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A pandemic of plastics

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Judith Polich/For the Journal

One of the hidden costs of COVID-19 is a dramatic increase in single-use plastics – more plastic bags, more take-out containers, more disposable cutlery, and tons of PPE.

This increase may have temporarily been necessary, but our plastic waste is everywhere and is itself a global health issue. We know it is killing birds and fish, is in our bloodstream, and is even in the arctic ice.

And plastics may be worse than we thought. According to a recent report by the Center for International Environmental Law, (CIEL), plastic production and disposal are a major driver of climate change. Plastics are made from fossil fuels. The extraction, processing, shipping and disposal of plastics annually have emissions equivalent to 200 coal-fired power plants. And plastic production is increasing dramatically. By 2050, those emissions will be equivalent to 600 coal-fired power plants. According to CIEL President, Carroll Muffet, “we need to cut emissions by 45% by 2030 if we hope to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.”

Some types of plastic cannot be recycled, but many can be. However, the EPA states that only 9% of plastics in the U.S. are recycled; other countries aren’t that much better. The best global estimate is 20%.

According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, 157,000 shipping containers of used plastic are sent abroad annually, most to counties such as Laos, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Senegal that offer cheap labor and little regulation. Jan Dell of the Coalition asks “why are we shipping plastic waste to counties that are overwhelmed with waste?” Maybe because China and Hong Kong no longer take our plastics. Nor do Malaysia and Vietnam.

Plastic recycling is a big international business. Recycling brokers search for buyers who will melt it down and make pellets that can be turned into something new. With many countries no longer taking plastic, it is piling up and is often illegally incinerated. To make matters worse, new plastic is cheap, and it may now be more expensive to ship and reprocess recycled plastic.

In the U.S., the cost of recycling falls on cities and small communities, not on the corporations who produce plastic. Many New Mexico communities, such as Taos, have had to suspend plastic recycling. Some states, such as Washington, are attempting to regulate the export of waste but, for most, it’s an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.

Forty percent of all plastics are single-use, things such as plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles, and packaging. Plastic is preferred for most packaging because it is light. The fastest growth in plastics manufacturing is in plastic made from fracked natural gas, producing the hydrocarbon ethane, used to make polyethylene for the manufacture of single-use plastics. And now, with the plummet in oil prices, plastic is cheaper than ever, making the shift away from plastic harder.

Then came COVID-19. We were told we could not use our reusable bags when we buy groceries. We could not use our own cups at cafe chains such as Starbucks. If we get take-out, we also get lots of plastic. In some areas, as they reopen, restaurants are being forced to use plastic for dine-in service. Plastic bag bans throughout the U.K. and U.S. have been delayed. In spite of evidence that the virus appears to linger longer on plastic than other surfaces, such as cardboard, the plastic lobbyists won this round.

We will get back on track. Before the pandemic, industry was taking notice, with plans for 100% of plastic packaging recycling by 2040. But in the next 20 years, we will still have produced 6 billion tons of plastic waste. For adequate plastic recycling, we obviously need to invest now in better recycling infrastructure, research, technology and education.

We can be both sustainable and safe, and cut down on our use of single-use plastics:

• Store leftovers in glass containers or other reusable storage containers.

• Keep your own silverware, a cup and containers in your car. Say no to cutlery when you get takeout.

• Use metal straws that are reusable instead of plastic straws.

• Don’t buy water in plastic bottles. Use a refillable water bottle. Each plastic water bottle takes 1,000 years to degrade and we use a million of them a year.

• Ask for paper instead of plastic and, when we can again, bring your own bags.

• Avoid products in plastic bottles; many items also come in cardboard boxes or in glass.

• And if you have to use plastic bags, now and then remember they can be sanitized and reused.

Judith Polich, a longtime New Mexico resident, is a retired attorney with a background in environmental studies and is a student of climate change. She can be reached at