not even a see-through sleeve for my name tag
May 12, 2024 6:26 PM   Subscribe

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere — Even at the UN’s “Plastic Free” Conference. From the moment I landed in Ottawa, the counter-argument of the plastics industry was inescapable, from wall-sized ads at the airport to billboards on trucks that cruised around the downtown convention center. Their message? Curtailing plastic production would spell literal doom. "These plastics deliver water" on an ad depicting a girl drinking from a bottle in what was implied to be a disaster zone.
posted by spamandkimchi (32 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
And this!
I sat down with John Chweya, a friendly man in a leather jacket who makes a living as a waste picker in Kenya. A single salad at the conference cost more than a day’s pay.

As president of the Waste Pickers Association of Kenya, he wanted delegates to understand how plastic impacts the millions around the world who collect garbage and sort the recyclables they can sell in places without formal waste disposal. Toxic fumes from plastic burning in landfills make his fellow workers sick, he told me. They wake up with swollen necks, joints that don’t work and mysterious tumors. Chweya wants the world to make less plastic; he came to Ottawa to fight for protective gear and health care.
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:32 PM on May 12 [18 favorites]


Plastic is a disaster and most of modern commerce and certainly most of modern medicine is based on it. I'd love to see it eliminated from much of the modern shopping experience. Unfortunately our glass recycling programs have gone to shit in the age of plastic, so what should be a pretty straightforward process has no true developed processing pipeline.

Meanwhile, basically no plastic is recyclable in any meaningful way. Why are we using this stuff again?
posted by hippybear at 6:38 PM on May 12 [8 favorites]


Greenwashing...
posted by jim in austin at 8:47 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


Among other things, eliminating single-use plastic is going to involve a shift in labour that capitalism isn’t going to be happy about. My family and I have been working on it. One example is I bake my own bread, which I keep in a breadbox. This weekend I was making tea sandwiches for a Mother’s Day celebration so I went to the bakery and I took clean fabric bags - which I had to wash first and remember to bring. I pack lunches with homemade muffins rather than buy granola bars or packaged cookies, etc.

One of my local non-chain grocery stores used to have a real butcher counter. When we were eating meat I shopped there partly because they wrapped meat in the old school butcher paper. It would leak and I would wash the bag again. More to the point, post-pandemic they had trouble hiring ppl to work the counter, so now they’ve given it up and pack meat on trays wrapped in plastic.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:51 PM on May 12 [11 favorites]


Plastic is hidden everywhere and hides behind a lot of other words. I've dug into paint and other coatings professionally and most of them are plastic. Very few people think of them as plastic though and plenty of people have put effort into cutting down their visible plastic use only to put a few buckets of future microplastic over their house in the form of paint.

Varnish - plastic. Acrylic paint - plastic. Powdercoat - plastic. Resin - plastic. Enamel paint - plastic. Spray paint - plastic. Floor paint - plastic. Coating for your deck if it builds a film - probably plastic. High-tech-sounding-word paint/coating - plastic. Essentially the entire catalogue of any mainstream paint company - plastic.

If you use it outside it's mostly worn away in 20 years, which means it's microplastic in your garden and local creek.

Paint appears as the largest source of microplastic leakage into the Ocean & Waterways (1.9 Mt/year), outweighing all other sources of microplastic leakage (e.g. textiles fibres and tyre dust).

From here.
posted by deadwax at 9:11 PM on May 12 [35 favorites]


OK but if you think of plastics as building coatings you really need to do a thorough techo-economic analysis. Lifetime of wood with and without coating; cost of harvesting wood; cost of producing coating; environmental impact of coating degradation products... It's very, very complex.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:14 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


Absolutely no argument from me, it is very complex and I've spent much of my professional life thinking about timber and how it works. It's not though that I think of building coatings as plastics, it's that they are plastics, as a matter of chemistry. How you and I think about that and whether we analyse it or not doesn't change that.

At least in the context of timber the use of plastic paint looks to be a matter of ease and profit as much as anything and it's not uncommonly detrimental to the timber. I did a job the other day where I found myself looking at a house that was suffering badly from the paint as a plastic bag effect where way too much UV stabilised acrylic paint has been used to try and keep water out of timber that was in need of some more appropriate maintenance. Instead it kept the water in and that timber is now the consistency and resilience of a sponge. If it was 100 years ago and they'd used a linseed oil paint I wouldn't be looking at that problem (though the lead would be another matter).

