How can plastic material be reused, repurposed, or salvaged so it is kept out of the oceans and other ecosystems? Social awareness about the impacts of plastic pollution is growing, and there is a trend for creative, social solutions to the ‘plastic menace.’ Every day, one can hear of the latest, innovative method for managing plastic at a local level: plastic bottles stuffed with plastic food wrappers to make ‘ecobricks;’ paving roads with plastic waste; making yoga-wear out of marine plastic pollution; weaving plastic into tote bags; using a 3D printer to make plastic into products for a community social enterprise; turning plastic bottles into rafts, or flip-flops into colorful sculptures, the list goes on and on. Solutions such as these for plastic waste receive much attention and acclaim. However, are solutions such as these really ‘solutions’ for managing the ever-increasing onslaught of plastic waste? Are we even starting at the right premise for asking the right questions about ‘what can be done’?
Undoubtedly, it is inspiring to see the concerned efforts of individuals and communities that rally for cleanups and creative reuse of plastics. However, if the root of the plastic waste problem is not addressed, local creative reuse -without deeper evaluation of the economic processes that create such waste – might actually prolong the problem. It is the upstream, continued extraction of natural resources to create plastics and the increasing production of plastic products that is the problem; solve this, and the downstream effects of plastics go away.
If plastic-making processes are not unpacked as the reason we have a plastic problem to begin with, then we will not ‘solve’ the ocean plastic pollution problem. Without proper diagnosis, the disease continues to proliferate and evolve. Plastic manufactures continue their exponential growth trajectories, and corporations remain committed to buying plastic packaging and products. Well-meaning community efforts that overlook the economic mechanisms of the plastic’s economy might save a few hundred bottles from ocean pollution, or a few hundred bags from blowing in the streets, yet these efforts pale in comparison to the market aims of the plastic industry. Plastics are the cornerstone on which current economic processes rely; they are the “lubricant of globalization,” as discoverer of the Pacific plastic gyre, captain Charles Moore says.
A brief foyer into publications such as Plastics Business Mag, Plastics News or a search of ‘Plastic Market Trends,’ and one will find optimistic projections of future expansion, new customers and opportunities, and increased sales of plastics in the coming years that will further perpetuate this global, billion-dollar business (the plastic packaging market is projected to rise to $375B by 2020, and the plastics market as a whole aims to almost double). From the perspective of the plastic industry and the companies that rely on these materials, there is no slowing down production. To the plastics industry, small-scale, social solutions pose little threat to the plastics business as a whole. To the contrary, ironically, creative reuse of plastics ultimately creates new avenues and markets for using plastic, and tie more livelihoods to the plastic economy. The dynamics between the contradictory efforts of well-meaning creative social enterprises and the forward march of the plastics industry would benefit from a term, to allow for these processes and this dynamic to be more readily identified. An applicable term is innovative injustice.
We have arrived at the most ‘advanced’ state in human history, yet the businesses at the top of our global economy rely on the innovation of those people at the bottom to clean up their mess – or not clean it up at all. Where is the social and ecological justice in this? Why are businesses allowed to continue to prioritize economic growth and simultaneously externalize the social and ecological costs of the pollution of their products? Where is the ethics in the ‘privatizing profits, socializing costs’ model? Businesses around the world praise themselves for their innovation, but they innovate only as it suits their bottom line. The world is full of products where innovation neglects the analysis of the social or ecological impacts. Engineers and economists conveniently block these considerations from their calculations, however, the consequences cannot be ignored. There is no place for plastics to go, they are an inorganic product designed for durability and thus their impact perpetuates for centuries – every piece of plastic ever made is still around today – and yet the use of this material perpetuates, as plastics continue to be produced into more and more products. The responsibility to innovate and find ways to reduce the plastic should not be on individuals and communities, but on the corporations that make and rely on these products for the backbone of their sales. If individuals and small-scale disparate efforts take responsibility for the larger problem of plastics, the plastics market and plastics production can go on as planned; if communities rally for justice related to the production of plastic products, these processes have to change.
Designing plastics out of the system should be innovation that comes from the top and not at the bottom. It is a global game of 52-card pickup, to continue to make plastic and then wait to see how communities will deal with it. In the current model, once plastic leaves the company it is up to society to deal with it: use tax dollars to manage collection and build recycling facilities; upcycle; reuse; recraft; repurpose, etc. Humans are creative and inventive beings, and will find innovative ways to reuse and repurpose plastics in a multiplicity of ways around the globe. Yet, it is a gross oversight to continue to let ‘lack of innovation’ for plastics minimization at the top, dictate the environmental and social harm that is the result of the plastics economy. Companies spend billions of dollars a year on R&D, but this is to sell products and not to account for their social or ecological costs: this is innovative injustice. It is a crime for companies to expect society to clean up their mess.
Microplastics, like the nuclear fallout from the plastics industry, are now found in soil samples, river samples, food samples, and ocean samples around the globe, even in the most remote settings. The onus of environmental degradation from plastics products is given to communities to bear. Producers continue to push for market expansion and the perpetuation of cheap, single-use, packaging, and planned obsolescence plastic goods in a race to expand their business with no social or ecological accountability. Imagine how markets would change if companies had to account for every piece of plastic they ever made.
In the global south, innovative injustice is starkly apparent as most urban areas lack sufficient waste collection. The visuals of this injustice – the externalities of plastic waste – are strewn about on street corners, beaches, and in waterways. Multinational brands ‘expect’ for municipalities around the world to clean up their mess, and/or for citizens to get creative to deal with the pollution they see in their daily lives. It is unjust to make products without considering their consequences. In order to stop these processes of plastic production from scouring the globe, we need corporations to take responsibility for the full lifecycle of their products and packaging.
(NOTE: *A recent example of this is the new design by Starbucks of their no-straws lid. The company spent millions of dollars designing a new lid to get rid of plastic straws, yet what was created is a new lid that is made of more plastic. How are communities supposed to deal with this plastic? Moreover, the lid they designed is out of plastic #5, and this material lacks recycling facilities in the majority of the globe (Starbucks is a global company). Even in the US where Starbucks is based, municipalities are at a point where they are stopping recycling programs because of market changes and lack of local infrastructure to process plastics (until recently almost all ‘recyclables’ were going to China, but the National Sword policy shift has made this no longer an option for offshoring waste). Does Starbucks expect cities to make recycling plants for Starbuck’s products with citizens taxes? This is the process of innovative injustice: companies to expect for citizens to find ‘responsible pathways’ for their products – and in the globalized market, these injustices play out worldwide.
If plastics are not sustainable, if they harm communities and environment in their extraction, production, use and disposal processes, they should not be made in the first place.