Thousands of marine mammals, reptiles, fish and birds die every year, usually from starvation, after mistaking plastic waste for food. Key points:Technology now exists to embed plastic with code that can be traced back to its manufacturerResearchers are advocating for the development of cheap, accessible devices to read the code, and hold manufacturers responsible for their pollutionThe technology, combined with a strong legal framework, could force manufacturers to redesign products and phase out single-use materialsThe United Nations has described plastic pollution as a global crisis, with microplastics discovered from the deepest oceans, to near the top of Mt Everest.So what if there was a way to trace plastic back to its manufacturer, and even to hold them responsible for its clean-up?There’s now an emerging area of technology that makes it possible to embed a traceable code, which researchers have likened to plastic “DNA”, into plastic polymer. In a recent paper published in Polymer Chemistry, researchers have rallied the polymer-chemistry community to work towards embeddable codes for plastic, that can be read on small handheld devices in the field, and ideally even on mobile phones. “Currently, to read out a code by itself requires multi-million-dollar equipment and specialist, physical chemists,” said Christopher Barner-Kowollik, a co-author on the paper and macromolecular photochemistry researcher at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).”What we are proposing is, we need either a small handheld device or even a mobile phone [to read the code].”And that could have some powerful implications.Firstly, say a whale washes up on a beach with a gutful of plastic. Or another turtle is found with a straw lodged in its nostril.
Every year, people in the United Kingdom throw away around 96 billion pieces of plastic packaging—an average household tosses 66 pieces every week. Almost half of this packaging waste ends up being incinerated, while a quarter is buried in landfills, according to a May 2022 survey by Everyday Plastic and Greenpeace. The scale of the waste is hard to fathom.“The plastics crisis can be daunting,” says Insiya Jafferjee, the CEO and cofounder of packaging company Shellworks. Speaking at WIRED Impact in London this November, Jafferjee said that even small, seemingly simple pieces of plastic—such as scoops included in baby formula packaging—result in hundreds of millions of pieces of plastic waste every year. Shellworks was created to start making a dent in the amount of plastic packaging that gets thrown away. To do so, Jafferjee and cofounder Amir Afshar developed an entirely compostable material that can be used to package goods.Dubbed Vivomer, the company’s material is created from microbes found in the soil and marine environments and can be shaped into solid jars or containers, as well as more flexible droppers that release liquids. “The catch, or the benefit of this, is that if you throw this jar away, the very same microbes in the soil and the marine environment will see it, recognize it as its food essentially, and break it down,” Jafferjee says.ContentThis content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.The packaging doesn’t need any special environment to degrade: It can be composted at home or in industrial recycling. If a Vivomer product is thrown away with regular trash, Jafferjee says, it will still degrade, and it doesn’t produce any microplastics in the process. Depending on the size of the packaging, it can take anywhere between a year and five years to degrade.Jafferjee told WIRED Impact that since Shellworks was founded in 2019, it has faced multiple challenges. While creating its proof of concept, the team worked in a shed and had to use machinery it was able to get for free. Then, on the eve of its first major delivery, an electrical fire decimated the firm’s stock. It has since learned to outsource manufacturing and started producing products en masse.The company’s most significant order to date, Jafferjee says, was recreating the packaging for beauty brand Haeckels’ skincare products. In total, it produced more than 300,000 Vivomer items for 100,000 products, designed to hold everything from face creams and serums to oils and exfoliating powders. “We’re trying to scale,” Jafferjee says. To tackle the plastics crisis, scale is needed.
ZSL, Alice ChamberlainBy Nayana Mena BBC NewsThousands of pieces of plastic debris from all over the world have washed up on a remote South Atlantic island, according to conservationists.Litter found on the south-western coast of Ascension Island has been traced back to countries including China, Japan and South Africa, they say.The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) team spent five weeks assessing the extent of plastic pollution there.More than 900 species of marine life are at risk, they reported.Ascension Island has a wealth of species native to the island that have been affected by plastic pollution, such as the land crab, frigate bird and various species of sharks, turtles, fish and seabirds.The remote British-owned island has been subject to many schemes aiming to conserve its natural biodiversity, launched by the government as well as independent groups.”There is too much plastic being used badly,” Fiona Llewellyn, a marine biologist at the ZSL Marine conservation team, told the BBC.”It was heart-breaking seeing the state of the plastic over there,” she said, adding that big brands and governments needed to be made to account for the mess.Ms Llewellyn and her fellow researchers found 1,000 pieces of plastic waste in just one beach hut and more than 7,000 pieces in total during the expedition. ZSL, Alice ChamberlainThe small island, with a population of just 800 people, is concerned by the crisis. Only a small amount of plastic that washes up on its shores is coming from the island itself. Ms Llewellyn said: “It’s easy to see that most of it is coming from elsewhere.”Animals are ingesting the plastic and getting tangled in it, which can cause harm. There are growing concerns around microplastics and how they work their way up the food chain.The types of plastic commonly found on the island’s coastline include plastic bottles, hard plastic fragments that have broken down, fishing gear and cigarette butts.Much of the waste ends up beached on rugged cliffs that are hard and dangerous to reach. “It was really challenging straggling down the rock faces to get to this shoreline and count all the plastic that was there,” she said.The ZSL Marine conservation team worked with the Ascension Island government’s conservation team, St Helena National Trust, St Helena’s government, the University of Exeter and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela University in a collaborative effort to tackle plastic pollution.The total project will last for three years and consists of monitoring the currents and movement of water, identifying the plastic bottles and assessing their expiry and production dates to distinguish when they might have entered the water and where from.ZSL, Alice ChamberlainMore on this storyPlastic pollution from bottle to bin26 February 2018Companies sign up to cut plastic pollution26 April 2018Can seaweed help end plastic pollution?15 November 2021Micro-plastic pollution29 January 2013
