No Away, but a way forward

Recycling is a misunderstood word. People often associate it as a positive action, with beneficial results for society. However, race-to-the bottom globalization of the waste trade has resulted in a situation where recycling is often not a service actually provided by global north countries, but something outsourced to the global south. Countries ship their waste 1000s of miles to be processed with no accountability or transparency as to ‘what these recycling processes’ consist of. Oftentimes, these processes are little more than backyard and/or informal operations in places with nonexistent environmental and labor law enforcement, that damage both the environment and the health of the workers (especially when processing plastics and e-waste, as workers really have no awareness of the chemical dangers of these materials). In this case in Indonesia, containers are marked as ‘recycling’ but really contain mixed waste. This intentionally-deceptive trade is happening more and more frequently now that China has stopped taking the world’s waste/recycling. Global north countries can afford to send the containers, and there is always someone in lax governance countries to take the bribe. In Sri Lanka, recently even hospital waste was found hidden within ‘recycling’ waste containers. I think that for materials to be truly ‘recyclable’ there needs to be means to process the materials within a 100mi radius, for instance, to make the processes accountable, to keep resources circulating within a bioregion, to minimize carbon footprints of transport, and to facilitate the materials awareness needed to minimize and eliminate toxic waste streams and replace with regenerative and nontoxic materials. There is no away, and acknowledging this opens up a window of opportunity to transform a broken system with creative, local responses for resource/materials accountability.

Follow more of Stiv’s work here at The Story of Plastic:

More Microplastics in the Sea than Stars in the Sky

As long as there is increased production of plastics, we will have increasing and accumulating plastic pollution across the globe, in urban and remote areas as these microplastics cannot be contained. Most companies are still designed around this endless growth model (increased sales and distribution of plastic products), thinking making products that ‘could’ be recycled will be ok. But, first off we don’t even have the infrastructure for this and even if we did, we cannot recycle our way out of this mess.

Article is on the TRILLIONS of plastic pieces that flow into San Francisco Bay every year. And SF is a place that cares about reducing plastics, that has made several bans against certain kinds of plastics. Think about the global damage.

Plastic dwarfs Nature, Shouldn’t this be sign enough?

We are not responding as a society to the harm that we do. Human response mechanisms are numbed. We have forgotten how to listen and interact with nature and the other species on this planet. Pretty soon she (nature) will cry no more, and then it will be too late.

There are only between 10-25,000 Blue whales on the planet. Our plastic production completely dwarfs the awe and beauty of nature. It’s hard to realize the scale and scope of the destruction of our current system sitting from one perspective, but taken as a whole globally, it is frightening.

Prophecy from a Scorched Earth ~

Powerful feelings of loss in the face of cruel destruction; of nature-based ways of life disappearing; of oppressive ways of living on this planet stomping out place-based, traditional knowledge; of history repeating itself…”You destroy our lands, poison the planet and sow death, because you are lost. And soon it will be too late to change” …as if uttered with the same breath of Chief Joseph….”I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

Mindful of exposure

Reduce your use/exposure to chemicals and packaging. At least there is one country that is taking the link between chemicals in products and health seriously!! PFAS exposure includes: liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer. Men especially should be concerned with trends in endocrine disruptors and male fertility **Read up on this topic, it’s not something to take lightly!

Instead of turning off the tap, adding toxins to the toxins –

Instead of seeing the problem of too much waste and asking a logical question like: ‘why don’t we make less of it? What tap should we turn off?’ More and more these sorts of deceptive/distractive ‘solutions’ are popping up. The last thing we need is more chemicals on the planet; and burning of plastics without creating upstream cultural and political changes just means more and more plastics will continue to be produced. It’s a vicious cycle and ultimately we all end up losing.

How long do we sit in the boiling pot?

We are not immune to the repercussions of our actions. How personal does the problem need to become in order to act on it? When something happens to ‘the environment out there’ is it easier to turn a blind eye? Why do we draw a line to delineate the self and other? Maybe it seems safer that way, but ultimately it just perpetuates limited awareness. How can we start seeing and feeling that we’re all connected and everything we do to the soil, the air, the water, the plants, the animals, we do to ourselves.
*note: all these studies are ongoing due to the nature of increased plastics and chemical use within the past several decades. As time goes on, and longitudinal studies are published, I am sure we will be made aware of much greater damage. This is why operating with the ‘precautionary principle’ to limit chemical exposure is better than ‘innocent until proven guilty’ policy. By the time there is sufficient proof of harm of chemicals, the problem is already widespread with decades of exposure.

Packaging Facts : A new way to see what you buy

What if we had ‘Packaging Facts’ similarly to how we have ‘Ingredients Facts’ mandated for products today? We know what is inside our food, but what about on the outside? These ‘Packaging Facts’ labels would be justified not only for the health of the consumer -due to potential chemical exposures from packaging- but also for ecological reasons, acknowledging packaging’s role in resource scarcity, global carbon footprints, increasing chemical exposure, conflict materials, and reliance on non-sustainable materials. This could help make more conscious and aware consumers and potentially help shift buying choices from packaging that is bad for health and the environment, to more local, nontoxic, renewable, and easily reused/circulated options. For instance, I would imagine a label to look and function something like this using the example of a PET plastic water bottle:

On the side of the PET bottle you’d see something like this (forgive me I am not a graphic designer) to break down the Facts of PET:

*Packaging Facts: A parody on ‘Nutrition Facts’

*Longevity = amount of time the material is estimated to remain in the environment.

*Origin = place of extraction of material (useful in determining conflict materials i.e. such as cobalt and also differentiating between supporting local and distant economies/economies of care or displaced economies)

*Transport = estimated transportation distance, for instance country of origin to port of entry, to show approximate carbon footprint. In this case I did a simple estimate between UAE and Los Angeles. This measurement can be helpful for those trying to source their foods locally, say within a 100mile radius. In this case, these transportation miles would really break the budget.

*Composition = to make people aware of the materials in their packaging. For instance, a product might be labeled ‘organic’ but the packaging could be chemically infused and even leeching into the product, therefore, not advisable. Also, as we try to transition from nonrenewable to renewable resources this will help make people aware of how purchases contribute to supporting these different systems.

*Percentage of Organic/renewable material: to what degree does this support sustainable or non-sustainable economy; restorative or nonrestorative practices.

*Chemical components/additives = specifically to help people become aware of the chemical components that make up certain products. The warning is like on cigarettes of what these additives can do (to help people be mindful of chemical exposure and potential risks). *Note: this is commenting on each additive, but not necessarily the cumulative factors of our pervasive chemical soup of modern society.

*QR Code : as recycling, upcycling, reuse, circular economy, and management are all contextually applicable, this allows customers to scan and see what is possible for this packaging in their area (say, within a 150mi radius). This code would also need to be updated for changes in laws/policy/practice. Additional information about packaging could be added here, for instance if the company of the product wants feedback on ‘likelihood of purchasing’ product packaged with a bamboo alternative, these sorts of feedback mechanisms could also be added, and more.

©️Katie Conlon Sept. 1, 2019