Plastics: “The New Coal”

Plastics have yielded life-saving medical advances, supercharged technological advancements, helped send us to space, and transformed our lives in innumerable ways. But they are poisoning our people and our planet.

Plastics are ubiquitous. They’ve yielded life-saving medical advances, supercharged technological advancements, helped send us to space, and transformed our lives in innumerable ways. But they are poisoning our people and our planet. Move over, Industrial Age. Welcome to the Plastics Age.

The Human Cost

You, yes you, literally consume a credit card’s worth of plastic each week. Each. Week. Most of it comes from our drinking water (found in 90% of bottled water and 83 % of tap). Microplastics, first identified in the 1970s, don’t only contaminate the water and air, they’re also found in the fruits and vegetables we eat, deep in our lungs, our bloodstreams, and even in the placentas of human fetuses. Phatalates, which make plastics flexible, are linked to breast cancer, asthma, type 2 diabetes, obesity, autism spectrum disorders, reproductive issues, and a myriad of other health problems. And beyond that, certain compounds found in plastics have recently been found to release far more toxic chemicals than previously thought, causing cancer, memory loss, disrupting our endocrine systems, and who knows what else.

Plastics are an environmental justice issue. The resulting pollution and ill health more acutely affects Black and brown people and low-income communities around the world. According to a 2021 report from the United Nations, “the impacts of plastics on marginalized populations are severe, and exist at all stages of the production cycle, from extracting raw materials and manufacturing, through to consumption and disposal.”

We dispose of plastic in unjust ways. The U.S shipped 1.4 billion pounds of plastic trash overseas in 2020, largely to developing nations where it is often burned in public, discarded in waterways, or dumped into open pits due to insufficient waste management infrastructure. Sometimes called “waste colonialism,” this practice damages the health of local communities and carries a heavy carbon footprint.

And domestically, petrochemical and plastics manufacturing plants cause similarly unjust burdens on disadvantaged communities. Nearly 90% of reported pollution from U.S. plastics manufacturing is released into just 18 communities located mostly in Louisiana and Texas. Residents of the predominantly Black and low-income communities in “cancer alley” along the Mississippi River, for example, face severely elevated risks of cancer and report an unusually high incidence of miscarriages.

Environmental Impact

Plastic pollution and plastic production both continue to accelerate. Every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck filled with plastic is dumped into our oceans. During that same minute more than 1 million plastic bags are used – each with a “working life” of only 15 minutes. Half of all plastics ever manufactured were made in the last 15 years, and production is currently expected to double by 2050. The depressing statistics just keep coming. The Unites States produced 35.7 million tons of plastic waste in 2018, more than 90% of which was dumped in landfills or burned.

From the peaks of the Himalayas to the deepest trenches in the ocean, plastic contamination is found everywhere. We’re all familiar with the haunting images of sea turtles with straws jammed in their noses, seagulls strangled by six pack rings, and whales stuffed full of plastic trash. That’s just the tip of the melting iceberg.

But if nature isn’t your thing, consider the economics. The UN estimates the societal cost of plastic used in the consumer goods sector is $75 billion each year, because of “financial impacts resulting from issues such as pollution of the marine environment or air pollution caused by incinerating plastic.”

“The New Coal”

Plastics are not only a pollution and people problem, they’re a direct contributor to the climate crisis, contrary to what many seem to believe. A sobering report from Beyond Plastics details the greenhouse gas emissions of the industry, and calls plastics “the new coal.” To provide context, if plastics were a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, surpassing all but China, the U.S., India and Russia. The U.S. plastic industry’s contribution to climate change is on track to exceed that of coal-fired power generation by 2030. According to the report, the U.S. industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of CO2 emissions per year – equivalent to 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.

And of course using plastic means using fossil fuels. By 2050, plastics are projected to account for 20% of global fossil fuel consumption.

So Where’s the Regulation?

Governments, unsurprisingly, have been slow to act. But glimmers of hope are emerging. In March, UN member states endorsed a landmark agreement that “addresses the full lifecycle of plastic from source to sea” and agreed to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee that will forge a global agreement on plastic pollution. In California, the attorney general just issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil for information on its role in causing the global plastic waste crisis. Inspired by an NPR and PBS Frontline report revealing that the fossil fuel industry financed a decades long, multi-billion dollar advertising campaign to mislead the public about recycling, the AG’s move is part of a broader investigation into “half-century campaign of deception and the ongoing harm caused to the State of California.” And more than a dozen states are considering laws requiring manufacturers, rather than taxpayers, to cover the cost of recycling, following Maine’s lead.

Where’s the Innovation?

Plastics are an inextricable part of human life at this point. To achieve the kind of “de-plasticization” we need will require major changes in products, business practices, and everyday lifestyles. A shift this massive will take time. We need to start now.

The global plastics market accounted for $621.9 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $758.6 billion by 2025. Plastic is big money and the entire sector is ripe for innovation. Startups are beginning to revolutionize packaging, recycling, and waste management, using bio-tech, AI, robots, and innovative circular economy models. Venture capital is starting to wake up to the opportunities.

Next week, we’ll continue examining plastic, taking a look at some companies disrupting the industry.

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