The Story of Plastics is a documentary film released on October 6, 2019, which aired on the Discovery Channel on April 22, 2020 and was hosted by 350 Spokane for free public screenings from May 21 – June 12, 2020. What follows are notes from the movie and from the Zoom Film discussion meeting convened by 350 Spokane on June 11, 2020.
Monday, June 8, 2020 was World Oceans Day.
- 99% of what goes into plastic comes from petroleum.
- Of all the plastic which has ever existed, more than half was produced within the last 15 years,
and 91% has never been recycled.
- Most of the plastic being produced is used for plastic packaging.
- 32% of plastic packaging ends up as Litter.
- 40% of plastic packaging ends up in a Landfill.
- 14% of plastic packaging ends up being Incinerated.
- 14% of plastic packaging ends up being recycled. However, only 2% of this recycled plastic is “effectively” recycled, meaning that it is turned into something as useful as it was before. The other 98% of recycled plastic is “downcycled”, meaning that it is turned into something which is worse than it was before. Most plastic is only recycled once. Recycling plastic is pretty much a scam. The burden falls on the poorer citizens in SE Asian countries, working for very low wages.
- The term “sachet” (one-time, single dose plastic packages) was an addition to my vocabulary.
- 60% of the ocean plastics comes from five countries in SE Asia, but the decisions made regarding manufacturing plastics are made in board rooms of countries in the “west”. The west blames SE Asia for not managing their plastic waste properly, while the west creates an ever increasing amount of disposable plastic.
- The seven most common plastics are a source of greenhouse gases, meaning that they contribute to global warming and the climate crisis. The fossil fuels not being used for transportation and energy are now being used to produce cheap plastic and since China has stopped accepting plastic imports, much of it is going to be burned in incinerators, producing toxins and more CO2 in the atmosphere.
- The U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005, under Pres. George W. Bush, who had connections with the fossil fuel industry, gave exemptions to oil and gas companies from environmental and health regulations, resulting in the shale gas boom, creating a glut of the raw materials used for plastic production. Current Sec. of State, Mike Pompeo, is a former oil equipment manufacturer, while former Sec. of State, Rex Tillerson, was the CEO of Exxon Mobile. Congress lifted the 45 year old oil export ban in 2015, setting off a rush of oil, gas, and plastic feedstock sales worldwide.
- Of the more than 86,000 chemicals recognized in the USA, only 187 are currently regulated by the EPA. Every time the EPA watch list shrinks, air quality gets “better”, because chemicals are no longer being monitored. (It’s similar to fooling yourself into thinking that the battle against the coronavirus is being won simply by doing less testing, so it appears there are fewer cases). Children living within 2 miles of the Houston Ship Channel have a 56% greater chance of getting leukemia than children living elsewhere.
- The President of Exxon Mobile estimates that global demand for plastics will double within the next 20 years. The American Chemical Council estimates that 194 billion dollars will be invested in the US alone in 325 new or expanded facilities for petrochemicals, primarily for plastics, between now and 2025.
- Plastics are driven not by the demand, but by the supply. “This is the story of plastics. It is fossil fuels finding a new form and finding a new place to flow through the economy.” 8 million metric tons of plastics enter the oceans each year. That is the equivalent of one garbage truck dumping plastics into the ocean every minute of every day. WOW! By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than there are fish in the ocean!
- The Executive Vice President of Shell Chemical Division said, “The challenge is not with plastics themselves. It is what happens after people use them.” The fossil fuel industry dodges responsibility for producing all the plastics that are polluting the world’s land, oceans, and air.
- The Alliance to End Plastic Waste is a fossil fuel industry public relations organization to persuade the public that they care about the plastics problem. They are ready to invest more than 1.4 billion dollars to “identify and solve problems”, addressing recycling and waste. Meanwhile, they are investing 204 billion dollars in 334+ new petrochemical facilities. Recent studies have discovered plastic particles in 83% of tap water samples globally and in 93% of bottled water.