Easy-to-use detergent pods have become ubiquitous in American homes, containing just the right combination and amount of cleaning agents to leave clothes fresh and dishes sparkling. But now a debate is raging over whether they may contribute to the growing plastic pollution problem that threatens human health and the environment.An eco-friendly company that sells cleaning products and advocacy groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday to take action against the use of the “plastic film” that surrounds the pods, arguing that the material does not completely break down in water as advertised. The petition urges the agency to require health and environmental safety tests for polyvinyl alcohol, also known as PVA or PVOH, which encases the pods. The petition calls on the EPA to remove the compound from its Safer Choice and Safer Chemical Ingredients lists until the tests are conducted and PVA is proved safe.Blueland, a company which sells a “dry-form” laundry detergent tablet, has spearheaded the effort to subject pods to greater federal scrutiny. Its actions have angered major players within the cleaning-products industry, including a trade association and the manufacturer of the film used in detergent pods.“Polyvinyl alcohol is a polymer, so by definition it is a plastic — it’s a synthetic petroleum-based plastic,” said Blueland co-founder Sarah Paiji Yoo.Yoo added that she and others at the New York City-based company view the popular pods and newer laundry detergent sheets that use PVA as “arguably worse than straws.”“At least with a straw you can look at it and know like, ‘Okay, this is trash. I should put this in the trash can,’ ” she said. “These pods and sheets are plastics that are designed to go down our drains and into our water systems that ultimately empty out into the natural environment,” she said.Asked for comment, an EPA spokesperson said the agency “will review the petition and respond accordingly.”From national parks to the deep sea, plastic pollution is showing up wherever scientists lookPVA, which is also used in the textile industry, has been widely regarded as safe. In addition to being included on the EPA’s Safer Chemical Ingredients list, the compound is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in food packaging, dietary supplements and pharmaceutical products. The Environmental Working Group has also rated PVA as a low-hazard ingredient in personal care products.What’s more, single-dose detergent pods that use PVA are often considered to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional liquid products that come in plastic containers.Research touted by the American Cleaning Institute, or ACI, a trade group, suggests that at least 60 percent of PVA film biodegrades within 28 days and 100 percent of the film within 90 days. The group says water containing the dissolved film will go to wastewater treatment plants, where bacteria and other microorganisms break down the material “through natural biodegradation.”Blueland commissioned and helped fund a peer-reviewed study last year that challenges that claim. Its petition, which is supported by several organizations dedicated to fighting plastic pollution, cites the study’s estimate that about 75 percent of PVA from laundry and dishwasher pods remained intact after passing through conventional wastewater treatment.“It is now urgent for the scientific community to focus its attention on these new emerging pollutants,” said Stefano Magni, an assistant professor of ecology in the biosciences department at the University of Milan who has studied the compound’s possible toxicity but was not involved in the study commissioned by Blueland. “Indeed, a huge amount of PVA is annually produced, placed on the market and then used and released in the environment,” particularly in aquatic ecosystems.Charles Rolsky, co-author of the Blueland-funded study and a senior research scientist at the Shaw Institute in Maine, said that earlier research suggesting PVA could leave no trace over time often involved conditions that typically aren’t found in the real world. Those results could lead consumers to believe that a pod product using PVA film may “seem more eco-friendly and biodegradable than it actually is,” he added.Yoo said that “at this point, there are probably millions of consumers who are buying these sheets or pods thinking they’re doing a really great thing for the planet. They’re converting into these products because of the sustainability messaging, because of the plastic-free messaging, but unbeknownst to them, they’re actually sending plastic particles down their drains.”Trying to shop sustainably? Here’s what you need to consider.Fully biodegrading PVA requires the presence of the right species and concentration of microorganisms, which also have to be trained to break the compound down, Rolsky said. And there isn’t “a single wastewater treatment plant in the United States where water sits with those microbes for anything close to 28 days,” he said. “At most, it might be a week, but more realistically it’s days to hours.”While more research is needed on PVA’s potential effects on humans and the planet, the concern is that the film is “very similar to conventional plastics that we see on a regular basis,” Rolsky said. But there’s one major difference, he said: PVA “just happens to be water soluble.”He compared PVA’s ability to dissolve to pouring salt into water. “The salt will disappear, but you can still very much taste the salt itself, even though you can’t see it.”A growing body of research suggests that plastic pollution can have serious health and environmental effects, including those posed by the ability of small plastic particles to absorb chemicals, contaminants and heavy metals and move those harmful substances up the food chain. But evidence of the potential effects of PVA “are scarce,” said Magni, who co-authored a study that did not find toxic effects associated with the compound in fish embryos and a species of water flea. He added that environmental tests of PVA are “urgently needed.”Both MonoSol, the Indiana-based company that manufactures the wrapping, and the ACI rejected the call for federal officials to regulate use of the film in consumer goods.In a statement, Matthew Vander Laan, MonoSol’s vice president of corporate affairs, called the petition a “publicity stunt” and accused Blueland of “exploiting the credibility of the EPA in pursuit of its own commercial goals.”“Decades of study, including evaluations by the EPA, FDA, regulatory and certification bodies around the world, have proven the safety and sustainability of PVA,” Vander Laan said.Meanwhile, the ACI issued a lengthy statement that highlighted benefits of PVA film and supporting research findings. The trade association also reiterated its criticisms of the research commissioned by Blueland, noting that the study “presents a flawed model based on theoretical assumptions and uses flawed data in that model.”“Because this chemistry has enabled these innovative laundry and automatic dishwashing product formats, it is extremely disappointing to learn about the misinformation that is being spread about PVA/PVOH,” the ACI statement said.But Rolsky said that he and other experts are calling for more research: “PVA shouldn’t be vilified.”“We can’t speculate,” he added. “We have the tools to do the analysis. We should do the analysis and learn how it actually behaves.”Magni agreed. Research into this and other water-soluble polymers is “in the zero year,” he said. “There is still everything to do.”
When laundry pods were first advertised a decade ago, they were hailed as a marvellous way to reduce wasted use of powdered and liquid detergent by having precise load measurements.
Since then, they have become an essential household purchase, with more than 20 billion being used in the United States every year.
But as consumers become more environmentally aware, there are questions about the chemical composition of some of these pods, and whether they are contributing to micro-plastic pollution in our rivers and oceans.
Sarah Paiji Yoo, the CEO and co-founder of the eco-friendly cleaning product firm Blueland said “there’s a lot of confusion” about the green credentials of the many laundry and dishwasher detergent pods currently on the market.
But she added that all of the leading brands sell pods that come wrapped in a plastic film called polyvinyl alcohol, which is sometimes known as PVA.
“Many companies are focusing on getting rid of the plastic packaging and replacing them with cardboard boxes, but they are completely avoiding the fact that the product itself, which is going down the drain is made of plastic,” she told Forbes.
She said the plastic components dissolve into the water, which eventually end up either in a wastewater treatment facility or in some cases being discharged straight into the sea.
Paijii Yoo said both she and Blueland co-founder and CCO John Mascari have spoken to industry veterans and people who work at such facilities, who have said there is a “high likelihood” that these polyvinyl particles are not being treated correctly.
