How to survive the Plastic Apocalypse

 

Here is the script of the video for your reading pleasure. 

 

Plastic! You know the stuff stuff is made out of. We make almost everything with plastic: From packaging, to vehicles, even celebrities. The list of items is longer than Kim Kardashian’s real nose. 

Before the 20th century, there was pretty much no plastic anywhere. Now there’s pretty much no place without it. We’ve been inundated with plastic and it’s only getting worse. It’s filling our oceans, it’s in our food, it’s harming our wildlife, it’s even in our rain.

In this video, we’ll discuss the scope of the plastic problem, how we got here and how we can maybe, juuust maybe survive the plastic apocalypse. 

Welcome to The Gigawut, where we answer the big environmental questions without all the sad. 

First, what is plastic? 

Plastics are synthetic organic polymers. Synthetic: Meaning they’re created in laboratory conditions. Organic: meaning they contain carbon. And polymers: meaning they’re long chains of molecules. 99% of all plastics are created by fossil fuels, the leftover molecules of long dead life, which is kind of mind blowing when you think about it. A toy dinosaur may have once been an actual dinosaur.

The first synthetic plastic was Bakelite or as you may know it polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride.  

Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland named the new substance after himself in 1907, marketing it as the material of a thousand uses. That turned out to be a huge underestimate.

Flash forward to the 1950 and 60s and America’s post-war economic boom rode a wave of plastic innovation created by the petrochemical industry, which led to lots of pollution. That was the beginning of the end.

But it’s not like we can just ban plastics. They’re actually one of the most useful things we’ve ever created, which is why it’s in everything. 

Medicine would be set back decades without plastic, everything from syringes, to IVs, to MRIs. 

Planes and cars would need to burn way more fuel without the added lightness of plastics. Most cars are now about 50% plastic by volume. 

Plastic revolutionized food storage, saving billions of pounds of food from spoiling every year. This in a world where we already waste a third of our food, while 9 million people die a year from malnutrition and related illnesses. But that’s another video! 

Even the much maligned plastic bag is so energy efficient compared to reusable cotton bags, you’d have to use your cotton bag over 7000 times to equal one plastic bag. That number rises to 20,000 if it’s organic cotton. Why? Well, cotton may biodegrade but it takes a lot of water and greenhouse gasses to process.

Plastic is lightweight, water proof, infinitely malleable, durable and extremely cheap. 

It’s often much cheaper, faster and higher quality to create “virgin” plastic than to recycle it.

And that’s why it’s piling up faster than balled up tissues under a 13-year-old boy’s mattress.

It’s estimated that we’ve produced more than 8.3 billion metric tons of virgin plastic. 6.3 billion tons of that plastic ended up in landfills or in the natural environment.

That’s over 120,000 Titanics worth

Now, I plan to do a future video on recycling… but sneak peak, if you’re a child of the 90s like me, let me just say, Recycle Rex was wrong. 

Only 9% of plastic gets recycled globally, and of that 9%, only 10% of it ends up being recycled more than once. You can’t close the loop. The loop is a lie! That’s the whole problem!

Plastic use is only increasing as the world’s economy grows. About 407 million metric tons of virgin plastic was created in 2015 alone. To put that into perspective, the total biomass of every human on Earth is estimated at about 60 million tonnes. On a human scale, that means for every 100 pounds of human being in the world, 678 pounds of plastic was created. Again, that’s just in 2015! Think of every year going forward.

If things continue as they are, it’s expected that over 12 billion tons of plastic will be sitting in landfills or clogging up our waterways by 2050. That’s the plastic apocalyptic future we have to look forward to, to say nothing of catastrophic climate change, which is actually like a thousand times scarier. 

I don’t know about you, but that’s super depressing and I need something to pick me back up. 

Okay, let’s keep going! 

In some places it feels like the plastic apocalypse is already here. Ocean plastic in particular has become a hot topic in the last couple of years, with images of suffering animals being shared online. Personally, I can’t watch those anymore, and I’m sure you don’t want to see them either. So in case you missed it, I’ll reenact them for you.

*mimes removing straw from turtle’s nose* 

You’ve probably heard of the great pacific garbage patch, often falsely reported as an island of floating garbage twice the size of Texas. In reality, it’s far worse. First of all, it’s not an island. If it were, animals could swim around it. Instead it’s more like an expanse of open water filled with concentrations of refuse. Floating debris will break down when exposed to sunlight to create microplastics,  which marine life and humans can’t avoid consuming. 

But again, that’s another video! 

Some animals ensnared in larger plastic things, like old fishing nets, but more commonly it’s just eaten, directly or indirectly by eating smaller animals who eat the plastic. 

Honestly, if the new Little Mermaid movie isn’t about Ariel losing her voice because of ocean plastics…

So why does this happen? 

Marine gyres circulate water in these vast ocean cycles, due to the spinning of the Earth and the wind. You put enough plastic in one of these gyres, most of it just collects. 

What’s worse is that the so-called great pacific garbage is actually just a shorthand for two of the plastic filled gyres in the north pacific. There are four others plastic filled gyres for a total of six globally: One more in the south pacific, two in the Atlantic and one in the indian ocean. 

There’s plastic everywhere! 

