Why Is Solving The Plastic Problem So Hard?

12:12 minutes

Disposable single use plastic objects such as bottles, cups, forks, spoons and drinking straws that cause pollution of the environment, especially oceans. Top view on sand
Credit: Shutterstock

One of the biggest environmental issues in our modern world is plastic, which has become integral in the manufacturing of everything from electronics to furniture. Our reliance on plastic has led to a recycling crisis: A vast amount of plastic that winds up in our recycling bins isn’t actually recyclable, and ultimately winds up in landfills.

Large companies have committed to reducing plastic packaging and cutting back on waste. But there’s still no good way to scale up the removal of plastic that already exists. Waste-eating bacteria and enzymes have been shown to work in lab settings, but the scale-up process has a long road ahead.

Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator and founder of the organization Beyond Plastics, has dedicated her career to advocating for making plastics more recyclable and keeping toxic chemicals out of the manufacturing process. She joins guest host Maggie Koerth to talk about why plastics are such a difficult environmental issue to solve, and what makes her feel hopeful this Earth Day.

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Segment Guests

Judith Enck

Judith Enck is the founder of “Beyond Plastics” in Bennington, Vermont.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky.

MAGGIE KOERTH: And I’m Maggie Koerth. Plastic is inescapable. Our cars, our electronics are made from it. Nearly everything we buy is packaged in it. It’s even in our clothes.

And all of that negatively affects the environment. Producing it creates greenhouse gas emissions. It harms animal life. There’s even now evidence that microplastics can make it harder for oceans to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

This is one of those problems that seems so pervasive and so out of our individual control that it feels impossible to solve. So today, we’re going to talk with one person who can help us wrap our heads around this problem.

Judith Enck is a former EPA regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics, based in Bennington, Vermont. Judith, welcome to Science Friday.

JUDITH ENCK: Maggie, it’s so good to be with you. And I just want to start off by saying, yes, it’s a daunting problem. But plastic pollution is completely solvable.

MAGGIE KOERTH: That is extremely relieving to hear. I’ve been trying to use less plastics. But there are some things, like dish detergent, for example, that it’s just now difficult to find packaged in any other way. So let’s start off with some of the basics. What even is plastic? And how did we end up using so much of it?

JUDITH ENCK: Plastic, historically, was made from chemicals in oil. It’s now made from chemicals in ethene, a byproduct of hydrofracking. So the reason why we are all seeing so much more plastic in our lives, nothing we voted for, by the way, is because of the glut of hydrofracking gas. And engineers have found a way to capture some of the waste from hydrofracking and use it to make new plastics.

Also, plastics are cheap for the fossil fuel industry. It’s not cheap for our health or our planet. But if you are a company that packages a lot of consumer products, typically the only question you’re looking at is, how much does the packaging cost? And often the cheapest option is plastic.

But is it really when you look at the enormous health and environmental impacts? I argue that it’s not. And the way we solve the problem is not through individual responsibility. While that is important and you, and I, and others try to avoid plastic, we find it impossible.

The solution is to adopt new laws and government regulations that require a reduction in plastic. We need environmental standards for packaging, for starters. Packaging is about 40% of all plastic that’s used. And if we can adopt strong laws, not weak laws like the industry is pushing, we can take a bite out of plastic pretty rapidly.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Before we get a little bit more into some of those solutions because I want to come back to that, I want to ask you a little bit about the negative impacts of plastic. And I want to narrow in a little bit on human health. There was a recent study that came out in the New England Journal of Medicine that found that microplastics have been found inside of the human heart.

And so we know this stuff is there inside of us. But do we know much about the effects that plastic in our bodies is having on us? What are the effects of plastic once it’s in the human body?

JUDITH ENCK: We don’t know enough. Ironically, when that New England Journal of Medicine article came out, I was sitting in a cardiac care intensive care unit with a family member struggling with a heart problem. And I read it intently.

And what this New England journal of Medicine research told us is that microplastics and nanoplastics– so microplastics are 5 millimeters or less. Nanoplastics are even smaller. You can only see them with lab equipment.

They were found in the human heart in arteries, in plastics attached to plaque in your heart. And this was the first major study that said, because of the presence of microplastics in the heart, they documented an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and premature death.