So yeah it's complex and worth study but it's not like some actions that would reduce plastic use are difficult and I think "is this plastic or not" deserves to be on the checklist that informs product choice. It's not at the moment.
posted by deadwax at 11:00 PM on May 12 [30 favorites]


Just for the bottle example, Italy has these tiny glass bottles of bitter soda, 8oz, maybe 6. And I recall the glass bottles from my childhood, max 16oz. I think I'd be utterly terrified of a 32 or 64oz gigantic glass bottle. I guess my observation is that this will take a massive cultural/corporate/regulatory shift. Heck I can envision some areas enforcement needed to bring in national guard in certain areas. Hmm mebe just bomb some plastic factories?
posted by sammyo at 12:30 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


And wrapping in plastic does make sanitation more effective and easy, so huge pushback from the health industry.
posted by sammyo at 12:31 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


OMG, question: how much of disposable dippers are a form of plastic? Push back from ALL young parents!
posted by sammyo at 12:32 AM on May 13


hippybear: > Unfortunately our glass recycling programs have gone to shit in the age of plastic, so what should be a pretty straightforward process has no true developed processing pipeline.

Sorry, what does this mean? And do you mean locally or globally?

> Meanwhile, basically no plastic is recyclable in any meaningful way.

Would you consider reusing PET (which is more and more common in my neck of the woods) to be meaningful? PET bottles are simply made into new PET bottles here.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:18 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I was put up at the Holiday Inn in Thailand for work for a week, and I was pleasantly surprised at how they handled the complimentary water for the guests. There were 6 glass bottles of water in the room, and when room service came they took away the empty bottles and replaced them with new ones. The glass bottles came with the usual steel / aluminium metal cap with styrofoam liner seal like the old soda bottles used to.

It was extremely hot and humid, I drank a lot of water. Imagine 6 bottles per day. 30 hotel rooms per floor, and there were two 20 story hotel towers.

I'm hoping they had an onsite (or at least close-by) facility to sanitize and cap the bottles. I heard that the transition from glass to plastic was at least partially driven by the increased cost of transportation - glass is heavy, and while in theory you're reducing plastic waste by using glass, you're burning more fossil fuels to transport them both ways.
posted by xdvesper at 1:24 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


Rather than thinking of ten thousand edge cases, can we remember that most plastic in the world is not being used to complicated edge cases but out of convenience because that convenience was pushed on us by the plastics industry. Right now in places where the tap water is perfectly drinkable, people are buying water in plastic bottles for no particular reason and those plastic bottles are not being recycled. And right now, for no particular reason, people are purchasing things in plastic bags that are not being recycled. Where tap water is drinkable, people can just drink tap water. Where tap water isn't drinkable, technology can and should be upgraded for a million reasons. People can bring their own damn bags to the store, as folks all over the word have done for millenia.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:58 AM on May 13 [28 favorites]


Why are we using this stuff again?
posted by hippybear


Exxon 's strategy to remain solvent, since 2020, is plastics, CCS/ waste injection, and hydrogen.

Oil companies dislike any climate activism, and plastics, more than other gas uses, have an extreme carbon foot print.

UT Austin and U of Houston 'energy' departments speak about these plans more openly.
posted by eustatic at 5:04 AM on May 13 [10 favorites]


Well put on the edge casesHydropsyche. There is no reason we could reduce 80% of plastic use now and leave the other 20% of later.

On a personal note. it seems like the public discourse on draw use has died down, but I think clear plastic cups are just as bad. In the last 3 years in my office I have been reused 3 different plastic cup for about a year each for water, first one was from subway, second one was from Dublin, third and current one was from a coffee shop. Straws that are only use 5 minutes are certainly wasteful, but the whole cup could be use a lot more.
posted by CostcoCultist at 6:27 AM on May 13


I have a friend who works in a business with a plastics recycling department . A few years ago somebody brought the product - a lump of recycled plastic - into the office. It stank so badly they had to remove it from the room. I think the plan is to use it as berms for trains - coincidentally one of the few places where people won’t be able to smell it.
posted by The River Ivel at 8:12 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


I had a friend in college some tens of years ago - we both got work/study jobs in one of the lab buildings, and at one point he was grinding up PET 2-liter soda bottles. He said parking-lot curb-bumpers and maybe park benches were all they had come up with so far.
posted by Rat Spatula at 8:28 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Re healthcare use: Every 2 months, I get the same prescription which comes in 2 plastic bottles. At the end of the year, I have 12 empty plastic bottles - which I have no option but to throw in the bin or add to the recycling (where they will probably still go to landfill).