It’s estimated that between 4 to 12 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans every year. This is commonly reported as a split-the-difference 8 million tons per years. So why the huge discrepancy? A lot of plastic sinks and it’s hard to measure in such huge bodies of water. One study found that concentrations of plastic off the coast of Monterey Bay are up to 5 times higher 200 meters down, than at the surface. Unless we change, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 or possibly sooner.

But good news! We can stop this from happening! 

The top priority is to shut off the flow of plastics. 

So step one: Better waste management systems in developing countries. 

It turns out 90% of ocean plastic it comes from just 10 rivers.

You’ll notice these are all in Asia or Africa. Plastic stuff, especially packaging is relatively new in these regions. We’ve exported our Western consumer society to developing nations without exporting the tools to deal with the waste. 

Western governments and waste management consultants can partner with local government to make it stop. This is simply a matter of money and expertise, which we can be sharing today. 

Once we cut off the millions of tons flowing into the ocean every year, The Ocean Cleanup can actually start making progress. 

Step two is Producer responsibility. 

You ever see old movies and a milkman makes an appearance? Yeah, that was a job. It was simple. A guy goes from house to house delivering milk and taking back the empty bottles, and sometimes he’d sleep with a lonely housewife. 

Those glass milk bottles would be reused. They’d get washed, refilled with milk and sent out to happy families, and some very happy housewives.

So why don’t we see milk men today? One of the reasons is plastic. It’s far cheaper to put milk in a plastic container and have the consumer throw it out than to hire a guy to collect the bottles. 

But who bears the cost of disposing of the plastic? Taxpayers. You pay twice. Once when you buy and once when you throw away. The producer has downloaded their responsibility the public. And we just let it happen.

Companies should make reusable packaging that they’re responsible for collecting, cleaning and reusing. Or at the very least they need to be paying the cost of disposal. I guarantee, you’ll see far less overpackaging then. 

There are thoughtful companies already doing this sort of thing. 

Lush is a good example. They use black plastic pots that are already made from recycled plastic for their cosmetics products. You send them back to the company, they wash it, slap a new label on it and voila! If you return five of them, you get a free face mask. 

Lush doesn’t sponsor this video, but maybe they should?

Scaling that kind of model to every consumer good would require new regulations, new infrastructure, and a tax on virgin plastic items.

There are lots of ways to do this but one way is paying a deposit on items and redeeming them at distributing hubs to get your money back. We do it for beer bottles, why not also for shampoo bottles and everything else? 

Lastly we need better plastics. Plastic is simply too useful in a modern society to just ban outright. 

This is where innovation needs to play a part, and the possibilities are quite promising. 

We need plastic 2.0. And there are two ways this should happen. One is to create plastics that can be easily, safely, cheaply and indefinitely recycled or upcycled, while still performing like or better than the plastic we use today. 

Upcycling is making new and better products the second time around. Currently all recycled plastic is made worse by the recycling process.

The other type of new plastics would be biodegradable and still perform as good or better than current plastics. 

In the near future, it’s also possible that bioengineering could play a role, with promising innovations like CRISPR making plastic eating bacteria a possible solution for polymer reclamation.

In any case, 40% of the plastic we create is packaging, and it’s lifespan is usually less than a year. It’s the bulk of the problem. If we could create new and better plastics, shift the responsibility off of consumers and back on to producers, while investing in waste management infrastructure in the developing world to stop the flow of ocean plastic, then we’ll go a long way towards stopping the plastic apocalypse. 

But you might be asking yourself? What about all those neat plastic-free tips I see on YouTube and Instagram? 

Yeah, the solutions presented here are not something you can do. These are political and economic solutions that will actually work, but leave individuals practically out of the equation. So what about going plastic free at home? Does that do anything? 

First, let me say that we live in an individual focused society, so it’s natural for the first reaction to a problem to be based on individual actions. But I’m arguing here that the sheer scale and international nature of the plastics problems means there’s a real limit to how far individuals they can affect change. It’s up to citizens to lobby our governments and challenge corporations to change to better serve us. That is ultimately the only permanent solution to any large scale problem. 

That said, going plastic free at home is great. It lessens the demand for plastic. Reusing the plastic you have is also great. Steps like these shows others that you can have a modern life without relying so much on plastic.

But shaming people for using plastic? In this day and age? That can be counter productive. 

Pressuring companies to not use so much of it however is actually really effective. And there’s already change happening. With all of capitalisms flaws, it will sell you whatever you want. You want plastic-free stuff, you’ll get plastic-free stuff. Just be willing to pay more. 

If the plastic free movement can take credit for anything, it’s really brought awareness to the issue on a daily basis. Like all environmental issues, just talking about it and keeping it in mind stops people from accepting the problem in their lives and falling into complacency. If you want to help stop the plastic apocalypse, share this video to spread the word. 

Thanks for watching. If you liked this video, you know what to do, like, subscribe, click the bell to get notified, write me love poems in the comments, all that shit. And let me know what topics you’d like to hear about in the future. This video took a lot of research, and right now I do this all on my own, so any support to grow this channel’s reach is really appreciated.

Oh, and if you like environmental memes, check out The Gigawut on Instagram. 

See you later Wut heads. 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: