Although mass production of plastics began about 70 years ago, humans tapped into naturally derived plastics long before that. About 3,500 years ago, the Olmec culture was thriving on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Famous for their carved colossal heads, the Olmecs also shaped primitive plastics made with a natural polymer extracted from the sap of gum trees. Today, human-made plastics are derived from fossil fuels and the production rate is expected to double in twenty years and triple by 2050. This reliance on fossil fuel derived plastics (especially single-use plastic) has been a key contributor to climate change.
Plastic releases a smorgasbord of toxic chemicals as it decomposes, resulting in dire consequences for animals, plants and the environment. One study estimates that by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean. Specifically, straws, grocery bags, and packaged products make up 40% of plastic waste that is rarely recycled. Rather, this waste is sent to our community landfills and even our oceans.
One of the common ways to make plastic is through “cracking.” When land is fracked to produce fossil fuels, a global-warming, air-polluting ethane gas is produced as a byproduct. Cracking facilities—also known as “crackers”—convert ethane to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene plastic. Crackers, like so much of the climate change causing infrastructure, are often constructed in or near communities with less wealth and less political influence—compounding issues of environmental and social injustice. In the next ten years, 263 new cracking plants are planned to be built in the Gulf Coast and the Mid-Atlantic regions.
A recent study conducted at the University of Hawaii reported that as plastics decay, they emit methane and ethylene, two powerful greenhouse gases. Sunlight triggers these emissions, which contaminate both our air and our water. The researchers tested plastics found in construction materials, textiles, food storage and other kinds of products.
“Our results show that plastics represent a heretofore unrecognized source of climate-relevant trace gases that are expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment.” (The authors of the University of Hawaii study)
The chemical industry counts on ethylene, and its production in 2016 exceeded 150 million tons—more than any other organic compound. A chunk of it is used to produce polyethylene-based shopping bags (the plastic bags of the iconic “paper or plastic?” question). Polyethylene waste is not passive as it releases dangerous additives and other degradation products into the environment throughout its lifetime of decay.
Are we stuck with single-us plastic or are there solutions?
“Given the expected growth in plastic production worldwide, it is important for plastics manufacturers, as well as governments wrestling to curb climate change, to understand the extent of methane and ethylene emissions from plastic and their impact on ecosystems,” says Niklas Hagelberg, a climate change expert at the United Nations Environment Programme.
In 2017, the United Nations Environment Programme launched the #BeatPlasticPollution campaign partnering with governments, organizations and community activists aiming for a plastic-free environment. And this year, National Geographic asked the world to take the Planet or Plastic? pledge. Changing our single-use plastic habits is a key part of these campaigns and other initiatives.
Communities and countries are reducing waste by banning, taxing, or otherwise limiting the use of single-use plastic bags.
Thirty-two (and counting) countries have plastic bag bans and almost half of them are located on the African continent, where clogged drains ignite mosquito swarms—leading to the spread of malaria. In China, a ban adopted in 2008 has led to a 40 billion bag reduction. India, where cows often died from the plastic ingestion, established a ban in 2002. Eighteen other countries tax plastics instead of banning them. Ireland’s plastic bag tax reduced usage by as much as 90%. Portugal’s use has declined by 85%. Denmark put a tax in place in 2003 and has the lowest plastic usage in Europe, averaging just 4 bags per person per year.
In the United States, only two states, California and Hawaii, have banned plastic bags on a statewide level. Four states—Maine, New York, Rhode Island, and Delaware—have mandatory recycling or reuse programs in place. Two hundred municipalities have banned or are taxing plastic bags. Saying no to single-use plastic can be done on the individual level. The Plastic Pollution Coalition is a good place to start for information and to take action.
Beyond banning and taxing single-use plastic, other innovative solutions to the plastic problem are now available. Organisms like waxworms and mealworms can dine on plastics and transform them into compost. A newly discovered microbe reduces the time it takes for plastic to degrade from hundreds of years to just a few days.
In addition, manufacturers are working hard to make plant-based packaging and products that will replace conventional plastics. These innovative companies are utilizing all natural products that degrade faster and cleaner in our environments. Even better, they are pushing the envelope further by developing edible single-use products—meaning you can eat your spoon or your cup when you are finished. So, next time when you say “all done” you won’t just mean the food, you will also mean the plastic pollution. Small changes can add up. Choosing to eliminate or greatly reduce your dependency on conventional plastic products is an everyday action that you can take to ensure a pollution-free future.
This article was originally published by the Outrider Post and republished with permission as a part of a partnership between The Rising and the Outrider Foundation.
The Outrider Foundation is a non-profit organization focused on advancing science-based literacy on global risks that affect the well-being of the planet. Content posted on this column has been syndicated from the Outrider Post as a part of a partnership between The Rising and the Outrider Foundation.
The World’s Biggest Brands Commit To Tackling Plastic Pollution, But What Else Can Be Done?
