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The Plastics Problem: Why Recycling Is Not Enough

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RadioEd

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RadioEd

RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a full episode transcript.

Derigan Silver

Wondering what’s up with Trump’s executive order targeting Twitter and the fact-check label it applied to some of his posts? We talk with media, film and journalism professor Derigan Silver about how much weight this executive order holds, the impact social media has on politics and journalism, and the importance of the little-understood Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

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Derigan Silver is an associate professor in the University of Denver's Department of Media, Film and Journalism Studies in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

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Transcript

Alyssa Hurst:

You're listening to RadioEd.

Lorne Fultonberg:

A University of Denver podcast.

Nicole Militello:

We're your hosts, Nicole Militello.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Lorne Fultonberg.

Alyssa Hurst:

And I'm Alyssa Hurst. Every other week, I dutifully wheel at my recycling bin, which I fill twice as often as my trash can and set it on the curb for pickup. The cans, paper, and plastic I've amassed make their way into a facility for sorting and out of my mind. I refuse straws for my local coffee shop in favor for reusable option, and I always bring my own bags to the grocery store, so I never have to use plastic ones. These small actions I'm told, add up to an impact. One that makes me feel like I'm helping shift the tides of climate change and lessening the impact of humans on the natural world. And yet, despite our growing interest in sustainability, I still came across a news article last week, detailing the threat of microplastics in our air, swirling around the earth.

Alyssa Hurst:

As climate change continues to threaten our very existence and the footprint of humanity continues to encroach on the animals, water, plants, and air, we share space with, we decided to focus in on the issue of plastics with assistant professor Jack Buffington, whose work in supply chain management has driven him to explore solutions to our plastic problem.

Alyssa Hurst:

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of our use of plastics when it became this super ubiquitous material that we use in every grocery store on all of our packaging?

Jack Buffington:

Yeah. So man has always sought these materials to advance in how we live our lives. And plastic is a polymer, there's plastic in your cells, organic plastics of course. There's polymers in trees and animals. And humans for thousands of years have been using animals and trees for their materials whether it's elephant tusks or tortoise shells or, tree sap to turn into rubber. And then, with the advancement of fossil fuels, all of a sudden plastic became possible because plastic is simply made out of fossil fuels. And so this became actually believe it or not a sustainable way of eliminating the over forestation and harvesting of animals.

Jack Buffington:

So in the 20th century is really when it became ubiquitous, as you mentioned, and to the point today, whereas you mentioned, it's everywhere. And the reason why is because it's material that has a near infinite source of feedstock, which is fossil fuels, it's also nearly infinite variable and you can create plastic, which is a stretchy jacket, it can be a styrofoam cooler, it can be just about anything and it's very, very cheap.

Jack Buffington:

So this became something that became a huge part of our development. And to today, plastic has separated itself from other materials in that not only is it a noun, but it's also a verb and an adjective. And the reason why it's a verb is because you take these organic materials and you polymerize them and by polymerizing organic materials, you basically make them nature proof, which is much different than wood and other materials that we have in nature. And I also consider it to be an adjective because it's become pretty much a part of our culture.

Alyssa Hurst:

I think that is such an interesting point that plastic was a sustainable option when it first came around. That is truly wild to think about. And that leads me to my next question, which is when did we start to realize the environmental impacts of plastics? Was there some point of recognition later on?

Jack Buffington:

Yeah. So since the 1950s, plastic has grown about eight and a half percent average year over a year. And so, you can imagine back in the '50s, there was only maybe like 1.5 million tons of plastic, today, annual production's over 360 million tons. So the answer is probably when people started to see it on the beaches, when people started to hear about things happening in the ocean, but in reality, most people are not very much aware of the problem to the same extent that they are with climate change or some of the other problems we have with the environment. So I would even say today it's very much of a misunderstood topic.

Alyssa Hurst:

Interesting. Can you talk a little bit about where you think that misunderstanding lies?

Jack Buffington:

I think it's because the plastic bottle, or your plastic phone case seems so harmless. And if you just think about that single item by itself, it's harmless, but when you think about the magnitude of 360 million tons of it all over the world in many different forms and a lot of forms in microplastics that you can't see, that's where it's really harmful.

Alyssa Hurst:

So I want to talk a little bit about the plus side of plastic, the benefits of plastics because you have mentioned before that we use them in things like poverty reduction and that sort of thing. So can you tell us a little bit about that upside and where we get benefits from plastics?