- Potential solutions include going “Zero Waste”, meaning that all of the products that we use can either be composted or recycled. Otherwise, we still have residual waste to deal with. It means companies should not be producing products that cannot be recycled or composted. EPR = Extended Producer Responsibility means the manufacturer should take the responsibility of either taking back the waste or supporting the government in treating the waste.
- We are “almost there” in developing packaging that has nothing to do with plastics. Using less material in packaging is always the highest priority, but for everything else, biodegradable or bio-based could be a good solution.
- The cost to produce new, fossil fuel based plastic is kept low with oil and gas subsidies of 5.2 TRILLION dollars annually (representing 6.5% of global GDP as estimated by the latest International Monetary Fund report), which have increased ½ trillion dollars since 2015. The European Parliament has approved a ban on single use plastics, including bags, straws, cutlery, and plates. Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Kenya, Tanzania, South Korea, Turkey,
- Taiwan, Seattle, Montreal, and Bali have all adopted plastic bans in various forms. “The plastics crisis doesn’t start when plastics enter the ocean. It starts when the oil and gas leave the well head and it keeps being a problem at every step along the way.” The solution is to end fossil fuel subsidies and make companies accountable for the lifecycle impacts of their products.
- “We’re ruining the planet that gives us life.”
- “I don’t think they can keep tricking us.”
- To learn more, go to https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/ or https://www.storyofplastic.org/
Participants were referred to an article in the Spokesman-Review from February 3, 2019, by Eli Francovich, reporting research supervised by Betsy Bancroft, a professor of biology and environmental studies at Gonzaga University, which found microplastics in water samples from the Spokane River and even in snow on Mt. Spokane. The number of microplastic particles found in the river samples ranged from 1 to 47 per liter and averaged 12.1 particles per liter.
Washington State’s new law banning single use plastic bags was discussed briefly. SB5323 passed the Senate last year, but stalled in the House. In 2020, it was reintroduced, passed the Senate 35-15, passed the House 67-29, with bipartisan support, and was signed into law by Gov Jay Inslee on March 25. The law goes into effect on January 1, 2021 and will ban retailers from giving out single use plastic carryout bags. It requires an 8 cent charge for other bags to cover the cost of paper and reusable bags and to serve as an incentive for customers to provide their own bags for purchases. The fee for bags increases to 12 cents in 2026 and all paper bags must be made from at least 40% recycled material. Carryout bags do not include those used inside stores to package bulk items or to wrap items where dampness or sanitation is an issue, newspapers, mailing pouches, sealed envelopes, among other items. As of 1/1/21, stores will have one year to use up their current inventory of single use plastic bags. It was reported that some conservative members supported the bill in order to energize the Washington pulp and paper industry, while some representatives opposed the bill because they felt that the use of plastic bags could help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The proposed methanol factory at Kalama, WA (downriver on the Columbia River between Portland, OR and Longview, WA, near the I-5 corridor) was mentioned. This is a Chinese owned project designed to use fracked gas to produce methanol which will then be shipped to China to make plastic. An entity called Northwest Innovative Works (NWIW) is fulfilling a public relations/marketing role for this factory. Their website states that they are "Creating Jobs, Investing in Community, Confronting Climate Change" and their mission statement is,
“Providing global leadership at an industrial scale to produce the world’s cleanest methanol in order to make everyday materials a part of the global climate solution”. The Columbia Riverkeeper sent a letter to the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) complaining that NWIW told potential investors that the methanol produced at this plant would be used to produce fuel, when publicly they have always declared that it would be used to produce plastics. Attendees were encouraged to go to the https://www.columbiariverkeeper.org/ website to learn more about how they can act to prevent this methanol plant from being constructed.
Finally, participants were encouraged to consider getting involved with the upcoming Plastic Free Eco-challenge which will be conducted from July 1 – 31, 2020. Areas of involvement, where goals may be set, include People, Food, Lifestyle, Family, Personal Care, and Pets. 350 Spokane has been a part of past eco-challenges and supporters have reported positive experiences learning and implementing behavioral changes that help protect our environment.
If interested, go to https://plasticfree.ecochallenge.org/