After World War II, the world experienced a plastics boom, with production growing at an exponential rate thanks to the material’s versatility and durability. Plastic touches nearly every aspect of our lives, from the materials used to construct buildings and homes, vehicles, and technology, to household products, clothing, and shoes. It is estimated that we have produced more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic since this time, of which less than 10% is recycled. That’s where the plastic pollution problem comes in.
Many countries in the Global North turned to China to recycle their plastics, but ever since China changed its policy, the United States and many other countries are forced to find other avenues for taking care of their plastic waste and address the plastic pollution crisis back home.
Who is responsible for the crisis and what is being done?
Plastic pollution activists and coalitions have emphasized the responsibility that the world’s largest brands play in addressing this global crisis. Civil society members from more than 80 countries hosted brand audits through clean-ups during the #BrandAudit2019 initiative, calling on these brands to change their practices of manufacturing and selling products in single-use plastic packaging.
Some big brands have taken responsibility for their role in plastic pollution and have taken action. Coca-Cola announced its World Without Waste initiative with the goals to achieve 100% recycled packaging using 50% recycled materials, and by 2030 collect and recycle one bottle or can for every item sold. Unilever made a similar announcement, promising to cut its use of virgin plastics by 50%, and collecting and processing its plastic packaging.
One social enterprise is making it a little bit easier for big brands to shift their single-use plastic packaging practices. TerraCycle recently launched the Loop Store, a global circular shopping platform that allows customers to purchase products in zero waste packaging. Following the “milkman model”, products sold through the Loop Store are stored in reusable containers that are collected, washed, and reused again.
Innovations in tackling plastic pollution
Dutch inventor Boyan Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup, an ambitious project that aimed to collect the massive volume of plastic found in the oceans globally. At 2,000 feet in length, this plastic collection device has successfully collected plastic since its initial trials. Other entrepreneurs are developing products made from plant-based materials, such as utensils made from avocado seeds and creating faux leather using nopal, or producing products that do not require plastic packaging, in efforts to reduce our reliance on products made with plastic.
Consumers, recognizing the power they hold by their purchasing behaviors, are also raising their concerns with companies to change their practices. In a recent petition to Trader Joe’s, customers called on grocery chain to reduce their reliance on plastic packaging, garnering over 120,000 signatures. The company acknowledged this grassroots call for change, providing a status update since their announcement in late 2018.
Conclusions and the future for tackling plastic pollution
While there is hope hearing the world’s biggest brands acknowledge the role they play in and their plans for curbing plastic pollution, it is evident that is not enough. It takes more than a few companies to set green goals in order to move the needle forward. We need to continue holding big brands accountable, foster and support new ideas that open new horizons for plastic packaging and waste, and change our own behaviors to start addressing the global plastic pollution crisis.
Belinda C. Chiu is a public health professional and contributing writer at The Rising. She studied Social and Behavioral Interventions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and is passionate about climate advocacy, sustainable development, and zero waste. She is the founder of A Healthy Blueprint, a resource for individuals looking to reduce their environmental footprint. She serves as Associate on the Youth Engagement team at Women Deliver, a leading global advocacy organization for gender equality and the health and rights of girls and women.
800 climate activists arrested during London’s Extinction Rebellion protests
London’s Metropolitan Police have made nearly 800 arrests this week, targeting climate activists demonstrating in Central London. The protesters, part of the Extinction Rebellion, have blocked roads and public sites such as Trafalgar Square and Westminster Bridge. The group aims to put pressure on the UK government to do more to combat the climate crisis.
But the government has so far criticized the movement, with Boris Johnson publicly insulting the protesters and the Met police arresting hundreds by the day.
The Extinction Rebellion heats up
As protesters continue to congregate, tensions with the police have increased. The police have demanded that protesters contain their demonstrations to Trafalgar Square, attempting to limit the movement’s widespread protests across the city.
Since the protests began on Monday, police have arrested around 800 activists, paralleling the 1,130 Extinction Rebellion arrests made in April.
Despite the crackdown, the demonstrations have been peaceful. From one of 60 participating cities, Londoners have gathered for a two-week long, non-violent occupation of public locations throughout the Westminster borough, where the Houses of Parliament meet.
The crowds represent all sorts, from students to Oxford professors to parents with young children. They’re singing, chanting, sleeping in tents, leading yoga classes, and, at one gathering, even enjoying a live samba band.
Last week, protesters also sprayed nearly 2,000 liters of fake blood on the Treasury building to highlight government hypocrisy. In a statement, the movement criticized the UK’s pride in leading the fight against climate change, despite “pouring vast sums of money into fossil exploration and carbon-intensive projects.”
These actions contribute to the Extinction Rebellion’s ultimate goals. They’re mobilizing to draw attention to the urgent threat of climate change and demand the UK government take action.
