In the 1967 movie The Graduate, a baffled Dustin Hoffman is given just one word about his future from a family friend: “Plastics.” He doesn’t go with it, which may be just as well. Plastics, which have done so much for us, are a two-edged sword.
France just became the first country in the world to enact a ban on plastic dinnerware. As of 2020, French picnickers, in lieu of plastic plates, cups, and cutlery, will have to use bio-sourced, compostable equivalents—or perhaps return to the old-fashioned wicker picnic hamper, packed with reusable china, silverware, wine goblets, and after-dinner coffee mugs.
The new law is a subset of France’s 2015 Energy Transition for Green Growth Act, a sweeping initiative designed—in the words of French president Francois Hollande—to make France “an exemplary nation in terms of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, diversifying its energy model and increasing the deployment of renewable energy sources.” It will also, in one fell swoop, eliminate the nearly five billion plastic goblets that the French have been tossing each year into landfills.
The plastic dinnerware ban follows hard on the heels of a law prohibiting the use of plastic bags. By 2017, France’s current annual output of 17 billion plastic bags will be replaced with compostable versions made from a mix of plastic and potato or corn starch.
Plastics have been mass-produced since the 1940s. The amount of plastic produced in the just first decade of the 21st century, writes Jessica Knoblauch in Environmental Health News, nearly equals the amount produced in the entire 20th century. In 2014, worldwide, we collectively turned out some 300 million metric tons of plastic, and by 2050, writes Sarah Kaplan in the Washington Post, that number is expected to triple.
Plastic, of course, can be wonderful stuff, with a range of applications. It’s found in everything from computers to kitchen floors, Barbie dolls to bicycle helmets, car bumpers, and IV blood bags. In the United States, plastic goes to make an annual 50 billion water bottles—now so ubiquitous that environmental activists have initiated ban the bottle campaigns. We also use an estimated 200 billion plastic straws each year to slurp our sodas; 100 billion plastic bags to haul our groceries home and toss our trash; and, just in 2014, enough plastic Keurig coffee pods to circle the globe 12 times.
The major problem with all this plastic is that it doesn’t go away. The lifespan of the average plastic bag, bottle, or picnic fork may be 1,000 years or more, which means that if William the Conqueror had had any of the above along during the Norman invasion, they’d still be kicking around today. And chances are that plastic would be in the ocean.
About a third of all plastic produced eventually ends up in the ocean, much of it in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a region of spiraling currents that now constitutes the world’s largest garbage patch, a floating mass of trash twice the size of Texas found midway between Hawaii and California. (A second, similar patch accumulates between Hawaii and Japan.) Within the next 35 years, scientists predict, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
While plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it does photodegrade, which means that it is oxidized in the presence of sunlight, causing it to become brittle and to shatter into increasingly tiny fragments. These fragments, charmingly known as mermaid’s tears or nurdles, are pellets the size of a lentil which attract and concentrate synthetic organic pollutants. These poisonous pellets look like food to marine animals, threatening food chains and leading to potentially catastrophic ecosystem disruptions. Fish, sea birds, sea turtles, seals, sea lions, whales, and dolphins are now all at risk from plastic—either from entanglement or from ingestion.
According to a 2011 study by Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center, of the seven basic types of plastics, only two are routinely recycled: polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the stuff of those 50 billion water bottles; and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which goes to make milk bottles, laundry detergent jugs, water pipes, and bottle caps. All in all, only about 6.5 percent of American plastic is recycled. In part this lousy score is because plastics are a such a mixed bag: separating plastics from non-plastics and the various kinds of plastics from each other is expensive and labor-intensive.
And it’s also because a lot of us still simply pitch our plastic into the trash. According to Ecowatch, the average American tosses 185 pounds of plastic a year. The vast bulk of that plastic ends up in landfills or is dumped at the side of the road.
The plastic buried in landfills may be out of sight, but it shouldn’t be out of mind. Plastic is synthesized from petroleum, natural gas, and added chemicals; depending on the mix, chemists can turn plastic polymers into anything from pantyhose to plywood. In landfills, chemicals from millions of tons of buried plastic leach into the surrounding environment and groundwater. Some chemicals, notably phthalates and bisphenol A, have been implicated as human health problems.
And then there’s the energy waste. About eight percent of global oil goes to make plastic annually. Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center report calculated that the energy trapped in plastics buried in U.S. landfills is the equivalent of 36.7 million tons of coal, 130 million barrels of oil, or 783 billion cubic feet of natural gas.
So how to deal with the plastic crisis? We can increase recycling, we can invest in technologies that convert waste plastic into fuel, and we can use a lot less plastic.
The French ban on plastic picnic forks and wine goblets may sound like a small step, but it has big implications. France’s aim is to create a sustainable “circular economy,” in which plastics are manufactured, used, recycled, and returned to the energy pool. Until such a system is up and running, however, the less plastic we use, the better.
In the United States, several states and cities have banned plastic bags, and a growing list of countries worldwide either bans or taxes plastic bags. Indications are that such bans and taxes are effective. One study showed that a 2002 plastic-bag tax in Ireland (nicknamed the “Plastax”) cut plastic-bag litter by 95 percent. Plastic bags account for about half the trash in the Washington, D.C., area; a ban on bags across the U.S., one calculation suggests, could save us $3.2 to $7.9 billion in litter control alone.
Not everyone is happy about France’s new anti-plastic legislation. European packaging manufacturers, for example, argue that the law infringes on their rights; others point out that the replacement biodegradable products will be more expensive than the originals, placing a burden on consumers.
But from an environmental standpoint, these may be problems we can live with.