By Kathy Bouchard EBS Contributor
One of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated on an unsuspecting public, in my grumpy opinion, is the system of plastic recycling. Billions of plastic containers and other items are blithely stamped with the triangular symbol with its three arrows flowing in a continuous circle, indicating a sustainable loop that doesn’t exist. So, I try to avoid the plastic, and let merchants know I’m buying the boxed mangoes instead of the clam shelled apples because of the difference in packaging.
As I write this in the Chicago area, sheltering in place with three granddaughters, April showers have come my way. They will bring the flowers that bloom in May, after I finish plugging them into my son’s border garden. Weeding and planting while the baby naps provide me with activity that usually comes later in Montana. To my delight and occasional dread, the six-year-old twins insist on helping with each new planting. We dig, then one separates the roots as the plant comes out of the pot, tamps it in place, and waters it in. Her sister, on “pot duty”, transports the empty plastic pot to the stack, then rotates in for her turn. As always, I rue the quantities of plastic involved with this past time so intimately dependent on nature.
Black plastic nursery pots aren’t recycled in Chicago’s curbside recycling program, as they are not in Montana. Good luck trying to get your garden supplier to take them back, but please try. Recently I read that two large home improvement chains have programs to accept these containers, as well as empty soil and mulch bags. The stores reuse the pots or return them to their plastics supplier which does recycle them, saving about 60 percent of production energy. Once again, I feel that vendors who use plastic ought to take the responsibility of accepting it back to be reused or recycled, and kudos to these merchants for doing so!
Living temporarily among a young family with two working parents, I see their dependence upon fast and simple foods, like precooked rice pilaf in microwaveable bags, 4 ounce yogurt drink containers with colorful animal shapes, and prepackaged snack boxes of cheese, nuts, and raisins. This means a lot of plastic packaging, offering the convenience of sturdy lightweight structure so the food is not crushed, and transparency so the food may be seen. Making more dishes from scratch would put a dent in the single use plastic consumption, and the family does prepare a number of meals in advance every Sunday. But the time saving convenience is all too tempting.
Even before the recent black swan drop in the price of oil, the petroleum industry was already looking to hugely expand its offerings in plastic packaging, “the only major source of oil demand, whose growth is expected to accelerate”. At their expected rate of expansion, the ratio of plastic refuse to fish in our oceans will go from 1:4 (2014) to greater than 1:1 by 2050, (source)
But I found an article from Forbes’ Mike Scott, dated Sept 16, ‘19, claiming that “growing legal and consumer backlash against plastic pollution may threaten the economics of further petrochemical and oil and gas developments”. Anti-pollution rules and governmental pressures, like the EU, are limiting the use of single use plastics, which is 40 percent of plastic production. Major companies like Colgate-Palmolive, Diageo, PepsiCo, and Unilever have committed to using 25 percent postconsumer recycled material, up from zero. Finally, 26 financial institutions with 4.2 trillion dollars of assets under management, like CBMO Global, BNP Paribas, and Hermès EOS have endorsed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy Initiative, a global effort originating in Europe which promotes a closed circular economy for plastics. This means lenders are feeling public pressure to ensure their loans go towards sustainable enterprise.
So, maybe another culture war is setting up. Choose less plastic in your bathroom, in your refrigerator, in your yard, and your actions will matter to the overall outcome of this critical battle for our planet.
Kathy Bouchard is a member of the Rotary Club of Big Sky’s Sustainability Committee. She has been a Montana resident for 20 years and is inspired to work for sustainability on behalf of her grandchildren.