“The conditions to degrade this polyvinyl alcohol are not being met,” she said. “These conditions include an exposure to a specific type of bacteria that can degrade this material. In addition, the polyvinyl needs to be exposed to this bacteria for a certain amount of time.”
But she added many wastewater facilities work on a two to three-hour timeframe, and after that the treated water is discharged into rivers, canals of the sea.
“Once it gets into the natural world, it works its way into our food systems through the soil or drinking water,” said Mascari. “Then it gets really problematic.”
To this end, Blueland have launched a formal action to petition the EPA to prohibit the use of plastic film (PVA) in consumer-packaged goods.
The company has been joined in this petition by 5 Gyres, Plastic Oceans International, and the Shaw Institute.
It follows the publishing of the Plastic Oceans International study – Degradation of Polyvinyl Alcohol in US Wastewater Treatment Plants and Subsequent Nationwide Emission Estimate – published in the International Journal of Environmental and Public Health and commissioned by Blueland that shows that over 75% of intact plastic particles from laundry and dishwasher pods persist in our oceans, rivers, canals and soil.
Paiji Yoo said the EPA has the authority to test and restrict chemical substances that are widely used, and polyvinyl alcohol falls within its remit.
“We feel the EPA should acknowledge that polyvinyl alcohol is a plastic that’s designed to go down our drains,” she said.
“If there isn’t sufficient information on the effects of the manufacture or distribution of this product, then they should require testing to be conducted on the human health and environmental impacts of it.”
Despite the scale of the plastic pollution problem, both her and Mascari remain “incredibly optimistic” that change is possible, pointing to previous decisions to ban or halt production of microbeads and plastic straws.
“As entrepreneurs, we’re naturally optimistic individuals, which is very helpful in this environment. We hope that it can really kick off a broader conversation around greenwashing and the hidden nature of the plastic that may exist in the everyday products that we use.
“Most people don’t realise that plastic is often an ingredient in many personal care and beauty products that we consume. It’s not just plastic bottles that need to be questioned.
“But in the case of polyvinyl alcohol, the information is out there. We should not be putting this into our wastewater. And it’s a very easy switch for many people. We could turn this thing off overnight if we could just defer the attention to the issue.”
By Jon Hurdle for Inside Climate News Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania Nurdles on Ferrycraigs Beach on the Firth of Forth, Scotland. Environmentalists fear nurdle pollution in Pennsylvania will increase with Shell’s new ethane cracker in southwestern Pa. November 15, 2022 | 5:00 AM Scientists have recently become aware that tiny fragments of plastic …
I knew it was late to be calling him. But that night, with the first warm breezes rustling the curtains, I could sense the coming spring and realised he would turn 73 soon.For more than a decade, my father and I had talked about returning to the place where he made plastics before I was born. The plant had exerted an inexplicable pull on me for longer than I can remember, since before I had kids, and even before I entered graduate school to study environmental legacy – what is passed from one generation to the next.
So I dialled. He answered quickly. When I asked whether he’d like to go with me, he didn’t hesitate. Within minutes, we had set a date. Two months later, in May 2013, we stood on the grounds of the former Union Carbide plant in Bound Brook, New Jersey, the birthplace of modern plastics.
A century earlier, in 1907, Leo Baekeland invented the first synthetic plastic in his laboratory in Yonkers, New York. Though earlier plastics had been made from plants (biomass), Baekeland’s formulation used fossil-fuel derivatives, which is now the standard.
He called his amber-hued invention Bakelite resin. It was made by reacting formaldehyde with phenol, produced from coal tar traced to fossilized plants. At the time, industrial chemists had just begun to manipulate hydrocarbons extracted from decomposed, ancient life. They would go on to synthesise new molecules by subjecting hydrocarbons to unearthly temperatures and pressures, and mixing them in concentrations and with other elements in combinations never before seen in nature.
After his backyard laboratory caught fire, Baekeland relocated in 1910 to a factory in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. By the early 1930s, he had built a 125-acre plant along the Raritan River in Bound Brook.
It was the broadcaster Lowell Thomas, the signature voice of the early 20th century, who helped Bakelite become a household name. The natural world was thought to have only three kingdoms – animal, vegetable and mineral – but in a 1937 film on the story of Bakelite, Thomas described a fourth kingdom of synthetics, which promised to free us from reliance on nature, including timber and plant mass such as cotton and wool. Baekeland’s company chose the infinity symbol as its logo and the phrase ad infinitum as its motto.
But Bakelite wasn’t infinite in the way Baekeland had intended. His synthetic resin inspired other companies and new plastics, which eventually began to compete for market share. In 1939, he sold his Bound Brook factory to Union Carbide.
In 1962, the same year Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, my father started his first job at this factory. He was 22, his black hair buzzed short, accentuating the characteristic patch of white just above his hairline. He had just graduated from the chemical engineering programme at the University of Rhode Island, and was hired even though URI did not yet offer classes in plastics production.
Union Carbide assigned him as a process engineer. Within four years, at the age of 26, the company promoted him to supervisor of their polystyrene department, a position he held for a couple years until taking over the production of phenol, formaldehyde and hexamethylenetetramine, the chemicals used to make Bakelite. They gave him a good salary and a small office with a door. When closed, it could dampen the din of the incessant machines. But he spent most days in the plant. His shirt and tie carried home the saccharine smell of styrene and Acrowax, the powder sifted onto the finished polystyrene pellets to keep them from sticking. For a time, he commuted by bicycle past the junkyards before pedalling down Baekeland Avenue. When the union went on strike, he worked the 12-hour graveyard shift. By the close of 1963, The New York Times Magazine reported, Union Carbide had made 1 billion lbs of plastic in a single year.
My father spent a decade at that job, spanning the period in which my three older siblings were born. By spring 2013, on the day we visited, only a few buildings remained. We happened to meet a uniformed employee who showed us a manhole cover bearing the Bakelite logo, the only known company artifact on-site. He had salvaged it and placed it by the central flagpole, in grass taken over by Canadian geese. It once marked a portal into the dense network of underground wires and pipes that, like roots, conveyed power and resources to the plant’s many branches. I stood between my father and the geese trying to imbue the round, rusted disc with significance. But all I could see were goose droppings.
Visiting the old Carbide site made me wonder why we call industrial factories ‘plants’ in the first place. Most plants strike me as an extreme landscape, invasive, grown beyond the human scale. They look like an impenetrable thicket of pipes and valves, canopies of stacks and distillation columns with an understory of brick and catwalks, scaffolding and tanks.
