Let's face it. We're all deeply involved with plastic. Look around your home or office and count the number of items that contain plastics. From a manufacturing perspective, it's almost the perfect product: moldable, waterproof, flexible, long lasting (although that depends to an enormous degree on the item in question, the type of polymer).
Economists yesterday were cheering about Dow's announcement of enormous profits
from the sale of plastic wrap and plastics for cellphones and other gadgets. But as a chemist at Bill McDonough's (Cradle to Cradle) office pointed out to me recently, not all plastics are created equal.
Most plastic, contrary to what you may think, is not recycled--only about 6.8 percent, according to Discover
. It either languishes in landfills, or worse, may make it's way to waterways, or end up in the Pacific Gyre
, the nightmarish swirling mass of discarded plastic that is growing like a cancer in the Pacific ocean.
About 70 percent of our plastics are made from domestic fossil fuels. Did you happen to notice what's happening in the Gulf of Mexico this week? That disastrous oil spill
isn't the fault of plastic manufacturers. But we all bear some blame--every time we buy a pre-packaged salad or unwrap an overpackaged, plastic-wrapped pallet of windows.
So what's the solution? That we stop using plastics? Obviously, that's not going to happen right away. But a change in the plastic culture is clearly needed. My suggestions for both manufacturers and consumers.
* Use it Again. Reduction and reuse of packaging. Manufacturers could make pallet wrap removable and reusable. This will mean accepting used wrap back at the plant, and offering a small recovery incentive to end users who participate.
* Make it Hurt. This tactic is already in play in many municipalities, including my own, here in Maine. If I don't recycle my plastic, I have to pay ever increasing fee for putting it into the landfill.
* Add Consumer Caveats. Why not label plastics with information labels, telling consumers where to recycle them, and what will happen to the plastics if they don't manage them responsibly?
Now here are a couple of ideas for Dow--something constructive to do with all that surging income from sale of plastics.
* Change to Bio-Based Plastics. New R&D is underway on corn-based polymers and other materials that may replace polymer plastics. Polymers don't break down naturally, so they're essentially toxic to the natural world. It's time for plastics that are truly biodegradable--that break down into natural molecules. It looks like Cargill Dow is already working on this problem.
But it's time to move faster.
* Clean Up the Gyre
The Pacific Gyre is an immense source of already produced plastics. It can't simply be ignored. Companies making a profit from these non-degradable products have a responsibility to help deal with their mess. I'm betting someone will figure out how to turn a profit at the same time by harvesting some of that 26 million square kilometers of debris, containing about 100 million tons of plastic.
Posted: 4/29/2010 6:58:24 AM by
Matt Power | with 0 comments