Jack Buffington:

The absolute worst thing for the environment is extreme poverty. Now, one thing that's happened, that's been great over the last couple of decades is hundreds of millions, if not, billions of people who have been pulled out of poverty. And there's a lot of reasons for why that has happened. A lot of it has to do with supply chains that are what I work on and what I study and teach, plastics had a big part of that.

Jack Buffington:

So if you think about it, clean water, available food, in some places around the world, there's not clean water, there's not food production that's sufficient, there's not pharmaceuticals and healthcare that's available that plastic has been able to address those problems by offering, affordable staples to the people in their lives.

Alyssa Hurst:

So then on the flip side of that, of course, we've already talked a little bit about some of the scary negative impacts of plastics. Some of the ones you've mentioned before, 70% of plastic we produce is still lying in waste. We have plastic, even in the most remote corners of the earth, like Mount Everest. By 2050, there'll be more plastic in the ocean than fish. So what does that really mean for the health of our planet?

Jack Buffington:

Yeah. So from a scientific standpoint, it's very difficult to study or to prove in some sort of causal relationship, the impact that plastic has on the planet, but from a material flow standpoint, from a supply chain standpoint, it's very easy to see. So the problems with plastic are shown in different ways. One of them is about 10 million tons of plastic go into the ocean every year. Now, that seems to be a really big problem, but from how we look at things from a supply chain standpoint, the bigger problem, isn't the 10 million, it's the 350 million that isn't reused, right?

Jack Buffington:

But nonetheless, the 10 million tons of plastic that go in the ocean are almost entirely from developing nations that don't have sufficient waste management systems. There's studies that have shown that when they test the umbilical cords of newborns, they can trace anywhere from 60 to almost 300 specific chemicals in their bloodstream, right when they're born, right?

Jack Buffington:

So these are chemicals, plastics, and the additives that are used to make plastics. These are unnatural to ecosystems and to our bodies. And so you have to believe, even though these are not situations that you can do a cause and effect, simply because it's so ubiquitous, it's difficult to isolate a circumstance and determine what the problem is. It's pretty clear if plastic is growing at an eight and a half percent and being recycled at 7% and 360 million tons are being, strewn all over the planet that you're going to have problems with that.

Jack Buffington:

And certainly has an impact on our water systems. They do tests on municipal water systems, 94% of tap water has traces of plastic in it. And there was a study that was done in Colorado, I think a couple years ago where they put buckets out. The U.S. Geological Service did a study and they were trying to test for something else, but they actually found traces of plastic in each of these rain samples. And so this is coming from the sky, this isn't something that was a fact of somebody littering on the ground. So this is a significant problem to the extent that we don't understand as well as we need to in regards to public health, as well as the environment.

Alyssa Hurst:

And to build off of that a little bit, we've all seen these videos of turtles with a straw in their nose or pelicans wrapped up in plastic netting. So I'd love to talk a little bit about animals. So what is the true extent of that problem? And what impact can it really have on these animals that we share the world with?

Jack Buffington:

The picture that is really emotional for people is when they see the turtle that's caught in plastic or it's through their nose, or a seahorse that's using a straw for balance. But the bigger problem is the microplastics that exist in the ocean. So when you hear of these stories of these big gyres of plastic, people think that, you're going to go in the middle of the ocean and you can see a bunch of straws and soda bottles and such, but that's not what you see. What the problem is, is really what you don't see, right?

Jack Buffington:

And so you can imagine that these places are in the middle of nowhere. And so this plastic has gone from a coastline to these five gyres all around the world. The most dangerous part about plastic that people aren't aware of is it's not necessarily the polymer like PET. So it's not the polymer that's really the most dangerous part, it's the additives, it's the BPA that you've heard of in the water bottles. And just by the way, I think they tested about 95% of adults have BPA in their blood.

Jack Buffington:

So the plastic slimes its way through the ocean and it's additives are the smaller molecule so they're easier to release and so these molecules will attach to things that fish will eat, right? And so, they will ingest these chemicals, just like these chemicals are in our bodies, and that is having an impact on their health, of course because they're not intended to consume synthetic materials. There is no question that, to us and every other animal, these are synthetic materials that are not a part of nature. And so obviously our bodies have not been developed and evolved to ingest them.