But little else can thrive in their presence. I’m reminded of the Locke Breaux Oak that, since the 1600s, had grown in Taft, Louisiana. Union Carbide built a chemical plant nearby and, beginning in 1966, it likely made the styrene my father coaxed into polystyrene. When the plant was built, the oak was 36 ft around its trunk and 75 ft tall, with branches that spanned 170 ft across. But by 1968, it was dead. So I’m left wondering: how is it that two seemingly opposed concepts – factories and flora – came to share the same word?
The related term, factories, is a shortening of manufactories, an example of how places are sometimes named according to what actions – manufacturing – are performed there. Hence smelters smelt. Paper mills mill paper. Ironworks work iron. Refineries refine petroleum. But plants don’t follow the same logic. The corollary would be plantations.
Interestingly, Union Carbide’s Taft plant sits along the 150-mile corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which was once lined with antebellum plantations. The hundred or so petrochemical plants along the Mississippi were constructed on former cotton, indigo and sugar plantations, and now produce, in addition to chemical feedstocks and plastics, synthetic versions of the crops once raised by forced labour: rayon, dyes and artificial sweeteners. The descendants of enslaved peoples now share a fence line with some of the most polluting industries in the nation.
However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, calling factories plants predates the conversion of US plantations into petrochemical production. I put the question to an environmental historian, several sociologists, a linguist, two science and technology scholars, and a plastics expert – all of whom uncovered pieces of its origins, but were otherwise stumped by how factories became plants. Might it have a Latin root? Does it refer to how the first factories converted plants (such as cotton) into commodities? Was it a clever metaphor – to plant a business, to sow profit – that spread organically? Did its use emerge in that chasm between technological change and the evolution of adequate terminology to describe it?
Even the linguist said I’d dug up an etymological mystery, one that hadn’t yet revealed its source. And while my (re)search continues, I wonder how phrases become taken for granted, adopted without thought, and their origin largely unknown to generations who rarely question the way things have come to be.
The same could be said about plastics.
My mother’s father died young, but the man my grandmother remarried – and whom I knew as Grandpa – had been among the first chemical engineers trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first US institution to grant degrees in the field. He matriculated in the early 1920s, just as Baekeland’s business took off. He graduated with his Bachelor’s degree in 1928, and his Master’s a few years after that.
In the fall of 2012, before my father and I went to New Jersey, I visited the MIT archives. I had arranged for the librarians to find my grandfather’s theses. They were well-preserved, their black bindings so taut that they creaked when I opened them. As I read his work, I remembered his basement laboratory and how, when I was young, he had made me a set of test tubes. I’d watched as he blew bulbous ends onto slender glass tubing. I don’t remember what experiments we ran afterwards, but there were powders and liquids, scales and bottles, and shifting states and colours that seemed magical and otherworldly.
Until I read his research, I didn’t know he had experimented with corn as a feedstock. This is how I discovered that there was a time before oil, and that some industrialists of the 1930s and ’40s envisioned a radically different society, with plastics, paints and fuel for cars made from carbohydrates. But in the US by the close of the 1940s, oil had replaced both biomass and coal as the substrate for making the stuff of everyday life. Union Carbide had helped lead the conversion.
In the years since my grandfather walked these paths, all living organisms have absorbed the products of 20th century petrochemistry. We now embody its genius, its intellectual property, its mistakes, and its hubris. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed the presence of at least 200 (from a possible 80,000-100,000) industrial chemicals in Americans. And though we already have clear reason for concern about their role in human health, development and reproduction, not even the scientists know exactly what their combined presence means for our future.
A generation after my grandfather studied at MIT, in the 1960s, my father oversaw four production lines of polystyrene, each capable of making 2,000 lbs an hour. Polystyrene was made in large, thick-walled autoclaves that could withstand the extremes in pressure and temperature required to string together molecules of styrene and butadiene rubber. The equipment ran round the clock, nearly every day of every year he was there. It was his job to keep the pressure and temperatures steady, lest they blow the roof. He knew styrene was hazardous, but it would be decades before the government confirmed its potential as a carcinogen.
It always struck me how the volatility my father described as inherent to plastics-making mirrored the social milieu of the decade in which he made it: the assassinations; the ignition of racism and racial inequalities in Plainfield, where he lived; and the Vietnam War – a war in which he was prepared to serve, but for a variety of reasons (his eyesight and a critical-skills deferment) didn’t. Instead, on the nightly news he watched the horrors of napalm (which Dow made from roughly 46 per cent polystyrene). While at work, he witnessed unmarked trucks cart away drums of un-reacted styrene, only to return them empty for refilling. This was before Ohio’s Cuyahoga River ignited again in 1969, before the US Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970, before the public health crisis at Love Canal, New York, erupted in the late 1970s, and before federal laws tried to curb hazardous waste and its burial. He knew enough to wonder where the drums – and their contents – were going, but not enough about his own agency at a time when there weren’t clear channels for questioning such things.
As my father’s discontent grew, he marched for civil rights, marched on Washington to end the war, attended the first Earth Day, and eventually, quit plastics altogether. Soon thereafter, his wife left, too, taking their kids.
By the late 1970s, US plants were making more plastic than steel. By the 1980s, Union Carbide was on its way to infamy after the lethal explosion in Bhopal, India. Meanwhile, thousands of drums containing waste from the Bound Brook plant had already been found at a farm in Toms River, an hour south. The farm was added to the federal Superfund list in 1983, the year before Bhopal. State officials later began researching whether the chemicals that had leached into the water supply from the illegal dump had contributed to elevated rates of childhood cancers.
Dow announced its intention to buy Union Carbide in 1999, even as the Toms River inquiry continued. A century after Baekeland’s invention, Dow too ceased manufacturing at the site.
When I asked my father why he left Carbide, a place many stayed for life, he said: There had to be a higher calling.
Plastic is a term that predates the material. In the 1600s, it referred to any substance that was readily moldable and easily shaped. In step with growth in plastics production, plastic acquired a figurative meaning and is now used to indicate when something seems artificial or contrived.
The landscape architect Kate Orff has written about our insatiable appetite for plastics, calling US culture a petro-topia – an idealised landscape designed for the consumption of petroleum-derived plastics, many disposable, bought on credit, which we also call plastic. It is a place distanced from the plants that make what we buy and from the communities living in the shadow of production. It is a culture built with and around hydrocarbons.
