Robert Swan is one of those guys wearing icy beards standing on a flat white horizon in those tattered photographs of polar explorers to the furthest reaches of the planet. He’s the founder of 2041(.com), and is the principle reason I’m here. He holds his place in history aside Amandson, Scott and Shakelton with the title “First person to walk unassisted to both poles.”
His 900-mile walk to the South Pole, below the hole in the ozone layer in the early 1980s permanently changed the color of his eyes, then in the North he swam, hiked, climbed over melting ice floes to the opposite pole of the planet. “This is climate change,” he says, and dedicated his life to preserving Antarctica. The problem is climate change, the solution is cleaner energy, and the catalyst is the day the current international treaty to preserve Antarctica for science and peace is reinstated in perpetuity. The current treaty ends in 2041. His fear is that in 2041 countries addicted to fossil fuels will make a land grab. “Alternate energy is the way!” he declares.
But what does plastic pollution have to do with climate change? They both have their root in fossil fuels. Fossil fuels give us both energy and chemistry for the benefit of civilization since the Industrial Revolution and throughout the technical advances of the last half-century. But the chemistry and energy sectors both share a corporate model of production without responsibility for environmental or societal outcomes. CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are responsible for the greenhouse glasses in the atmosphere that keep heat in, changing the climate of the planet at an unprecedented rate in the last 650,000 years. Plastic pollution, the result of single-use throw-away product and packaging designs that have no recovery system in place, result in a SMOG of plastic particulate globally distributed in our oceans and slowly settling to the seafloor.
Both CO2 emissions and plastic pollution become a tragedy of the commons because they pollute international air and water, and the industries that create the problem work endlessly to defer costs of cleanup to governments and taxpayers. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Does this common problem have a common solution?
Arguably, bioplastics and biofuels are a partial solution. Bioplastics and biofuels are alternates to plastics and energy from fossil fuels, relying on carbon already on the surface of the earth. That means little new CO2 in the atmosphere. Though they show a promising future with a reduced reliance on fossil fuels, the waste emission is still an issue. Bioplastics, a term rampant with confusion, is used for both biodegradable plastics and non-biodegradable plant-based plastics. For example, Coca Cola markets a ‘plant bottle’ made of PET derived from modern plants rather than fossil plants, but it still the same polymer with the same ocean pollution issues. Polyhyroxylalkanoate (PHA), a plastic produced from bacteria, is the only ocean-friendly bioplastic with a reasonable rate of degradation. We are already seeing some smart applications of PHA bioplastic, like ZoeB beach toys that replace the PE and PP toys we sometimes find floating 1000’s of miles offshore.
In a recent conversation with David Hone, climate change advisor for Shell Oil, he explained that a Carbon Tax is the best way to go, and that’s his hope for the Paris 2015 summit on climate change. This would level the playing field for all companies and countries, creating a competitive advantage for alternative energy. “As long as cheap oil and gas exist in the world, solar and wind will be marginalized,” he says. But would a carbon tax work for plastic? Surely it would, for the same reasons. For bioplastics, reusable bags and mugs, or paper products to replace the plastic status quo, the price needs to be competitive. A “Polymer” tax that would be utilized to fund environmental cleanup projects, could come to a ballot near you someday soon.
But the real solution to climate change and plastic pollution is Zero Waste. Zero waste is the common virtue. Zero Waste in your life is the best way to personally combat climate change and plastic pollution (besides supporting the Carbon Tax). Your carbon footprint and your plastic footprint are not mutually exclusive. When I stood with Robert Swan on the Antarctic Peninsula we talked about climate change and pollution. He said, “It 8 years for my team to remove 1500 tons of rubbish from Antarctica, but we had to do it,” adding, “you can’t separate the two. It’s the same fight.”