This is a very significant study. It has not gotten enough visibility. It should compel action by policymakers. There have been other important studies on plastics and health but none making the direct connection between the presence of microplastics in our body and an adverse-specific health impact.

However, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say plastics inside our bodies is not a good thing. It’s not like it’s a nutrition source. And unfortunately, we have found, through reading the scientific papers, the presence of microplastics not only in the human heart but human blood, human lungs, various organs, breast milk, and, shockingly, the human placenta.

The New England Journal of Medicine article had an editorial by noted doctor, Dr. Phil Landrigan. And in his editorial, he makes the point that doctors should talk to their patients about trying to avoid plastics.

And that’s a good conversation to have. But it’s pretty hard to avoid plastics in your kitchen, for instance. But there are steps you can take. There are alternatives.

But I think we’ve reached a new level in terms of concern about health impacts of plastics that needs to be a catalyst for change in the halls of Congress, in the halls of state legislatures around the country, and at the United Nations plastics treaty negotiations, which are starting April 22 in Ottawa and which, by the way, are not going particularly well.

MAGGIE KOERTH: There’s always been this way that recycling is presented as the major solution to plastics. But obviously, that’s pretty flawed. In particular, recycling can only deal with certain kinds of plastics. So how much of the plastic we use is recyclable? And why is some plastic recyclable and some not?

JUDITH ENCK: Very little plastic is actually recyclable. We did a study at Beyond Plastics with our partners at The Last Beach Cleanup, great name for a group. And we documented that in the United States, the plastics recycling rate is an abysmal 5% to 6%.

And I want to explain why. There are just too many different types of plastics, too many different colors, thousands of chemical additives. So unlike an aluminum can, when you put that in your recycling bin, it can be recycled into a new aluminum can. Your newsprint can be recycled into writing paper or cardboard.

But with plastics, it’s just fundamentally not recyclable. So think of your own home you might have a bright orange hard plastic detergent bottle on top of your washing machine. And then in your refrigerator, you might have a clear squeezable ketchup plastic bottle. Those two items cannot be recycled together.

They’re different plastic polymers. They’re different colors. And they’re different chemicals. So fundamentally, most plastics are not recyclable.

Yet the plastics industry has spent millions of dollars advertising, telling us, don’t worry about all the plastics you’re using. Just toss it in the recycling bin. And quite honestly, in most communities, the only plastics that are actually recyclable are those that are marked number one, which is PET plastic, so soda bottles, juice bottles, shampoo bottles, and then those marked number two, HDPE plastic, which is some soap dispensers, some milk jugs.

But you’ve got to look at the bottom of the packaging. And those little numbers are getting smaller and smaller. And in fact, for PET, a little over half of what gets recycled is soda bottles and beverage containers from the 10 states in the US that have bottle bills, mandatory deposit laws. Those laws really work. They reduce plastic litter, and that plastic is kept source separated and clean. And a lot of those plastic bottles actually do get recycled.

MAGGIE KOERTH: I want to talk a little bit about the policy side of this. There’s something we saw recently where there’s plastic in most clothing now. And the California legislature passes this bill that would have required washing machines to have filters to trap that microplastic. But then the governor vetoed it.

And it makes me curious about how you see the role of politics and policy in dealing with these problems. Are there situations where you’ve seen the government getting plastic right?

JUDITH ENCK: Yeah. Yeah, there definitely are. And what’s interesting is the leadership is coming from local governments. So there are many local governments around the country that have adopted plastic bag bans, bans on polystyrene food containers, local laws that prohibit the intentional release of balloons because what goes up comes down.

And then also, lately, there’s been a lot of momentum in New Jersey and already adopted in New York City of a local law called Skip the Stuff. When you order takeout food, you often will say, I just need the food. I don’t need all the utensils, all the napkins, all the condiments because I’m eating at home. And you still get all the napkins, all the plastic utensils, all the condiments.

So in New York City– and I can tell you this actually works because I’ve tried it a few times. You order takeout food. You do not automatically get all the condiments and utensils unless you ask for it. So that’s a way that restaurants save money, and we have less plastic waste.

