts in the factors that dictate production of single-use products has to change from those motivated by profit to those based on essential services where single-use items are needed, such as in the healthcare industry.
Reusable alternatives need to be introduced that are feasible and affordable. My sister recently shared this youtube video about a zero-waste grocery store in Los Angeles where you bring your own reusable containers to fill from the bulk bins. It’s inspiring to see these alternatives popping up, however they are nowhere near mainstream.
Even with the alternatives available, many working families don’t have the time or money to spend on sustainability. Try telling a working parent that they should forego the necessary convenience and affordability of single-use plastic snack and drink packaging when they’re working 40+ hours a week while juggling the cooking and cleaning that comes with school age children. Alongside single-use product reduction, we must address socio-economic inequities faced by working families that don’t make sustainable living accessible to all.
As the global pandemic has necessitated the current need for more plastic in the healthcare industry for PPE and medical devices, and the demand for single-use plastic in the food and beverage industry has skyrocketed, we are on track to see unprecedented production rates in plastic. As consumers and workers, we can’t assume full responsibility to change our ways for the better. So don’t be too hard on yourself about single-use waste, especially during the pandemic and widespread economic hardship. I would encourage you to reduce and reuse where you can, but not to the point where your sanity is compromised. Recycling and volunteer trash pickups are positive gestures, that have small, but direct effects, so I would encourage them too. However, for change to happen globally, we need to advocate with our voices, demanding change and sharing ideas, to the companies we buy from and work for, and to the leaders who represent us.
Resolving the plastic waste crisis is about more than keeping our parks clean and aesthetically pleasing; it’s about saving our earth.