In the 1967 film “The Graduate,” Mr. McGuire offers sage business advice to young Ben: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word: Plastics.”
That one word, uttered during the turbulence of the late 1960s, symbolized the emerging trend of a society looking for better, cheaper and more versatile.
Plastics became far more than a handy manufacturing product. It became a behemoth industry and a way of life across the globe. Virtually any product, from cups and bottles to cars, is made with plastic. The endless array of uses has made it attractive to countless industries. Plastics have replaced everything from wood to metal and glass because it’s cheaper and quicker to produce, and easy to use.
But the explosion of this synthetic, non-biodegradable product is endangering the world’s ecological balance.
It’s also very directly endangering our health.
Today, though, a new trend is emerging. The anti-plastic industry is real and growing. Entrepreneurs and related industries are looking to cash in. From recycling to an ever-expanding portfolio of plastic-substitute products, there are growing opportunities today to counter Mr. McGuire’s assertion.
In the meantime, though, the problem is clear: Virtually every piece of plastic that enters our lives is still here. It’s in landfills leaching toxins that cannot be absorbed by the Earth, or it is tiny particles swirling in oceans. Think about your first set of Magic Markers. That ChapStick tube from sixth grade. The straw from the soda you enjoyed while watching your first movie. The plastic in those products still exists today.
Most plastic does not biodegrade — ever. It photo-degrades. The combined action of sunlight, wind and water break down the material into teeny particles. But those particles stay put for 450 to 1,000 years, according to Postconsumers.com.
The bits are microscopic, yes. Decomposed? No. Safe? No.
OCEANS: PLASTICS’ GRAVEYARD
More alarming, since it is increasing at dramatic pace, is ocean contamination. Plastic waste pours into the seas at the rate of one garbage truck every minute, according to a study by the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company. The study says this number is on track to double by 2030.
Fish eat the plastic as it breaks down into smaller pieces. Then, we eat that fish. Between 12,000 and 24,000 tons of plastic end up in fish in the north Pacific Ocean alone, The New York Times reported. Moreover, each year, over 1 million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals die from ingesting or being entangled in plastic, the Center for Biological Diversity reported. On the current track, according to the Davos Report by the World Economic Forum, oceans will contain, by weight, more plastic than fish by 2050.
The World Economic Forum has estimated there are 5 trillion individual pieces of plastic, weighing 268,000 tons, in our oceans today. There are now five such clusters, swirling convergences that are high in plastic concentration, according to the 5 Gyres Institute.
The waste enters the oceans via streams, rivers, drainage and all manner of marine vessels, fishing and shoreline activities. The frightening thing? Looking at the water surface, there’s no indication you’re in an ocean garbage patch. It’s not visible ocean plastic that threatens to choke the planet. Those microscopic particles become as small as a grain of salt. Fish eat them, mistaking them for plankton. The fish then die of starvation, toxicity or choking. Seventy percent of the man-made waste that enters the ocean sinks to the bottom.
Project Kaisei, the ocean clean-up initiative of Ocean Voyages Institute, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, estimates that the visible plastic soup is only 30 percent of the debris that floats.
Micro plastics are the teeny tiny killers in the ocean. The damage is vast. There are an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in every square mile of the ocean, the United Nations Environment Program reported. Scientists predict plastic will be found in 99 percent of seabirds by 2050. This suffocating material is everywhere. Plastic chemicals were found under 30 feet of ice in the Antarctic, a place not even inhabited by humans, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Each year, over 1 million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals die from ingesting or being entangled in plastic, says the Center For Biological Diversity.
A fish the size of a forefinger was found to have 84 pieces of plastic in its tiny gut. Captain Charles Moore discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997. He continues to study plastic pollution in the ocean through his Algalita Marine Research and Education Foundation. That small fish was one of hundreds in one study found to have ingested plastic fragments. And, of course, we eat the fish that survive long enough to be caught.
We are literally eating our plastic waste.
HEALTH RISKS INCREASING
The Harvard School of Public Health said that hundreds of animal studies point to potential health dangers, including cancer and infertility from exposure in the uterus before birth from BPA, a synthetic hormone that mimics estrogen. It’s present in 18 out of 20 of the linings of the most popular canned foods, as well as plastic bottles and many other food containers. It’s also in the thermal paper used for cash-register receipts.
Studies by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention show that over 90 percent of those over age 6 have BPA in their system.
Americans buy 50 billion water bottles a year, and some 38 billion end up in landfills or oceans, according to the organization Ban The Bottle. In landfills, they leach toxic chemicals into soil and streams, poisoning ecosystems and harming wildlife. Much of this water is just purified tap water. PepsiCo’s AquaFina and Coca-Cola’s Dasani comprised almost 20 percent of the market in 2016.
