Thicker Than Water

New book looks for solutions to the plastic crisis that's threatening wildlife and human health

Photo by Erica Cirino

As we’ve seen, up to the present day, a combination of local and sometimes national regulations on plastic production, sale, use, disposal, and recycling—or complete lack of regulation—sway the way we handle plastic waste across place and context. Primarily, municipal and national governments have tried to encourage shifts in values and behaviors through disincentivizing the purchase or distribution of single-use plastic items, through implementation of taxes and in some cases prohibition. It’s only recently that some have proposed truly circular plastic legislation, much of it requiring the companies that create products made from plastic to finally take full responsibility for their waste. 

A shift is happening, on a large scale, as a growing number of lawmakers voice support for circular policies. The European Commission’s directive on single-use plastic is considered one of the biggest steps taken to treat plastic and other materials people use in a less-wasteful way. Its nuanced policy for curbing plastic pollution is based around a simple premise: Making better use of the plastic we already have reduces the need to produce more plastic. Among the strategies outlined in this and other circular plans are obligations for corporations to assume extended producer responsibility, or EPR for short, assuming economic and ecological accountability for their products throughout the products’ entire life cycles. EPR schemes may involve continued research, deposit-return systems, vastly improved recycling systems, redesign and replacement, use restrictions, and better collection systems for many popular single-use plastic products, among other initiatives.

Unlike most plastic legislation passed to date, which has done little to shift throwaway culture, the EU’s directive seeks to rethink plastic as a resource, instead of waste, and close the present gap that exists between a plastic item’s final use and its potential next life—which is rarely ever realized.

For all the people on board with circularity, there are many others who are not—unsurprisingly, most people leading industries dealing in petrochemicals and plastic. While some companies, including Coca-Cola, have publicly committed to some voluntary measures to cut plastic use, behind closed doors it and other companies have opposed important policies that address plastic, including the EU directive. Further adding to the illusion of corporate concern is the common practice of allowing industry trade associations to do their dirty work. 

“While companies may tell the public they’re good guys, many belong to trade groups—including the Plastics Industry Association— which are strongly opposing the legislation we need right now,” said John Hocevar, of Greenpeace, who is now working to hold some of the world’s biggest companies accountable for their secretive trade association alliances. “We call up these companies and remind them that they are deceiving people by saying publicly that they care, but in reality belong to groups opposing meaningful action.” 

As a result of such efforts, big brands like Coca-Cola, General Motors, PepsiCo, and SC Johnson severed ties with the Plastics Industry Association in 2019. Still, when plans for the EU directive were first unveiled, Coca-Cola (then still a member of the trade group), was the biggest corporation to sign off on a letter to the European Commission opposing the new plans, which would require that manufacturers redesign their plastic bottles so that the caps were less likely to twist off and become unrecoverable in nature, among other measures meant to minimize plastic products’ harm on the natural environment and improve plastic recovery and recycling rates. 

In their letter, the beverage corporation leaders cite the efficacy of deposit return schemes and recycling in reducing plastic litter in their arguments against the EU directive, which would require serious commitment and investment by corporations. This, though Europe’s average plastic recycling rate, while higher than in many parts of the world, is nowhere near circular at just 42 percent, with much of it exported elsewhere, to be burned or piled up in landfills and the natural environment instead of actually being recycled. The corporations proposed increased efforts to “reinforce and incentivize [the] right consumer behaviors” in lieu of taking responsibility for their products. It’s the same old story. 

While companies may tell the public they’re good guys, many belong to trade groups—including the Plastics Industry Association— which are strongly opposing the legislation we need right now.

-John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace

When politicians in the world’s most wasteful country, the US, unveiled its first national circularity-based plan to tackle plastic pollution in 2020, the plastic industry, predictably, reacted in strong opposition. Called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, and recently reintroduced in March 2021 by Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and more than ninety other members of the House and Senate, the act is designed to ultimately compel corporations and industries to cease production of certain non-recyclable single-use plastic products. To achieve this goal, the act would, among other strategies, require governments and industries to assume additional responsibility for plastic products, phase out some single-use plastic products entirely, restrict plastic waste exports, and place a temporary moratorium on permits for new and expanded plastic- and petrochemical-producing facilities.

Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, an organization focused on eliminating plastic pollution, has proven to be a valuable ally of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, advising lawmakers and other supporters of the bill. As a former EPA administrator, she is well aware of both the government bureaucracy and industry influence that so commonly impede passage of meaningful legislation. “The biggest hurdle to getting the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act passed is to get past plastic lobbyists in every state legislature and Congress who are trying to tinker with the language of the law so that it’s less effective,” Enck said in early 2021, the bill still under consideration. 

When asked directly about the issue of plastic pollution and how to best address it, a representative from the Plastics Industry Association, the major plastic-industry trade group, told me in an email that it “believes uncollected plastics do not belong in the natural environment and that is why we partner with other associations, non-governmental organizations, and intergovernmental authorities to coordinate efforts to strengthen recovery systems around the globe to prevent loss of plastics into the environment. Our members understand that our industry needs to be a part of the solution. We encourage education and call for the enhancement of our recycling infrastructure in order to encourage new end markets for plastics.” 

Scientists continue to reiterate that industry’s inclination to put the onus for plastic pollution almost solely on consumers is unfair. 

“Ocean plastics are a symptom of poor upstream waste management, poor product design, as well as consumer littering behavior,” Marcus Eriksen of 5 Gyres once explained to me. What industry suggests as a solution is “a perpetuation of old narratives, where pollution is caused by consumers. Regulation of products and packaging must be fought for intensively.” 

Those laws now in place have already proven themselves on varying scales over the past few decades. Local rules on single-use plastic have been linked to reduced amounts of plastic waste ending up as litter in the environment. But strong national legislation—and hopefully, one day international legislation—is by far most capable of making the biggest reductions in plastic production, use, and disposal, due to the global nature of the plastic crisis. 

To get effective legislation passed even in the face of widespread industry opposition, Enck urges people to contact their elected officials and express why we need strict plastic legislation now. “Yes, it’s hard, and there’s a lot already on people’s plates,” she acknowledged. “But believe it or not, many lawmakers are still fixed on the idea that plastic pollution is ‘just’ a straw up a turtle’s nose.” She suggested the public remind their representatives that the plastic crisis is much larger and more urgent than that single perspective—causing not only ecological catastrophes but also harming human health, while upholding systemic racism and other forms of injustice. And then there is plastic’s inherent connection to fossil fuels, and the catastrophe that is climate change. Because fossil fuels are finite—their underground stores cannot be replenished when exhausted—there will inevitably come a day when petrochemical industries and manufacturers will have to rethink their reliance on plastic. Looking forward, it seems most players in industry and business will remain focused on perpetuating the plastic status quo, all while continuing to rake in billions of dollars a year—at great expense to all of us. That is, of course, unless we stop them. 

Is it brilliant, or brainless, that petrochemical and plastic corporations are choosing to go down with a sinking ship?

The answer to that question depends on what matters most to each of us.

From Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis by Erica Cirino; Copyright © 2021 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C

Erica Cirino is a science writer and artist who explores the intersection of the human and nonhuman worlds. Her photographic and written works have appeared in Scientific American, The Guardian, VICE, Hakai Magazine, The Atlantic, and other esteemed publications. She is a recipient of fellowships from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and Safina Center, as well as several awards for visual art.

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