23 Dec Six myths we need to stop repeating about plastic pollution
So it’s the end of another wonderful year where it’s been full of so much work and excitement that I’ve just not dedicated enough time to blogging! However, just before Christmas, I thought I would put out a wish list for the six myths I hope people stop repeating in 2019.
Myth: “Plastic takes 400 years to decompose”
I’ve seen this figure floating around a lot in the last few years. It’s well-intentioned, but misleading (as most of these myths are). There are varying figures from 100 to 1000 years.
Why is this wrong?
The word “decomposed” is one that is borrowed from the natural world but that doesn’t translate when we talk about plastics. In fact, the reality is much scarier: plastic does not decompose but rather breaks up into ever smaller & smaller pieces until it is no longer visible. Heidi Taylor from Tangaroa Blue once (gently!) corrected me after a presentation I gave, saying that plastics don’t “break down” they rather “break up” into microplastics and nanoplastics. When they are “broken up” we see less visible damage like entanglement, but they absorb pollutants in ocean water and are more available for us to ingest and absorb contaminants.
Myth: Biodegradable plastics are the solution!
The terminology surrounding “biodegradability” is incredibly confusing. Many companies are taking advantage of the growing awareness of this issue and releasing items on the market that are “biodegradable” without really caring about their impacts. Biodegradable plastics simply replace plastics while still encouraging the use single-use throwaway items. We should instead be re-thinking the system of product delivery rather than investing in solutions that create other environmental issues down the road.
Why is this wrong?
There are three main issues with biodegradable plastics:
- Timeline and conditions needed for biodegradability. Biodegradable plastics need to be sent to an industrial composting facility where they are heated and mulched at regular intervals. When biodegradable plastics go into general waste or, even worse, into recycling, they are not getting processed in the right way and they will not break down.
- Labeling standards: there are none. You can have “bio-derived plastics” or “bioplastics” that are mixed 90% normal plastic polymer and 10% biomass sources, or even just normal plastic products that are labeled as biodegradable! In fact, in 2011, California senator and then-attorney general Kamala Harris filed a lawsuit against three companies that made false claims about biodegradability, and part of the settlement involved them removing all these claims & notifying their customers. Cool!
- Impact of biodegradable plastics along the life cycle: “biodegradable” items are so similar to plastic that they cause harm like plastic. If mismanaged, they has the potential to choke a seabird, entangle a turtle or block a storm drain on land.
Myth: Recycling is the solution!
Reduce, reuse, recycle is a popular mantra all over the world. However, they are in that order for a reason: first we strive to reduce, then we reuse, and finally recycling is the last resort. Unfortunately, the recycling industry has really pushed the “recycle” part of this mantra strongly, to the point where we feel we can use plastics guilt-free as long we are recycling them.
Why is this wrong?
There are seven broad categories of plastic but only PET (no.1) is widely recycled, mostly due to its popular use and the fact that it is thermoplastic, i.e. it can be heated and reformed into other products. Recycling requires high amounts of public participation and situations like these (see photo below) of cross-contamination of different types of recycling, general waste or food unfortunately very common. This means that a lot of what arrives to recycling facilities needs to be put in the general waste bin, and even if it is properly sorted and then recycled, that food contamination lowers the quality of recycled plastic. Finally, recycling is highly energy intensive and many recycling centres still run on electricity, created by burning fossil fuels!
Coming up on my blog soon will be a post about waste exports and how this affects the viability of recycling, stay tuned!
Myth: We should replace plastic with paper bags
This is well-intentioned, but not the right solution. The most important part of this myth is that we should replace single-use plastic with other single-use items like paper without recognising the additional harmful environmental impacts.
Why is this wrong?
Paper has an extremely high carbon footprint (higher than plastic) and cannot easily be reused because it gets ruined when it’s wet or torn. We need to have wider and more ambitious targets to move away from throwaway culture as a whole instead of finding alternatives that may make us feel better but actually create a different set environmental issues.