At the state level, there are nine states that have banned plastic bags. There are a number of states that are dealing with plastic packaging in different ways. There’s a whole area called extended producer responsibility. Not the best name but that says that the companies that generate packaging need to take financial responsibility to either recycle or manage it.

Right now, they have no skin in the game. We get dumped with so much packaging that you can’t recycle. So four states have adopted extended producer responsibility laws. Unfortunately, the industry lobbyists got their paws on it, and I don’t think any of these four states with, maybe the exception of Maine, are a particularly strong law.

But as we speak, the New York state legislature is considering a very important packaging reduction and recycling infrastructure act, which it would require a 50% reduction in plastic packaging over 12 years. It would require 19 of the most toxic chemicals used in packaging to be banned, chemicals like PFAS chemicals, lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, formaldehyde. I don’t want formaldehyde in my food packaging. I don’t think anyone does.

Third element is, of course, a modest fee on packaging. So local governments get some money to deal with all of this flood of packaging heading their way. And then, most importantly, we have a very strict definition of recycling. This bill deals with all packaging, not just plastic packaging. So recycling is limited to real recycling and not the latest industry pseudo-solution called chemical recycling or advanced recycling, is policymakers are finally understanding that we can’t recycle our way out of this problem.

And so now the plastics and chemical and fossil fuel lobbyists are all pushing this very dangerous technology called chemical recycling. And we just have to make sure that that is not included in packaging laws around the country.

MAGGIE KOERTH: I would love to know a little bit more about this chemical recycling thing because I haven’t heard much about this. What makes this bad? And what can people do about it?

JUDITH ENCK: Well, chemical recycling is a bit of a unicorn. It’s not real, but it’s a marketing strategy. When a lawmaker wants to adopt a strong law, the chemical lobbyists come in and say, no, no, no, no, we don’t need to reduce packaging. Let us do chemical recycling.

But what it basically is you’re heating plastics at a very high temperature and attempting to turn it into low-grade fossil fuel, the last thing we need. And then there are a few facilities that try to turn plastic waste into new plastic. But the problem is, in the process, it generates a large amount of hazardous waste.

There are only 10 of these facilities in the whole country that are constructed. Most are built in low-income communities or communities of color. Eight of the 11 plants that were constructed are located in areas with lower than average incomes.

They’re only handling now 1.3% of the total plastic waste generated. So let’s be generous and say they’re going to double their capacity. That gets us to a whopping 2.6%. Let them triple it. It’s still under 10%.

So it’s not a real solution. And I would maintain that the biggest problem with chemical recycling is it just doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work for the same reason why more traditional, or known as mechanical, recycling doesn’t work. Plastics are too diverse. Too many different chemicals, too many different colors, too many different polymers.

You can’t really effectively take what’s in your recycling bin, ship it off to a chemical recycling facility, and expect it to be dealt with.

MAGGIE KOERTH: This is a out policy. It is about systemic change. But are there choices that you are able to make in your life that help you feel more hopeful about the future of plastic.

JUDITH ENCK: Yes. You can do everything possible to avoid it. What I urge people to do is look at their own homes and what’s the heaviest use of plastic. It’s typically in the kitchen. It’s food packaging.

So if you don’t use a lot of ketchup– like I think our family maybe uses one bottle every two years– don’t worry about the ketchup bottle. But if you have a family member who drinks a lot of orange juice, as I do, no judgment, but don’t buy it in plastic jugs. We buy it in frozen concentrate.

There’s a lot of progress in your detergent aisle. There’s a lot of concentrates being sold. So just look at your heaviest uses. Bring reusable bags to the supermarket. I have a little case of bamboo utensils I put in my purse because I really try to avoid plastic utensils. Reusable coffee mugs if you’re a big coffee drinker.

The other point I want to make is nothing tastes good in plastic. So even if you’re not particularly concerned about the planet and the fact that we’re turning our ocean into a plastic watery landfill, it just doesn’t taste good in plastic. And by all means, never ever, ever microwave your food in plastic.

MAGGIE KOERTH: That is so helpful to know. And I could go on about this for hours, but I really appreciate you being here. We’re out of time for now, and I would just like to Thank my guest Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator and the president of Beyond Plastics based in Bennington, Vermont.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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