I am not legally allowed to take my bottles back to the pharmacy to be refilled - not even with my own prescription again. My pills could be easily packed in a little paper bag which I then put in my childproof bottle at home (of which I have several, because they are just fine from the last time). I think pills all used to come this way.

I understand the complexities of plastic in healthcare - having had a lot of blood tests and other services in the last few years, I have seen the use of one-time use plastics to maintain sterility.

But we are also not even thinking about solutions. My pills don't need to be sterile - they go from the pharmacy bottle into a weekly counter-box anyways. But I have asked: by law, they cannot re-use my bottles even for me.

I haven't asked about getting them in paper bags. I suspect it wouldn't be allowed - but I should ask. I am just skeptical because change seems so impossible right now.
posted by jb at 8:43 AM on May 13 [9 favorites]


My pills could be easily packed in a little paper bag which I then put in my childproof bottle at home (of which I have several, because they are just fine from the last time).

This drives me crazy! We get very small bottles of allergy medicine, OTC. It's the smallest package that we get in terms of bottle to pills ratio. And even those only fill about 1/4" of the 1.5" bottle. Why? And I decant most pills into smaller bottles that are far more convenient. So nakedly wasteful.
posted by amanda at 8:56 AM on May 13


jb and amanda, at least at Korean pharmacies, they will dispense pills in little plastic sachets, which seems at least somewhat better than the full-on plastic pill bottle + can, in terms of actual material usage. The packets also, super conveniently, are divided into daily dosages (or times per day dosages) so you just need to rip open one for all of your prescribed pills instead of 5 separate bottles. I've also gotten prescription strength Tylenol dispensed to me in little plastic resealable bags in Korea (think old school weed dime bag).
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:04 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


This is timely as I just got back from Japan that is just as awash in unnecessary plastics as it was when I lived there over 20 years ago. Supposedly in 2020 they started charging for plastic bags at stores, which is great, but also now these capsule toy vending machine shops are all over the place (why??) and of course every item comes in a pointless plastic sphere.
posted by antinomia at 11:34 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


FYI for people who are in Ann Arbor MI, Baltimore MD, Portland OR, Richmond VA.
SCRAP Creative Reuse network is in your city! This is where I bring my colorful bottle caps, bread tags, and yes, empty pill bottles. They run kids crafternoons, adult programs, etc, and while it doesn't address the production problem, it at least diverts some of the plastic waste into creative reuse. Of course, kids art projects will eventually get tossed in most cases, but at least they weren't made with brand-new materials!

And check if there's something similar in your city...
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:54 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Sorry, what does this mean? And do you mean locally or globally?

The Coca-Cola company used to have a national program of bottle deposits for glass bottles that was really truly a gigantic success. And we used to have all kinds of similar programs everywhere.

Like I don't know what the solution is. rPET has a degraded performance from first generation PET, and I don't even know what the third or fourth generation is like.

Glass accounts for something like 5% of all the waste that goes into landfills in the US. I guess the good part of this is that it will never decompose and generate methane. But, like, that's a lot.

How do we institute a system of sales that has people buying things in glass jars or bottles, consuming the contents, and then dropping off their empties to be reused? I have no idea. But glass has been denigrated as a recyclable product in the US to the point that many municipalities are no longer accepting it, mainly because they have nowhere to send the collected product for processing.

I seem to remember there was a movement for people to take their own containers in for beverages at fast food joints a few years ago that was kiboshed because putting a foreign, cleanliness-status container under a soda fountain was considered a health violation. So, have another beverage cup rather than using your thing.

We are illogical about so many things. Plastic is a problem that needs to be solved, desperately.
posted by hippybear at 4:28 PM on May 13


glass has been denigrated as a recyclable product in the US to the point that many municipalities are no longer accepting it, mainly because they have nowhere to send the collected product for processing.