Indeed, plastics is good business. Production continues to surge: In 1964, three years before “The Graduate” hit movie screens, 15 million tons of plastic were produced. In 2014, it was 311 million tons. It’s expected to double again in the next 20 years.
THE ANTI-PLASTIC TREND RISES
But an anti-plastic trend is emerging, showing signs of growth while exciting innovations are on the rise.
For example, the fast-spreading global acceptance of hemp as a natural healer and the source of numerous environmentally sound products is about to impact the plastics industry. Hemp, as a biodegradable replacement for plastics, will emerge strong as the hemp industry gains wider acceptance and expands.
Hemp plastics are made from the stalk of the plant, and its versatility and strength has been long known. Even Henry Ford used hemp-and-sisal cellulose plastic to construct car doors and other parts as early as 1941. And today, advances in producing biodegradable, toxins-free material to replace plastics are increasingly coming to market.
Demand is growing for other alternatives as well. Ecovative Design makes packaging from mushroom mycelium that can replace Styrofoam. Dell already is using it, and Ikea is making plans to. Ecovative is also developing mushroom insulation and acoustics, as well as furniture. Others are exploring seaweed for the new wave of plastic-free products and packaging.
These plastic-replacement innovators are appealing to eco-minded consumers, especially in Europe, who are shopping at new bulk sale/no-packaging stores. Elsewhere, California voted in the nation’s first statewide ban on plastic bags in November 2016. More people are beginning to think twice before bringing home plastic bottles, straws and excessive plastic packaging. Innovative companies are producing creative alternatives that appeal to those hungry for new ways to manage life with much less plastic.
This is why those entrepreneurs and related industries can cash in.
More and more consumers are looking beyond recycling to find plastic substitutes for products they use every day. While recycling has evolved into a cultural norm, recycling simply means our plastic has a second go-around before poisoning the earth, choking oceans and affecting all life on the planet. It is a dangerous to believe that just because we toss a plastic bottle into a recycling bin that we have substantially mitigated the damage. While recycling, as a lifestyle and an industry, is here to stay, the emergence of plastic alternatives is a strong and maturing trend.
“We have a choice as consumers, and we can refuse to be force-fed any more plastic,” says Claire Le Guern of the organization CoastalCare.org, a nonprofit dedicated to defending beaches and shorelines. “Change starts with education and knowledge. When people know and understand, they start to change, to care, to take action, whether they are in kindergarten or a Ph.D. professor. Once you reach even one or two people and you open their eyes to what this wheel of consumerism is doing, you are helping to reverse the demand — and that is the only thing that will change the course now.”
The average American family takes home 1,500 plastic bags a year from groceries. Two million are used every minute around the world. They take between 500 and 1,000 years to biodegrade. The emerging trend here: Plastic-bag bans are on the rise. In California, the nation’s first statewide plastic bag ban was approved by voters in November 2016. Local bans have eliminated over 5 billion plastic shopping bags per year and all the resulting litter and waste — 66 million pounds of plastic, says the organization Californians Against Waste.
Americans use 500 million drinking straws every day. The National Park Service has estimated this equates to each person in the US using about 38,000 straws between the ages of 5 and 65. It has calculated that the straws would fill over 125 school buses with straws every day, totaling 46,400 school buses every year.
Organizations like The Be Straw Free campaign connects members of the food and beverage industry, businesses, schools, environmental groups and concerned citizens, and gives them a platform to advocate for smarter straw usage and waste reduction. The goal is to reduce straw disposal across the nation by offering the choice of a straw, but never providing one unless requested. If you need straws at home, there are plenty of non-plastic choices like stainless steel, bamboo, glass and of course, paper.
And then there are the plastics purposely manufactured to be tiny.
“Washing your face, brushing your teeth and scrubbing your body can be an act of pollution,” says the website www.beatthemicrobead.org.
Microbeads are added to cosmetics to give the consumer an exfoliating sensation. In fact, microbeads are used in hundreds of products like toothpaste, soap and many exfoliating scrubs.
They are designed to wash down drains, but are so small that they aren’t caught by water-treatment plants. Of course, they end up in the fish as well. There are more than 8 trillion microbeads entering aquatic habitats every day in the US alone, according to a study published in Environmental Science & Technology.
And that brings us back to Mr. McGuire and “The Graduate.” His sage business advice about plastics was on trend then, and it lasted for decades. Now, it’s yielding to plastic alternatives, with a broad array of money-making opportunities that’ll also help the environment… and health overall. TJ