The petro-topia I’ve come to know is eerily over-populated by plants of another species: tables set with inedible fruit, backyards where grass stains have been traded for turf burns and gardens landscaped with polyethylene boulders. Where I live in Massachusetts, an artificial tree sprouts from the floor of the Whole Foods Market. It stands in the bulk-foods aisle, the freeze-dried fruit and plastic-sealed kale chips shaded from the fluorescent lights by its eternal foliage.
In one of the most telling essays on plastics, ‘Reflections of an Unrepentant Plastiphobe’ (2010), the plastics scholar Jody Roberts describes how his research made him hypervigilant about his families’ home and diet. But when his daughter was born with cerebral palsy, she was dependent on plastics for her survival. Plastic tubing conveyed breath and nourishment, even as it delivered plasticisers and other plastic additives known to interfere with vital physiological functions. His essay forced me to reconcile plastics as both life-altering and life-giving – practically inseparable from the practice of modern healthcare. We are past the point of simple dichotomies such as good/bad, nature/plastic, innocent/complicit.
It’s the same lesson taught by the new kind of rock, found recently in Hawaii. Neither plastic nor stone, plastiglomerates are a composite of melted plastics, marine debris and volcanic rock. Its discovery confirms human capacity to change the geological record for the era in which we live. According to the Worldwatch Institute, global plastics production continues to rise. Some 299 million tons of plastics were manufactured in 2013 alone, a four per cent increase over the previous year.
I’ve come to believe Baekeland chose an apt symbol for plastics. Purportedly, the infinity symbol has roots in mystical traditions. It depicts a snake eating its own tail.
Over the past 10 years, we’ve learned how sunlight and waves break down plastics into microscopically small parts. They swirl in all the oceans’ major gyres, of which there are five. In places, microplastics outnumber plankton.
Fish confuse plastics for plankton, and so plastics have entered the food chain. I’m reminded of the phrase: you are what you eat, and what you eat eats, of the snake consuming its tail, and also of the poet Adam Dickinson, who has called us a people of the resin. I suspect he is referring to how some plastic additives have come to live in us – in our bloodstreams, and even in our mother’s milk. Plastic is part of our inheritance.
This is a topic my father would rather avoid, preferring instead to talk about recycling. He tells me thermoplastics, like polystyrene, can be melted, remolded and reused. He places great faith in the possibility that some plastics could be redeemed, though in the US only about seven per cent of post-consumer plastics actually get recycled.
By the mid-1970s, my father had remarried and, around the time I was born, began a new career in public administration, where he developed a record-setting curbside recycling programme. One of the most enduring images of my childhood involves riding in his car, where he would throw litter collected from gutters and roadsides to be brought to the recycling yard. In the US, such places are called redemption centres. Recycling might be an imperfect solution to the problem of everlasting waste, but we name the place where plastic is recycled in hope of our salvation.
At its peak, Union Carbide’s Bound Brook plant employed several thousand people. On the day my father and I peered through the chain-link that now surrounds the property, there were fewer than a dozen employees left. It was spring and, in the absence of an industrial thrum, I heard birdsong.
My father’s voice cracked when we pulled down Baekeland Avenue, and he gaped in disbelief at the ghost of his old factory. We drove the perimeter, past the lot where he’d once parked. Indifferent weeds pushed through cracks in the asphalt. An old emergency vehicle still bearing the Union Carbide logo slumped in the grass. At the rear entrance, we parked where the rusted rail lines slipped under the padlocked gates, its branches warped. I tried to picture the tankers of styrene entering on one branch, the freight cars filled with polystyrene pellets exiting from another, and the trucks rumbling over the tracks with their payload of 55-gallon drums carrying away everything else. My father would never know the fate of the drums he saw leaving the plant, their whereabouts likely still unknown.
But from the papers and from Dan Fagin’s Pulitzer prize-winning book, Toms River (2013), my father eventually learned what happened to other drums that had been stockpiled at the Bound Brook plant. In 1971, in the span of just five months, a third-party waste hauler stashed at least 5,000 barrels at a farm in Toms River, the one that would become a Superfund site. The farmers, Sam and Bertha Reich, had leased their back two acres without realising the purposes to which the land would be put. They were just trying to keep the farm solvent.
Drums labeled ‘styrene’, ‘polymer solution’ and ‘chemical waste,’ as Fagin reported, were eventually found empty, others damaged and leaking. All told, an unknowable mixture of chemicals had seeped into the soil and spread to the well and fields supplying Toms River. One never-before-seen chemical was determined to be a waste product called SAN trimer, leftover from the production of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS, a next-generation plastic that, in the late 1960s, my father remembers Union Carbide was just beginning to develop. In fact, he had witnessed its first experimental production run.
By the 1990s, the public outcry over the pollution and childhood cancers in Toms River reached its pinnacle. Cancer was already spreading in my father’s body, too. It would be another decade before it was detected. He would survive. At least 50 Toms River children, possibly more, would succumb.
The cause of any one person’s cancer is mostly unknowable, Fagin writes. And in the case of a community, it is very difficult to prove.
What happened in Toms River is a complex story. Fagin’s account, published the month before our trip, portrayed the community’s tireless but ultimately inconclusive effort to understand why so many local children had cancer. Compounding the situation was the fact that the town had also been home to Ciba-Geigy, a dye factory nestled in a pine forest along the river. For decades, it had used this river to unload its prodigious waste. The rest had been buried on site. And so, the Toms River wells, and those drinking from them, absorbed these chemicals, too. To parse what chemicals from which plant caused which cancers turned out to be a question beyond the capacity of science to answer definitely, though millions of dollars have been spent trying.
Had we not read Fagin’s book before our trip, neither my father nor I would have realised that the chemical fingerprints found at Reich Farm implicated the polystyrene department that he ran, specifically. Even though he never managed the waste, my father came to wonder whether he had unwittingly played some part in the manufacturing of what wound up in Toms River.
On the day we visited the factory, Building #91, the bulk polystyrene department, was a rectangle of barren land. It had been two stories, brick, with vaulted-ceilings, its massive production equipment housed on the top floor. The security guard connected us with two employees, who, having learned that an old-timer had come back with his daughter, escorted us on to the property to get a closer look. I stared at the footprints of old buildings as they reminisced. Before taking us back through the front gates, the facilities manager gave my father a black-and-white aerial photo of the plant. My dad named the function of each structure: the storage tanks and distillation columns, the warehouses and water-cooling station. It was nearly impossible for me to reconcile what I saw in the photograph with the landscape on which I stood. When plastics plants are shuttered, they rewild faster than I would have imagined.