Myth: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is by FAR the myth I hear the most. People always say: “Isn’t there a plastic island the size of Texas floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Why don’t we just go and clean it up?”
Why is this wrong?
Plastic does accumulate in certain gyres but it is more of a “plastic soup”, with lots of small pieces that have degraded through sun, wind and wave erosion. This actually makes it a lot scarier, because scientists who have been out on expeditions find that they capture plastic in every trawl they throw off the side of the boat but on the surface the water looks pristine. Captain Charles Moore, who was the first person to use this metaphor of a “garbage patch”, later tweaked his language:
It was and is a thin plastic soup, a soup lightly seasoned with plastic flakes, bulked out here and there with “dumplings”: buoys, net clumps, floats, crates, and other “macro debris.” I was not a latter-day Columbus discovering a plastic continent.
Myth: We should create a device to clean the ocean!
This is a sad myth to bust, because I wish it were true that we could just skim the surface of all of the plastic in the ocean. In fact there is a whole team of dedicated people who have sunk a lot of time and money into this exact endeavour, with unfortunate results so far: the Ocean Cleanup.
Why is this wrong?
The Ocean Cleanup device threatens marine life through bycatch of marine species and especially through its “sucking up” of plankton, who form the basis of the marine food chain. I can understand the motivation for seeing a huge problem like this and wanting to act quickly and do something, but their team did not take constructive criticism on board when planning their device. Moreover, given that 94% of plastic ends up on the sea floor, creating a device that cleans the ocean by skimming the surface isn’t a great solution to the problem.
So what’s the solution?
It’s important to understand these myths that we don’t spread misinformation or sink too much energy into false solutions. I go back and forth daily on what the actual solutions are, given how pervasive this problem is, but here are mine for now:
- Minimise your own plastic footprint, and encourage others to do the same. Truly your own plastic footprint is an excellent place to start and you can create ripples of change in your family/school/office/community/town/country simply by living your values and showing others how they can join you. Check out my A-Z plastic-free living guide if you want inspiration.
- Write in regularly to companies and businesses and tell them why you’re no longer buying their products (not such a big deal if one person does it, a huge deal if a few hundreds of thousands of people do, like the recent Walkers crisp packet mail-in campaign).
- Write in regularly to your government and ask them to take action by e.g. drafting or signing onto a legally binding circular economy directive at a national level that holds industry accountable for their product and encourages “polluter pays” principles.
 State of California Department of Justice (2011) Attorney General Kamala D. Harris Sues Plastic Water Bottle Companies over Misleading Claims of Biodegradability, Press Release, October 26 2011 https://oag.ca.gov/news/press-releases/attorney-general-kamala-d-harris-sues-plastic-water-bottle-companies-over
 Osborne Industries (2017) The Difference Between Thermoplastic and Thermosetting Plastic, May 15, 2017, https://www.osborneindustries.com/news/the-difference-between-thermoplastic-and-thermosetting-plastic/
 Rowley, Sylvia (2011) Which is the bigger eco-villain: plastic or paper? The Guardian, 7th January 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2011/jan/07/plastic-eco-villain-paper
 Eriksen, Marcus et al (2014) “Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea”, PLoS One 9(12), https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111913
 Engber, Daniel (2016) There Is No Island of Trash in the Pacific, Slate, September 12th 2016, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_next_20/2016/09/the_great_pacific_garbage_patch_was_the_myth_we_needed_to_save_our_oceans.html
 Summers, Hannah (2018) “Great Pacific garbage patch $20m cleanup fails to collect plastic”, The Guardian, 20th December 2018
 Sherrington, Chris (2016) Plastics in the Marine Environment, Eunomia, https://www.eunomia.co.uk/reports-tools/plastics-in-the-marine-environment/
 Weaver, Matthew (2018) Walkers to recycle crisp packets after postal protest, The Guardian, 10th December 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/10/walkers-recycle-crisp-packets-postal-protest