Alyssa Hurst:

So what could that mean for people?

Jack Buffington:

When I wrote a book on plastic, I tried to be really careful on this topic because I mean, there's all kinds of possibilities, which are impossible to prove. But there have been some researchers who have seen these relationships, whether it's cancer or endocrine disruption or ADHD, or a variety of things that are related to something that probably has to do with all of these synthetic materials that are in our world.

Jack Buffington:

And the biggest problem is that these materials, these chemicals are used in a manner that number one is not disclosed. So if you buy a plastic toy for your kid, you don't know what plastic it is, you don't know what sort of additives are included in it. So, if your kid chews on it, you don't know what material could be leached. And then the way things work with the EPA is that chemicals are taken off the market once they're proven harmful, but they're not tested to be safe like the vaccine is.

Jack Buffington:

So it's almost impossible to keep track of what's happening, especially given the fact that there's so many of them. And like I said, you don't know which one of these chemicals had, what sort of effect. So I think there are some signs when it comes to human health, that while you can't create a causal relationship between what's happening, I think you certainly could look at it from a correlation standpoint, given the high increase of plastics in some of these challenges that we're facing in human and public health.

Alyssa Hurst:

That's really interesting. I'm curious if you think there's any parallels or possible parallels in the future between plastics and like cigarette smoking, something that at some point, someone thought was harmless and didn't really fully understand and then now years later we know how harmful it can be.

Jack Buffington:

Yeah. That's a great question and I actually wrestled with that a little bit in my book. But the difference of course, is that, there are exceptions with secondhand smoke, but for the most part, when you smoke cigarettes, you're an active participant. So what's interesting is even if you completely disabled plastic from your life, you're still subject to water, you're subject to food, you're subject to a lot of different things.

Jack Buffington:

And then the other thing is the cigarettes, remember I mentioned that cigarettes would be classified as a noun and plastic really is a noun, a verb and adjective. And so it's so ubiquitous that it would be... I mean, as difficult as it was to suggest liability to big tobacco and all that. It would be doubly as hard when it comes to plastic.

Alyssa Hurst:

I want to talk a little bit about recycling because that's something that we think we're doing to make a huge dent in the problem of plastics. And you mentioned in your book that only 7% of our plastics are actually recycled. And then of course, we have this new phenomenon that people are sort of starting to talk about now called wish-cycling, where we put things in the recycling bin, because we really hope that they're going to be recyclable, but we don't actually know if they are. So can you speak a little bit to the recycling process and how effective it actually is in combating this problem?

Jack Buffington:

The problem with plastic is that it's not worth anything to be recycled. So this concept that you call wish-cycling is actually counterproductive to the whole process because actually what you're doing is you're making it more expensive to process the things that have value, which is aluminum cans.

Jack Buffington:

The reason why plastic is not recyclable it is because it wasn't designed to be recyclable. It was designed to be nature proof, like aluminum can it's easy to melt down and reform. So it has a high yield rate where plastic has a very low yield rate and how we currently recycle, which is called mechanical recycling, it has a higher yield rate with something called chemical recycling and that's viable, but we have to change the way the supply chains work, but the biggest problem we have is the fact that oil prices are so low. So it's very difficult for recycled plastic to compete against new plastic from our oil system when the price of oil is so competitive, especially now in the United States where we have so much natural gas.

Alyssa Hurst:

Interesting. So do you have a sense of when, I take my recycling bin and I put it out for the recycling people and they come and pick it up, how much of that is actually being recycled? Does it just get thrown away? Do you know what that looks like?

Jack Buffington:

Yeah. I laugh about this because I was at a conference and I won't name the waste management company that was speaking with me but they acknowledged that over 50% of what you put in your bin is thrown away. So of what you put in your bin, aluminum cans are infinitely, recyclable. Every aluminum can that's ever been produced should be reused. It has infinite life and it should last forever. And it's actually very cost-effective the recycled aluminum because of the decrease in energy to reform it.

Jack Buffington:

Glass bottles are about the same as a plastic. Paper from a personal standpoint is not, commercial paper is. You have two types of plastic that are about 20%, which is the plastic bottle which is PET, and then you have the high density polyethylene bottle which is like the detergent bottle or like the milk carton and that's about 20% as well. And then all the rest of the plastics are below 10%, if not below 1%.