Until a few years ago, plants like this were being closed across the country. Market dynamics had incentivised relocation of many such facilities to China and the Middle East. But the natural gas industry – spurred by fracking and unconventional gas drilling – might reverse that trend. Now producing abundant shale oil, gas, and ethane, American petrochemical companies are beginning to regrow their industry. From ethane, they can make ethylene, which can then be converted into styrene and other feedstocks necessary for making plastics.
‘Plants use natural gas like a bakery shop uses flour,’ said Dan Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association. ‘All this stuff,’ he continued, by which he meant fertilisers and plastics, ‘starts with natural gas, our basic feedstock, our daily bread.’
After our tour of the Bound Brook plant, we turned south toward Toms River. It was happenstance that we found the Reich Farm Superfund site, tucked behind a used car shop and Carl’s Fencing, which now occupies the former farmhouse. Red, white and blue flags billowed across the place. Around the back, two rows of chicken coops stood at attention. There was nothing to see, really. No drums. No signs. The land was wild. I scanned for signs of trauma. It felt like a battleground, the kind of place people visit to reckon with their legacy, and know their place in history, except my father was anxious and wanted to leave immediately. We shouldn’t be here, he said, and steered us into an abrupt U-turn.
From Reich Farm, we drove back through town to Riverfront Landing – a small, out-of-the-way park bordered by an abandoned dental office, a through street and Toms River where it widens into Barnegat Bay. The previous fall, Hurricane Sandy had flooded the area. The park was empty, unkempt with foot-high dandelions. Litter rattled along the sidewalks.
Against a stand of shrubs leaned a stone memorial to the town’s children lost to cancer. I counted 50 names etched in multiple fonts; more had probably died after the first had been inscribed. My father approached the stone and bowed his head. He seemed at prayer.
I remember the Sundays I stood beside him in a church pew, how after communion, the congregation would join hands to recite the Lord’s prayer. Our Father, he would say, as he took my hand in his. Forgive us our trespasses. He would always hold on long after those final words.
The wind coming off the river blows an empty Kwik Mart cup to my feet. I pick it up and trace the symbol imprinted on the plastic lid – arrows cycling around the letters PS – which tell me that the lid of the cup at the cancer memorial was made from polystyrene.
In the coming weeks, my dad will consider calling the Toms River Town Hall to ask if he can clean up the park – to mow the grass, clip back the bushes, carry away the trash. The sight of a forgotten memorial was unbearable to him. He wanted their lives – and deaths – to seed what changes he feels must now come next.
A year later, I would look up the origin of plants in the Oxford English Dictionary, and instead stumble on a lesser-known meaning of plastic. For biologists, plastic refers to a species that responds quickly to environmental change, one capable of rapid evolution and self-preservation. Many species of plants exhibit adaptive plasticity, I’m told by the botanist Chris Martine.
Plasticity could well be the ironic answer to the environmental dilemmas we face after more than a century of petrochemistry: to be more plastic and willing to evolve as conditions change.
And while I still don’t understand how factories came to be plants, I’ve come to believe that manufacturing plants ought at least to live up to their name. This is the position taken by industrial ecologists, who over the past quarter-century have argued that industrial systems must acknowledge that plants are members of a biotic community, in constant, mutual exchange with all cycles, systems and living beings around it.
My colleagues in environmental sociology debate whether or not production systems can ever be benign. Standing at the memorial that afternoon with my father – where our every step scattered dandelion seeds – I wasn’t particularly optimistic, but I desperately wanted something to root for.
My father reaches into his back pocket to pull out a handkerchief. He wipes my eyes before his. We know there can’t be closure. We stay there, side-by-side, before climbing back into the car to follow the river to the sea.
By Will Atwater
On a cloudy Saturday morning this past September, Emily Sutton ventured out into Durham’s Third Fork Creek in her waders. Standing in the creek’s waist-high murky water, Sutton, using a canoe paddle, began pushing plastic waste and other litter toward volunteers who, also in the water, placed the debris into trash bags.
Since January, Sutton, the Haw River riverkeeper, and other riverkeepers across the state have been conducting bi-weekly cleanups in urban waterways. Sutton said this effort is funded through an environmental enhancement grant and is administered through the North Carolina Department of Justice, which, she said, provided one trash-catching trap for each of the state’s 15 watersheds.
“All 15 of us will take samples upstream and downstream of one watershed, and most of us are looking at an urban watershed,” she said.”We can get upstream samples from a location that’s not so heavily impacted by the urban development, and then the same creek downstream, we’ll get microplastic samples, so we can really understand what the loading is from an urban area.”
Meanwhile, Nancy Lauer, staff scientist with the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, was standing on the bank, sorting the waste particles Sutton and the volunteers pulled from the water.
“You can’t go to an urban stream and find a clean stream,” Lauer said. “It’s pretty remarkable.”
Plastics began being mass produced in the 1950s. Since that time, the material has become a fixture in everyday life — it’s in the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the food and beverage and prescription drug containers we bring home, as well as the communication and entertainment devices we use, among other things.
“More than 70 years of innovation and this exceptional class of materials has brought really unprecedented societal advancement … We simply cannot live without plastics in the year 2022,” said Kara Lavender Law, research professor of oceanography with the Sea Education Association. “However, as we all know, this has come at a cost, and that’s a concept we’re only now beginning seriously to address.”
There will likely be multiple ways to address those costs. One recent insight comes from looking at chemical recycling using bioengineered organisms to break plastic compounds down to their original components. Researchers say that could provide a road map for how to address the mixed-use plastic recycling issue, which each year leads to millions of metric tons of plastic waste in landfills instead of recycling centers.
It’s raining plastic
Law made her comments about the costs of plastics as the keynote speaker during a recent webinar called “A Global Look at Plastic in the Ocean.”
Currently, the U.S. does not have a recycling system robust enough to deal with a constant stream of single-use plastics, commonly used to package consumer and household items such as bottled water, liquid detergents, perishable foods and countless other items.
Plastic waste not properly recycled often ends up in landfills and waterways, and ultimately in the ocean. Annually, 8 billion metric tons of plastic waste reaches the ocean By the time that waste reaches the open water it is often degraded and worn down into microplastics, particles about 5 millimeters, smaller than a pea.
Those microplastics are consumed by marine life. They’re not the only ones: researchers have found that, on average, humans consume roughly 5 grams, or about a credit-card size amount of microplastics each week.
According to a study published in 2021 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), currently, there are no direct links between plastic/microplastic ingestion by humans and specific negative health outcomes. But some studies “suggest that effects of microplastics could include provoking immune and stress responses and inducing reproductive and developmental toxicity.”