The movement has three major demands:
- Tell the Truth. According to Extinction Rebellion UK, the group is demanding their government declare a climate and ecological emergency. In essence, they want the government to acknowledge the dire consequences of climate inaction and take a stand.
- Act now. Secondly, the protesters want the UK government to create stronger initiatives against climate change. They specifically are asking Parliament to stop biodiversity loss and enforce net-zero carbon emissions by 2025, rather than 2050.
- Beyond politics. The Extinction Rebellion also demands an institutional shift that would give more power over climate-related decisions to the British people. They propose the UK government create a Citizens’ Assembly, which would handle decisions about climate and environmental justice.
These demands have encouraged large crowds of supporters and activists. Protesters have stood their ground, despite police attempts to shut down the demonstrations.
“This is our home, our planet, our future, and we are destroying it. The government needs to step up and tell the truth,” one activist remarked.
Another demonstrator, 83-year-old Phil Kingston, spray-painted the UK’s finance ministry building with the message: “Life, not death for my grandchildren.” Kingston was arrested shortly afterwards.
Also among the crowds were George Monbiot, a popular environmental writer and political activist, and former politician Stanley Johnson — Boris Johnson’s father.
The movement faces government backlash
Despite the peaceful nature of these protests, the UK government has not taken a liking for these displays of civil disobedience.
The UK’s new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, called the protesters “uncooperative crusties,” highlighting his disdain for citizens who exercise their right to assemble and disapprove of their government’s actions — or rather, inaction.
Funnily enough, Johnson’s father, Stanley Johnson, embraced the title. “I regard it as a tremendous compliment to be called an uncooperative crusty,” he said to a protester crowd at Trafalgar Square.
Donning an Extinction Rebellion pin, he continued: “From tiny acorns, big movements spring. We have been moving far too slowly on the climate change issue.”
Despite its humor, the insult pinpoints the current resistance of Parliament to enact real change.
And with police arresting protesters by the dozens, the government’s distaste for these climate activists has real consequences.
Yet, in spite — or maybe because — of hundreds of their fellow activists facing arrests, the Extinction Rebellion is going strong. For them, the time is now.
Meet Activist Autumn Peltier: The Young “Water Warrior” Making A Splash
Autumn Peltier, one of many young voices against the climate crisis, is stirring up a storm. Indeed, we are witnessing a mass, youth-led movement against climate change. From the recent UN Youth Climate Summit to the Zero Hour movement, young people are uniting in a common cause. And they’re demanding our attention.
They’re fighting for environmental justice. For governments to take a stand against climate change. And most importantly, for their futures. At the front line of this battle is Autumn Peltier, an international advocate for clean water.
Who is Autumn Peltier?
Autumn Peltier is a 15-year-old, indigenous, clean water activist. She’s a member of the Wikwemikong First Nation in northern Ontario. She lives on Lake Huron, one of North America’s Great Lakes — the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth.
It follows that growing up, Peltier always had access to clean water. But Peltier knows that others are not so lucky.
“We keep seeing and hearing that there’s First Nation communities that can’t drink their water, that it’s contaminated from pollution and pipelines breaking,” she told a reporter at CBC. “One day it really affected me and I actually cried about it.”
After this revelation, Peltier began to advocate for the universal right of clean drinking water — at just eight years old. She learned from her aunt, Josephine Mandamin, who also worked to protect Canada’s water. Mandamin walked the shores of the Great Lakes to advocate and raise awareness for water conservation.
Following those footsteps, Peltier has broken major ground for indigenous water rights. An official “water protector,” she fights for universal clean drinking water. Specifically, she advocates for safe waterways and drinking water for indigenous peoples in Canada and beyond.
“Water is one of the most sacred elements in our culture,” she said.
Peltier’s important strides
Even at such a young age, Peltier has already done a lot to raise awareness of water rights and ensure communities have access to safe drinking water. Notably, she met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016. She, in tears, insisted he do more to prevent Canadian communities from consuming unsafe water. The Prime Minister had endorsed several pipeline projects, endangering First Nation communities.
Because of these pipelines, over 100 indigenous communities received boil water advisories. These government issued advisories indicate that a community’s drinking water could be contaminated with pathogens and is not safe to drink without first boiling it.
Peltier has also brought her message to the international community.
In 2015, she attended the Children’s Climate Conference in Sweden. And in 2017, she received a nomination for the Children’s International Peace Prize.
In 2018, Peltier traveled to the UN General Assembly in New York. There, she addressed the UN on water rights, as part of the commencement of the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development.
Peltier speaks at the United Nations
“Water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth,” she told the UN. “Our water should not be for sale. We all have a right to this water as we need it.”
Just last week, Peltier returned to the UN. This time, she spoke at the Global Landscapes Forum, which focuses on sustainability of land.
In her speech, she stressed the alarming number of indigenous communities lacking clean water, and how little has been done.
“All across these lands, we know somewhere where someone can’t drink the water,” she said.
“Why so many, and why have they gone without for so long?”
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