The Problem With Plastic
How The Story of Stuff Project thinks about our plastic – and its solutions.
For too long, the public conversation around plastic has been narrowly focused on plastic waste in the ocean. While marine debris is indeed a serious part of the problem, this limited focus leaves too much of the story untold.
Plastic isn’t just a problem when it enters the environment as waste. Rather, plastic pollutes at every step of its life:
Extraction – Plastic is made from fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and even coal. As demand for fossil fuels as an energy source declines relative to production, plastic production represents a lifeline for the fossil fuel industry. All of the problems of fossil fuel extraction and transportation – from oil spills to groundwater pollution – come along for the ride.
Production – Converting fossil fuels into plastic feedstocks requires large chemical processing plants which emit a variety of pollutants into the air. These plants tend to be situated in low-income communities, which lack the resources or political capital to fight back. These communities face higher rates of disease as a result of their exposure to pollutants from nearby plants.
Consumption – Many plastics contain chemical additives which can leach back out of the material, getting into our food, our water, and ultimately our bodies. For example, BPA, an endocrine disruptor that can cause big problem particularly for young people, is found in many types of plastic commonly used for food storage.
Disposal – Plastic stays around for hundreds of years or more. Unfortunately, only 9% of the plastic every produced gets recycled; the majority ends up in landfills or in the environment. In fact, 8 million tons of plastic enter our waterways each year. All that plastic is starting to show up in unexpected (and unwelcome) places, from our tap water to our food. The “smog” of microplastics in our ocean is smothering the small organisms that make up the base of the food chain, and could have serious implications for our food systems.
In addition to this wholistic view of plastic’s impact on people and the planet, our campaigns and communications are founded on four key understandings:
There is too much plastic in the system. Half of all plastic ever produced was made in the last 13 years. Plastic production globally continues to increase, with the plastic industry projecting 75% growth in the production of polyethylene (one of the most common types of plastic) in the US by 2022. Much of that growth is in single-use plastic with no recycled content. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. To reduce the consequences of plastic production and disposal, we must reduce the amount of plastic being produced.
Not all plastic is created equal. Some plastic is used to create long-lasting, durable goods. Some plastics have a high recycling value, making them far more likely to be recycled again and again. But much of the plastic in our economy has low or no value, meaning that it can’t be economically recycled and is therefore far more likely to end up in landfills or the environment.
Producers are bear ultimate responsibility for plastic pollution. We have been led to think that plastic pollutions is the product of careless litterbugs. While that may be true in certain countries with developed waste and recycling infrastructure, the majority of plastic waste entering the environment comes from developing nations in the global South. Despite the lack of established systems to manage plastic waste, multinational corporations like Nestlé, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson continue to dump huge volumes of low-value plastic into this region despite knowing full well where that plastic will end up. While they pocket the profits, we are all left to deal with the waste.
Solutions exist, and groups around the world are fighting for and implementing them. Although there is no singular magic bullet or one-size-fits-all solution, a growing movement of changemakers from around the world are building and scaling strategic, culturally-responsive solutions to the plastic problem. From local bans on no-value plastic like plastic bags and styrofoam take-out containers, to brand audits that identify problematic products for redesign, a rich tapestry of solutions hold the promise of a future free from plastic pollution.