In 2019, U.S. plastic production equaled more than 121 billion pounds, according to data provided by Statista, a consulting firm that compiles consumer and marketing data. Seventy years of plastic production and consumer consumption has generated hundreds of millions of tons of plastic waste over the years.
The U.S. contributed between a half million to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste to the coastal environment in 2016, according to Law. In the same year, the U.S. generated more plastic waste than any other country (42 million metric tons). Between 2.33 and 2.99 percent of plastic waste produced was “mismanaged,” which could mean that it was littered, illegally dumped or not recycled properly.
In the U.S., plastic currently accounts for roughly 12 percent of municipal solid waste. What’s more, only 5 percent of U.S. plastic waste was recycled in 2021.
Tracking plastic waste in NC waterways
Since 2021, North Carolina waterkeepers and environmental organizations have been documenting the amount, type and size of plastic debris that they remove from waterways across the state.
Lauer partnered with Sutton to document debris removed from Durham’s Third Fork Creek. According to Lauer, from June to September 2022, 6,533 pieces of waste were collected. Eighty-five percent of the waste was Styrofoam, plastic bottles accounted for 5 percent, and the remaining 10 percent was a mixture of items such as food wrappers, plastic lids and caps, cigarette butts, and glass bottles.
From November 2021 until September 2022, Asheville GreenWorks, a Buncombe County-based environmental organization that works with communities to create a “community-led” response to environmental issues, removed more than 10,000 pounds of debris (much of it plastic and microplastic waste) from eight creeks across Buncombe, Henderson and Madison counties, according to Eric Bradford, director of operations.
Cape Fear River Watch (CFRW) and the Haw River Assembly are two Waterkeepers Carolina organizations that have installed trash “trouts’ — devices made of metal fencing anchored to the bank that trap debris floating on the water. They’ve put them in selected waterways and documented the debris collected during volunteer cleanup events.
Rob Clark, CFRW’s water quality program director, reported data from three trash collection dates between mid-August and mid-September 2022: 537 items were collected — 99 percent was plastic waste, Styrofoam made up 76 percent of the debris.
The three organizations’ combined totals equaled more than 17,000 pounds of solid waste. Plastic waste accounted for the majority of materials, with Styrofoam representing the most commonly found plastic waste material.
Solving the mixed-use plastic issue
Many environmentalists and research scientists argue that the only way to address the spiraling plastic waste problem is by enacting policies that force manufacturers to halt or at least require that all single-use plastic manufacturing must be recyclable.
In an email, Lauer noted in previous “urban stream” cleanups that did not involve trash trouts, “We found a lot more plastic bags, food wrappers, glass bottles, broken glass pieces and metal drink cans … ” She added, “What I’m observing is that those items tend to fill up with sediment and/or get snagged on the banks. So that stuff is all ending up in urban streams too, but it’s not flowing downstream as effectively as Styrofoam and plastic bottles do.”
Currently, much of the plastic material that finds its way into your home is not recyclable, and the pieces that are recycled are often mixed together, which requires sorting when the materials reach the recycling facility. Sorting can be a costly process for the business to separate plastics “by resin type.” As a result, this may not happen, which means plastic materials end up in the landfill, subverting recyclers’ good intentions.
But according to a recent study, there may be a process by which all single-use plastics, regardless of resin type — even sediment-laden plastic containers retrieved from waterways — could be recycled and reduced down to the basic building blocks of plastic and reformed into a viable container. This process would, in theory, reduce the cost associated with separating mixed plastics by the recycler and make recycling more financially lucrative, the researchers say.
The chemical recycling process could also reduce the amount of virgin plastic needed to be produced each year as well as address the problem of what to do about Styrofoam and glass and plastic bottles that, like the ones pulled from Third Fork, have to be thrown away because they are too dirty to be recycled.
“If you’ve been participating in these river cleanups or whatever, you’ll see some plastics that may be really brittle after a while, or yellowed, or something,” Sullivan said. “It’s reacting with oxygen in the environment and that usually takes a really, really long time to happen, but eventually, it will break down.”
“What we’re really doing with this process is accelerating that reaction with oxygen, and we use that when we use the metal catalysts that are described in the paper. And they essentially just facilitate the reaction of the oxygen with the plastic to make it break down much, much faster. You know, instead of taking hundreds of years, it takes a couple hours … That’s the general idea.”
Werner draws a distinction between their approach and other forms of chemical recycling which, she says, involves transforming an existing product into a recycled one of lesser value.
“We’re actually taking the waste mixed plastics, and creating something of a higher value,” she said. “And so that’s why we call it upcycling because we’ve taken the plastics to their molecular building blocks, we can build them back up into something of higher value.
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This form of chemical recycling involves pairing the oxidation process with bioengineered organisms, which helps complete the task of reducing plastic polymers back down to a monomer (its basic form) so that it can be upcycled into a high-value product.
‘Treating the symptom, not the cause’
Many environmentalists push back on chemical recycling as a potentially expensive approach to dealing with plastic waste, which takes the responsibility off the manufacturers, who, they say, should be required to solve the problem that they created. Some are also concerned that the use of bioengineered organisms could pose an environmental risk if they were to escape the lab setting.
“I think that chemical recycling is treating the symptom and not the problem,” Sutton said. “With any pollution issue, we really want to get to the source. So it’s not downstream, even hypothetically, or figuratively [speaking]. In this situation there’s always the source who really should be responsible for limiting [plastic waste], not these new industry chemical manufacturing facilities.”
Not to mention that plastics manufacturers have an economic disincentive to reduce the amount of materials they produce.
While University of North Carolina Department of Chemistry professor Frank Leibfarth, understands how environmentalists feel about the plastic waste issue, he sees value in a multi-angled approach to addressing the problem.
“Plastic waste is a gigantic issue. We make enough plastic to fill a modern football stadium every day,” he said. “Making this more sustainable will require using every tool at our disposal. Plastic manufacturers should do their part … and hopefully we can get policies to enable that.”
Leibfarth said putting more policies in place won’t solve the entire problem though.
“We need new innovations in materials, recycling technology, and sorting technology on top of policy change,” he said.
Law believes we need an all-of-the-above approach to addressing the plastic waste problem. She believes the answer involves “making, using and consuming” fewer plastics, which can be achieved through “education, behavior change, new product delivery systems and legislation.”