Jack Buffington:

So what happened is that waste management companies realize that they can't make money on it, so they just co-mingle it and they charge you because they feel like you want to do it, but they make all their money on landfilling. They don't make their money on recycling.

Alyssa Hurst:

So that's not to say, of course, that we shouldn't be recycling, right?

Jack Buffington:

We should recycle but my concern with recycling is that it makes people feel good about what they're doing. My concern with that is it makes people feel like we've solved the problem and all it has done is incrementally improved things. So instead of recycling rates being at 7%, they could be at 10%. What we need is radical, disruptive innovation, that's going to get it to 90%, not incremental that's going to get it to 9%.

Alyssa Hurst:

What would that radical transformation look like in your eyes?

Jack Buffington:

Yeah. So there's two elements that are going to make the changes. One of them is the types of materials that we use. So you recall, I mentioned that our plastic today was not designed to be reused. So what's really exciting and I'm working with some material scientists who are working on this, is coming up with new materials that will have a higher yield rate that'll be cheaper to recycle but the second part of that is we have to change how our supply chains work because these materials are so precarious from an economic standpoint, that if you try to send them all to some big location, that's far away, the transportation costs will kill the economic value.

Jack Buffington:

So what I'm proposing is a community based supply chain approach to where you consume, where you use the plastic is where you'll recycle it. The other advantage of that is it has a significant economic benefit to it and you can imagine in some of our inner cities and developing nations that are poor because they're resource poor, how they could use their waste to improve their economy is a fantastic synergy to make, the environment and the economy both work at the same time.

Alyssa Hurst:

That's a great example of what everyday people can be doing here and how you could start working there. But I want to ask you do these anti-straw campaigns and plastic bag bans work. Do they make any kind of impact?

Lorne Fultonberg:

They do. But the problem I have is that they suck all the oxygen out of the air. I mean, for example, if you felt like your house was on fire, would you worry that your sink was on and it was flooding your bathtub? You wouldn't worry about that. And I think that's the problem is that there's a lot of people who are well-intended and these should make a slight difference but if you do the math on how much plastic and how many synthetic chemicals are in the environment, we need something that's much bigger than what's being proposed.

Alyssa Hurst:

Sure. So I'd love to talk about that a little bit more, because that kind of goes to this point of whose responsibility is it to start working on this problem? Is it the consumers or the businesses, or both some sort of partnership? How does the supply chain factor in? What does that look like?

Lorne Fultonberg:

Yeah. So let's use other examples of what's happening in the environment to answer that question. So energy and transportation that was driven by some pioneers innovator who came up with this idea that it can work but the only way that business model work is if the car was as good at a similar price, right? And another example I'd come up with is another problem we have with the environment is this whole problem with the meat system, with the damage that the meat industry is doing to the environment, the large number of antibiotics that are used to the meat system that could cripple the medical system.

Lorne Fultonberg:

And so there's innovations that are happening in this space. It's not being driven by consumers, it's being driven by innovators. And the public will adopt those programs when the alternative meats tastes the same or better, and the cost is the same or better. And it's the same thing with plastic, we can't expect that consumers are going to pay 30% more for a plastic bottle or whatever. We need to come up with supply chains and materials that provide the same product at the same or less price.

Lorne Fultonberg:

So you also can't expect Coke and Pepsi to address this problem because the consumers are asking for cheap bottles. So there's got to be some innovator who comes forward that looks at materials and supply chains differently and when that happens, things will change.

Alyssa Hurst:

Yeah. That's a great point. I want to kind of go back to something that you touched on a tiny bit earlier, which is COVID-19 and how this pandemic has affected our use of plastics or has changed the situation with our plastics where maybe we're making some incremental progress.

Lorne Fultonberg:

Yeah. It took all the air out of the balloon. In fact, like I mentioned, I was going to go to Asia with some researchers and we were going to talk to some governments about these innovative, disruptive ideas of closed loop systems, community day systems. And then the pandemic happens and restaurants in order to stay in business, have to use single use plastic for takeout containers. All the testing kits that we have all over the country, vaccinations, people ordering from Amazon instead of going into a store.

Lorne Fultonberg:

And it actually even beyond that is the recycling system or the recycling companies themselves were halted because there was a concern of sorting these materials and being contaminated with COVID. So pretty much the bottom fell out when it came to recycling. And I think this kind of proves the point that I've been saying for a while is you can't make a non-economic argument to save the environment because what's going to happen is that you're going to get into a pandemic like this and people are just going to focus on the economy.

