Psst! ‘Plastics’ needs to be reformed

One of the world’s most successful and versatile materials is also a potential environmental disaster.

Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters/File
A gull picks at plastic trash in a parking lot at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, Calif., last July.

It’s been nearly a half century since Benjamin Braddock, just out of college, received a one-word piece of career advice whispered by a friend of his parents: “plastics.”

This moment from the 1967 movie “The Graduate” symbolizes the crass consumerism that was ripe for rejection by an emerging youth culture. Plastic was cold, artificial, and disposable. Benjamin longed for what was warm, real, and enduring.

But in identifying a booming industry, his older adviser was onto something.

According to a recent report, the use of plastics has grown 20-fold in the past 50 years, and is projected to double again in the coming two decades.

Plastic has proved to be extremely versatile and inexpensive, and it’s now used across the world economy in sectors from transportation to electronics – and especially in packaging.

But it has also become an alarming environmental hazard. More than 90 percent of today’s plastics are made from fossil fuel feedstocks. That’s about 6 percent of global oil consumption (about the same as the entire aviation industry) and the percentage is rising rapidly.

The effects of the chemical components of plastics still need to be better understood, with possible ill effects for humans and the environment.

Yet only about 14 percent of used plastics are recycled. (That compares with 58 percent of paper products and 70 to 90 percent of iron and steel.)

Today the world’s oceans contain 150 million tons of plastics, according to estimates in a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, and the World Economic Forum called “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics.”

But unless changes are made, by 2025 the world’s oceans will contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish. And by 2050, there could be more plastics than fish in oceans when measured by weight.

How to gain control of such a ubiquitous substance that is often hidden as just one part of a product (15 percent of a typical car is now made of plastic, for example) is a substantial challenge.

The report urges quick action on a number of steps that could turn plastics from one of the most disposed items in the world into part of a new “circular economy” in which plastics would no longer be seen as “waste” but as valuable materials to be reused again and again. Reuse would also greatly reduce the need for fossil fuels to produce them.

Advances in the chemical makeup of plastics could make them more easily composted and draw on other feedstocks than fossil fuels for their manufacture.

While the report offers a number of specific solutions, the authors consider it more of a “vision” and a “road map” than a finished set of recommendations. It calls for a “moon shot” maximum effort around the world to realize dramatic gains.

Now it is up to governments, industry groups, and citizens themselves to act based on the report’s troubling findings and its sensible, hopeful solutions.

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