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ALIQUIPPA, Pa.—From the tranquility of her garden in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, Terrie Baumgardner worries that her grandchildren will grow up without access to clean air, clean water and a safe space to play outdoors.
For decades, Beaver County’s economy has been dependent on polluting industries—first steel, and more recently natural gas drilling. Many longtime residents, who remember the prosperity brought by the steel industry, have welcomed the construction of a massive new Shell petrochemical plant and the politicians that support it.
Baumgardner and other environmental activists are discouraged that local residents and politicians favor the continuation of fracking and the new mega plastics plant it has spawned, but they are not giving up their fight.
“People say that’s what we do in Beaver County—we trade our health for jobs,” Baumgardner said. “But it’s unfortunate, because it doesn’t have to be that way now.”
A reluctant activist, Baumgardner first became involved in environmental issues in 2011, when she learned about the dangers posed by fracking. Concern for the environment and health of local residents led her to canvas for signatures in 2016 as Shell moved toward building the plastics plant.
Spanning nearly 800 acres along the Ohio River, the plant is expected to open later this year. The facility will convert fracked gas into 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene per year. Polyethylene, made from ethane, a form of natural gas, is the key building block in numerous common plastic products—from food wrapping and trash bags to crates and bottles.
Despite assurances from Shell that the facility will be safe for the surrounding community, environmental activists have warned that the plant will cause air and water pollution, and a protracted dependence on fracking.
Under Shell’s permit, the plant can release up to 159 tons of fine particulate matter and 522 tons of volatile organic compounds per year. Exposure to these emissions has been linked to issues in the brain, liver, kidney, heart and lungs. They have also been associated with miscarriages, birth defects and cancer.
“They’re going to unload all of these toxic chemicals, hazardous air pollutants, volatile organic compounds and millions of tons of CO2 gas. What’s going to happen?” asked Bob Schmetzer, a local councilman from nearby South Heights and a long-time spokesperson for Beaver County’s Marcellus Awareness Committee. He has opposed the plant since it was first proposed 10 years ago.
Jack Manning, a Beaver County Commissioner, does not share these concerns. “I have great faith in the technology and in the competency of those that will be running the facility,” he said. “It’s a state-of-the-art, world-class facility.”
Manning blamed people’s apprehension on unfair comparisons between the environmental impacts of the plant and those of the steel mills that used to occupy the area. “Those heavy particulates are a different type of pollution,” he said.
Shell has assured residents of the safety of its plant. “At Shell, safety is our top priority in all we do and that includes being a good neighbor by communicating about plant activities that could cause concern if not expected,” Virginia Sanchez, a Shell spokesperson, said in a statement. “When we are in steady operations, it is our goal to have little to no negative impact on our neighbors as a result of our activities.”
For activists, these assurances do little to allay concerns. On a grassy hillside overlooking the massive complex, Schmetzer spoke with his friend and fellow activist, Carl Davidson. While the plant is not yet operational, the grinding sounds of industrial machinery and screeches of train cars disturbed the clear fall day.
Bob Schmetzer and Carl Davidson, standing above the petrochemical plant. Credit: Emma Ricketts
Davidson, a self-professed “solar, wind and thermal guy,” wore a Bernie cap and alluded to his youth as a student leader of the New Left movement in the 1960s. While he estimates that around one-third of residents were concerned about the plant’s potential impacts from the beginning, he expects this number to grow once it opens. “People are starting to see two things,” he said. “Number one, there is all kinds of pollution that they didn’t know about. And second, all the jobs that were promised aren’t real.”
The plant sparked hope for a revival of economic prosperity in the area. However, now that construction is largely complete and thousands of workers have finished working on the site, the plant is expected to only employ about 600 people going forward, according to Shell.
While opponents wait anxiously for the plant to begin operations, they don’t think it will influence next week’s elections. The Shell plant has been a non-issue in the tight race for the 17th Congressional District in Beaver County between Democrat Chris Delluzio and Republican Jeremy Shaffer, both of whom support continued fracking.
In the state’s closely watched U.S. Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz, both of whom support fracking, the environment has barely come up in a nasty campaign focused on abortion rights.
Similarly, fracking and the environment have hardly been mentioned in the governor’s race between Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, and Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Trump supporter and election denier.
Beaver County, while only counting for 1.3 percent of the votes cast in any given election in Pennsylvania, is a bellwether, according to Professor Lara Putman of the University of Pittsburgh. “It is socio-demographically similar to counties that, collectively, make up about one-quarter of Pennsylvania’s population. So in that sense, when Beaver shifts other places are usually shifting as well,” she said.
Baumgardner called the political candidates’ silence “disheartening.”
“I wish they would have the courage to speak up, to take a position and stick with it,” she said.
However, she understands the political risks associated with taking an environmental stand in a community that believes its economic fortunes are tied directly to pollution. She just wishes this wasn’t still the case. “We have alternatives,” she said. “We just need our political leaders to embrace them and get serious about renewables and removing the subsidies on fossil fuels.”
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A plastic recycler says ambitious goals for recycling are being hampered by a lack of leadership from the federal government. Key points:REDcycle annouced the temporarily suspension of its soft plastic recycling scheme this weekA plastic recycler from WA says there needs to be more federal government leadership in the sectorEnvironment Minister Tanya Plibersek says she is working with retailers to address the stockpile of soft plasticsThis week, which is National Recycling Week, it was revealed REDcycle had temporarily suspended its soft plastics recycling scheme at supermarkets.The company was unable to pass on the materials to recycling partners for processing and had been storing it in warehouses.REDcycle provides a rare avenue for the recycling of soft plastics, which are often unable to be collected via verge-side recycling programs run by local governments.It is now advising people to put their soft plastics in their standard landfill rubbish bins.Narelle Kuppers is the founder of Precious Plastic Margaret River, which turns plastic lids into items including combs and surf board fins.She said the issues faced by REDcycle highlighted some of the challenges facing those in the industry.”It’s very difficult to recycle and make money from the items that we are processing,” she said.”I’m a bit shocked to be honest with you, because they’re the big guys — they’re the ones I thought were actually going to make it.”Industry, government has failed, expert saysSpeaking from the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, Curtin University sustainability professor Peter Newman said Australians wanted to do their part and recycle, but the infrastructure wasn’t there to help them.”This is devastating for all the people who recycle fastidiously,” he said.”We all need to do our bit, but industry has failed and probably, government has failed as well, in enabling this process.”We just can’t seem to get our act together in Australia to make this work.”Professor Newman said regulations were needed to make sure all plastic products were required to contain recycled plastic.