Lorne Fultonberg:

So you have to have a situation where what's good for the environment is good for the economy. And then all of a sudden it's going to work. But COVID is a good example of just not a of people concerned about it right now, given what's happening.

Alyssa Hurst:

So on a slightly more positive note, what are some of the innovative ways that you've seen some people try to start effectively dealing with this problem? And I guess are there ways that people are starting to in a meaningful way?

Jack Buffington:

Yeah, actually I'm excited about a couple of things. One of them is I think there's better collaboration between the nonprofits that are focused on the environment and industry. So I think companies like Coke and Pepsi and Dow Chemical are having more conversations with the environmentalist to figure out how to solve the problem. And we're seeing the same thing on the meat side, which I think is fantastic. The good news is there are starting to be funding and new materials.

Jack Buffington:

My concern with the new materials and this is where I get involved a lot in this research, is you can't create a new material that doesn't work for a supply chain because the problem with plastic, isn't the one bottle. It's the 360 million times or the 1 billion bottles a day that go out in the environment. So you have to create a material that works with the supply chain so that when somebody is done using it, the system will be able to create this closed loop system.

Jack Buffington:

And the big fallacy with closed loop systems is too many people think it has only to do with the material. Whereas the truth of the matter is the closed loop system is primarily a function of the overall supply chain. And so when these materials are created, there needs to be a supply chain that closes the loop. And I think the exciting part is that you're starting to get an understanding of how this is possible. So I have a lot of excitement. I just don't think it's happening fast enough.

Alyssa Hurst:

So in a previous story with the DU Newsroom, you spoke about being hopeful about this problem. So where does your optimism come from? And indeed are you still feeling optimistic about it a couple of years later?

Jack Buffington:

Yeah. What I'm excited about is the first step in solving a problem is understanding what the problem is. And I think, when I initially got involved in this research, everybody just like shook their fist at the consumer and said, "You're not putting your plastic bottles in the container, you're a bad person." And to your point, then the waste management system just throws most of that away anyway. Where I think today, where I feel more optimistic about is there's a better appreciation of the problem.

Jack Buffington:

Now, the challenge is that what scares people is the problem is larger than what they thought. It's simple, if you suggest the problem is just throwing your plastic in a bin, it's much more difficult to understand that it has to do with this big global supply chain system that moves goods around the world, so seamlessly. From that recognition, I see starting to see cooperation and whence there's cooperation between public and private partnerships, there's funding. And once it was funding comes innovators and once comes innovators come solutions.

Alyssa Hurst:

You just mentioned sort of that it's not happening fast enough. And I'm curious what the timeline looks like in your view?

Jack Buffington:

And I think about, the energy and the electric cars and the sustainable grid, which I think is ahead of the process when it comes to plastic. And I think you're starting to see a rapid escalation towards solving the problem. And I think that's the way it's going to be is it's going to seem like it's hopeless and then all of a sudden things are just going to be rapidly changing in the right space. And so that's where I thought 10 years, but I will also tell you that that was before COVID. So, so I'm hopeful, but maybe a little bit concerned about the time.

Alyssa Hurst:

Where do plastics fit in, in the larger conversation around climate change?

Jack Buffington:

So I think, that's a good question, is that it really doesn't directly tie to climate change, but it does tie to this whole way, this whole industrial way that we live our lives. And somebody would say, "Well, you're in supply chain, you're the problem." And I would say, "Yeah, but the people who caused the problem are the ones who can solve it because we best understand how it works."

Jack Buffington:

So I tell my students, I say, "You're officially problem solvers." The first step is understanding what problem we need to solve for, is the problem we're trying to solve for to make more and cheaper stuff, or is the problem we're trying to solve for, to create a more sustainable planet that we can balance in the economy and the environment over generations. And I think that's something noble that I think is a cause of action.

Alyssa Hurst:

To learn more about the plastic problem and Jack Buffington's book Peak Plastic: The Rise or Fall of Our Synthetic World, visit our show notes at du.edu/radioed. Tamar Chapman is our managing editor, James Swearingen arranged our theme. I'm Alyssa Hearst, today's host and RadioEd's, executive producer. This is RadioEd.