American Plastic is Killing You, and the Rest of the World

These days, you don’t have to wander far to trip over yet another story that fills in some of the picture on our pending environmental collapse. Many scientists familiar with the reams of data projecting overshoot in numerous areas (soil erosion, water use, pollution, etc.) have even posited that our prolific tendency for doing things that will eventually kill us may even be an answer to the Fermi Paradox.

In western capitalistic nations, the solutions to some of these problems have focused on the individual. What can “I” do?

Because the narrative of capitalism relies on the idea (or myth, rather) that the individual has the ultimate power to drive the system, for three decades now we have been sold on the idea of “going green”. Driving electric cars, taking public transport, using solar power, giving to environmental groups, and yes… recycling.

While all of these efforts are needed, they are all largely “feel good” initiatives that only make a small dent in the problem without being bolstered by co-operative organized efforts by the world’s governmental bodies.

One aspect of our “feel good” environmentalism that is rarely discussed or even viewed in all of it’s gory details is the recycling business. Fortunately, the excellent journalists over at The Guardian have taken the time to dig in to this story.

In the process of doing my own research recently into the development of sustainable raw materials and plastic replacements, the seriousness of the problem has become more and more apparent. While there are many advocates for switching to bio-plastics, and there are other new technologies being implemented at very small scales, the bigger problem is how to deal with the materials already in the environment, especially for the numerous consumer products that have mixed plastic components. (For example, polyester fabric, which usually includes either PU or PVC backing to strengthen it and to improve water resistance. These materials are used extensively for luggage, backpacks, and other carrying bags.) Mixed plastics are not really recyclable, certainly not at the scale needed to whittle away at the problem.

The more I read about and consider the scope of all of these problems, the need to change our consumerist lifestyle and economic system are clearly the only answers that can address these issues for the long term.

If we don’t, as Christina Lai, a Sungai Petani activist quoted in the Guardian article said: “One day this land will be taken over by rubbish and not humans.”