Column: We cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution

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The unaltered stomach contents of a dead albatross chick photographed on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific in September 2009 include plastic marine debris fed the chick by its parents. (Public domain image by Chris Jordan of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters )

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By Paula Jones

Whose responsibility is fixing the plastic pollution crisis? Is it the consumer’s duty to choose sustainable products over convenience-inspired (but hardly environmentally friendly) single-use plastics? Or should manufacturers share that responsibility?

Eco-minded consumers are very discouraged. What to do when the tomatoes you buy are packed on Styrofoam trays and wrapped in plastic film?

Sure, packaging is important, but have these single-item, single-use packages gone too far with individual prunes wrapped in plastic, shrink-wrapped potatoes, peppers, and cucumbers? It’s too much!  

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What to do when all this resin is turning our oceans into plastic soup.

NPR and PBS Frontline, after exhaustive investigations, reported their findings in two series: Plastic Wars and How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled.

These reports contend that the oil industry and plastic manufacturers continue to make Americans believe that single-use plastic can or will be all recycled. 

As this year’s demand for oil for cars and trucks declined, the plastic industry told shareholders that future profits will increasingly come from plastic.

One former leader of the Society for Plastic Industry admitted, “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.”

But the truth is that many plastics are not recyclable. Extended producer responsibility, or EPR, is the concept that manufacturers of disposable materials should be responsible for the waste they generate.

Manufacturers and big retailers are doing whatever they can to avoid direct responsibility for reducing their packaging.

As Samantha McBride explains in Recycling Reconsidered, packaging manufacturers essentially financed early recycling in the 1970s as a way to sidetrack legislation (especially bottle deposit laws) that would force them to take responsibility for the packages they made. 

Now, many large companies, such as Walmart and Coca-Cola, are sponsoring the “Closed Loop Fund.”

It sounds good, but it is really a $100 million fund for expanding and improving recycling so that cities and towns keep the responsibility for the managing waste.

Consumers need to demand that corporations stop producing so much throwaway plastic and look for innovation in packaging.

Some of this can be done through federal legislation such as the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, which would require producers of packaging to be responsible for the waste.

And there is good news from a Somerville biotech company that has developed a new kind of food protection that uses a protective layer made from silk protein that slows down the spoiling process of fruits, veggies, meats, and seafood. 

Demand less plastic packaging by contacting manufacturers directly. Go to their websites or social media and look for their contact links. Message them there; you will find they are likely to respond.

We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis.

Corporations need to be held accountable for creating alternatives to cheap throwaway plastic packaging.

Send questions you have to ipswichrecycles@gmail.com. Visit our Facebook page at Ipswich Recycles and Composts.

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