John Colson: ‘There’s a great future in plastics’
Hit & Run
Ours is fast becoming a plastic-shrink-wrapped world, in which an industry that was supposed to be a lifestyle savior has become an environmental disaster thanks to the vast amount of plastic junk we discard every day, everywhere.
And, according to observers, this growing problem is about to be intensified, thanks to the relatively new practice known as “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking” that has given a huge boost to the world’s reserves of petrochemicals and their byproducts, including plastics production.
Do you recall the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross?
I sure do, and I have always found it interesting that one of the most frequently cited moments in the film involves a family friend advising Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, about his future.
“I want to say one word to you. Just one word … plastics. … There’s a great future in plastics.”
For me and many other viewers, that remark was a vivid example of the wrong-headed, anti-human, anti-environmental thinking that the establishmentarians (our parents) were foisting off on our emerging generation.
Fast forward to 2019, and you have all around you the detritus of our industrial civilization that is reflective of that remark — the increasing threat to our environment that has come with an over-reliance on plastics in just about every realm of human endeavor.
And the worst effects of this over-reliance on plastics are easy to see. Walk around in the woods, along the highways, through neighborhoods and along the back sides of big-box stores, and everywhere you look you will see some sort of discarded plastic product. Often it is the leftovers of some kind of packaging, whether the shrink-wrapped horrors that encase far too many products these days, or the plastic bags that carry our purchased plastic wares as we walk from a store, it’s everywhere.
I see it even here in the heart of the Roaring Fork Valley, where certain communities have passed laws to limit the impact of plastics on our local environment.
The trouble is that, as much as the citizenry desires to engage in the recycling of plastics, the governments of the world have not come up with an efficient, sustainable way of accommodating those desires.
Even here, the Pitkin County landfill has posted on its website that it will not accept most kinds of plastic junk, from “plastic bags of any sort” to bubble wrap and styrofoam, because the recycling marketplace has not met the demand. This torrent of long-lasting plastic mostly ends up washing out to sea, where it disintegrates into micro-bits of plastic, which in turn becomes a miasma of plastic that gets caught up in ocean currents.
It has gotten so bad that there now are five huge aggregations of garbage, mainly plastic, known as “gyres,” floating around in the oceans. Some estimates predict that, by the year 2050, plastics in the oceans will outweigh the fish.
True, there have been efforts to figure out how to gather up all that trash and deal with it, but so far nothing has come about that appears to be the answer to the growing problem. The State of California has banned single-use plastic bags in stores, and New York seems poised to do the same.
But there are 48 other states that must follow suit, and a couple hundred nations around the globe that must do the same, before we can declare that plastic bags, at least, are no longer part of the problem.
And there is another aspect of all this which seems to augur only an increase in our plastics problem — the petrochemical industry is gearing up to spend tens of billions of dollars to build and operate a vast new network of factories and facilities aimed at one thing only — turning petrochemical byproducts into more and more plastic.
According to a comprehensive story in The Nation, the oldest continuously published news magazine in this country, the petrochemical industry is busy putting together a $65 billion push to build new facilities along the southern coast of the U.S. — from St. James, Louisiana, to Corpus Christi, Texas — to accommodate this surge in plastics production.
And the main culprit in this push is ethane, once an unwanted byproduct of oil and natural-gas fracking but now a sought-after, critical component in the creation of new plastics products.
Amusingly, one type of facility being planned is a series of facilities known as “crackers,” a name that refers to equipment that can “crack apart molecules of ethane gas so they can be reconfigured as ethylene and later polyethylene, the building block for a wide range of plastic products,” according to the story in the April 1 edition of The Nation.
In the time and space allotted to this column, I can’t even begin to describe one of the worst outcomes of this plastics boom, which is that we send our plastic trash to remote, third-world nations around the globe. The governments of these nations are ill-equipped to adequately recycle or dispose of the torrent beyond simply letting it moulder, disintegrate and ultimately end up washing into creeks, rivers and the ocean, thereby making the problem steadily worse.
There are so many sides to this story it is impossible to pack into one column.
I heartily urge anyone reading this column to check out The Nation’s story on plastics, and to do some digging into other journalistic treatments of this important story.
Like climate change, the plasticization of our planet will have consequences which we cannot yet begin to comprehend, but which undoubtedly will not be pleasant for those of us still living on Earth.
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