Thanks for clarifiying.

Here in the Netherlands, glass is collected everywhere you go. But it's rather inefficient to break bottles and jars and then melt them into new ones. Some organisations are looking into standard sizes for jars so they can be collected and reused as-is, the way we do with beer bottles.

With beer bottles, the system works so well that most manufacturers use it as a matter of course, with no regulation telling them to, just because it's cheap and efficient.

The farm where we buy our milk used to have glass bottles, but recently they switched to PET because the system was inefficient on such a small scale. I think scale is key.
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:49 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Thanks for clarifiying.

I mean, you could have done a web search for "glass recycling in the US" and gotten a bunch of links that would have told you the story in a way that would have been much more full than my tiny sentence in this comment stream could possibly illustrate.
posted by hippybear at 4:21 PM on May 14


The thing you learn when you try to warn yourself off of plastic is not that it is ubiquitous in the products you buy. You learn that plastic is embodied labour. For every article plastic you give up, you or someone you pay has to assume a job. Do you wrap your cheese in disposable cling wrap or these new beeswax cheese cloths? If you use the reusable cheese cloth, then you need to wash it after each use and reapply the wax every 6-8 months. That doesn't appear to take too much time but, after our long, exhausting days, who has energy to do that job? Plastic helps supercharge productivity by replacing a lot of otherwise costly labour. Who else fears that the only way of getting rid of plastics is to acquire a new underclass of indentured labourers?
posted by SnowRottie at 6:26 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


I put my cheese in a plastic box. I've been using the same box for over 10 years. I wash it in the dishwasher between hunks of cheese, which probably means it is releasing some microplastics to the wastewater, which we should definitely be working on a solution for at the waste water treatment plant. I suppose my box will eventually wear out. I'd probably easily switch then to Pyrex with a plastic lid. Or maybe we'll have some good non-petroleum based bioplastics by then. No, it's not a perfect solution. But it's better than using a new plastic baggie or wrap for every single hunk of cheese.

We're talking about eliminating plastic that is just for convenience and completely wasteful. Washing my own grocery bags and cheese containers is not creating a new underclass of indentured laborers.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:25 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, basically no plastic is recyclable in any meaningful way. Why are we using this stuff again?

This line of inquiry ends up "What have the Romans ever done for us?" pretty quickly. If you're serious about answering the question of why we are using this stuff.

Rather than thinking of ten thousand edge cases, can we remember that most plastic in the world is not being used to complicated edge cases but out of convenience because that convenience was pushed on us by the plastics industry.

The edge cases add up pretty quickly. Your soda bottles are easy to spot. The plastics that literally surround you right now in virtually every product and structure are remarkably easy to overlook.

Among other things, eliminating single-use plastic is going to involve a shift in labour that capitalism isn’t going to be happy about.

I wish MF would stop with the "capitalism is like XXX" nonsense. Capitalism doesn't get happy or sad. And if all plastic were somehow outlawed right now, capitalism would be the mechanism by which everything will be replaced, or attempted to be replaced. Likely at increased cost. Which will probably also be blamed on capitalism, despite being in the attempt to pivot for the good of the environment.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:45 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I don t think what Exxon needs is to sustain existing levels of plastic consumption, which is what people are talking about. What Exxon needs is to radically increase world consumption of plastic, globally.

So yes, stop using plastic, and also resist new uses of plastic that are coming
posted by eustatic at 5:40 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


A few years ago Kurtis Baute (https://www.youtube.com/@ScopeofScience) did a funny little video showing how much plastic is in our day to day lives: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgD9ItnBQsA . It's a gimmick but shows how much plastic especially durable plastics are in our domestic lives, the more you look around you the more you see. But just reducing single use disposable stuff like bags, bottles and wrappers would be a big step. Instead of burning and throwing away those valuable fossil fuels we could be reserving them for making the really useful durable products in our lives (and finding a way to usefully recycle that stuff would be truly amazing).
posted by thefool at 6:18 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I found this PBS Terra video a good overview of how the plastics industry masterfully halted the attempt to ban/restrict single-use/nonreturnable plastics and shifted responsibility from producers to end consumers.

I also recently learned that Germany since 2003 has had a pretty strong bottle deposit return scheme.
posted by coolname at 9:22 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]




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