On June 2nd, 5 Gyres held our most recent Webinar. Founders Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen spoke about plastic pollution in our oceans and focused on the latest research and policy on the issue, the importance of having a circular economy, and how community is essential to this problem, as they have the power to demand change. The Webinar ended with a 15-minute Q&A session where audience members asked some very thoughtful questions and received passionate and insightful answers.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to address all of the questions, so Marcus has answered a few below that seem to be popular questions that we hope will clarify some doubts you might have.
1) Why is plastic so cheap? Is it because oil companies are subsidized?
Plastic is coupled with the price of oil, so it fluctuates equally. Right now, recycled plastic is too expensive, so virgin plastic is what’s dominating the market. So, as suggested, subsidizing oil doesn’t help recycling efforts.
2) California was the first state to pass a law that bans single-use plastic bags…but the plastics industry and bag manufacturers have collected enough signatures to put the ban to a referendum in November 2016. How can we effectively fight this?
Good question. It takes constant pressure over time, and alignment of organizations toward a common goal. That’s how we won on microbeads. The bag ban took 10 years to win, and industry hired outside signature gatherers to make it a referendum. You can join Californians Against Waste, Surfrider Foundation and other NGOs to fight the referendum in California and get the word out.
2) How many times can plastics be recycled as a technical ingredient in the circular economy? Is it possible for it to be continually recycled?
From what I know, the polymer gets continually degraded over time, so you don’t typically see products with 100 percent PRC (Post-consumer recycled content). So, technically you can’t reused the same plastic material perpetually, as you can with aluminum, which is a single element (Al). Plastic is made of hundreds or thousands of molecular bonds, and they don’t last forever.
3) What is the organization’s position on bioplastics, especially when considering their lifecycle impacts? Is there sufficient evidence to support or certify them as “marine degradable?”
It depends on the polymer. Here’s something I wrote recently on bioplastic:
Bioplastic has been around a while. Henry Ford produced the first soybean car in the 1930s, with bioplastic fenders and door panels made from soy-based phenolic resin. He demonstrated its resilience by bashing it with a sledgehammer without a dent. Petroleum plastics were cheaper and better performing and eventually edged bioplastic out.
But today, with the inconsistency of the fossil fuel market, companies like Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have explored plant-based plastics as a means to create a more reliable and consistently valued resource. In September 2015, the Brazilian company Braskem began production of polyethylene, the exact same chemical structure as polyethylene made from fossil fuels, but derived entirely from sugar cane fiber, called ‘bagasse.’
Poly-lactic Acid (PLA) is another common plant-based polymer, the one you see advertised as ‘corn cups’ or utensils called ‘spud ware.’ Or Poly-hydroxy-alkanoate (PHA), made from the off-gassing of bacteria. Soy, bagasse, PLA or PHA, are all very different and create confusion, sometimes intentionally, over their actual biodegradability. PLA needs a large industrial composting facility that’s hot, wet and full of compost-eating microbes. If you put a bunch of paper plates, napkins and PLA utensils in your backyard compost for a year, you’ll end up with rich soil and a bunch of forks and knives. On the JUNKraft we filled a nylon mesh laundry bag with 20 different PLA products. The result after the voyage was a laundry bag filled with unscathed products. PHA is the only marine degradable bioplastic, with ASTM standards that describe a 30 percent loss of material in the ocean in six months, but only in warm tropic waters, not higher latitudes or deeper waters.
There’s plenty of confusion and green-washing in advertising the value of bioplastic. While the label “biodegradable” has a relatively strict definition called ASTM standards, and strict guidelines for usage in advertising, the terms “bioplastic,” “plant-based,” “bio-based” do not. Bioplastic is the loosely-defined catch-all phrase that describes plastic from recent biological materials, which includes true biodegradable materials and non-biodegradable polymers that are plant-based. These definitions leave a lot of room for advertisers to manipulate public perception.
When Coca-Cola unveiled the PET PlantBottle a week before the 2009 Sustainability Summit in Copenhagen (COP15), with green leaves and circular arrows on labels, many NGOs and government agencies, like the Danish Consumer Ombudsman, took Coca-Cola to court for greenwashing, resulting in label modifications. Despite all of the leafy greenery, it’s the same PET bottle you’ll find floating across the ocean, despite being “plant-based.” The saving grace is the withdrawal from fossil fuels, but otherwise the same bottle.
5) What do you do with people from your own social circle who are deeply ingrained into the disposable culture, but are uninterested or unwilling to change their behavior?
Keep pushing. Continuous pressure over time. We love the people in our social circle, so we keep sharing our values. I have family that still haven’t kicked the plastic habit. I just keep pushing without compromising my values.
BUT, if they are jerks about it and want to criticize your choices, then you have to decide for yourself if you’re compatible. It’s like any other relationship, I suppose. Breaking up is hard to do.
We hope these responses were helpful. If you have any more questions, feel free to contact us at [email protected] If you want to join our next webinar, please sign up for our updates on our website.
This article originally appeared on 5 Gyres.