Are you a longtime fan of horror movies who can’t seem to find anything quite scary enough anymore? You might want to try viewing some environmental documentaries – notably, these days, Deia Schlosberg’s 2010 opus The Story of Plastic, distributed by the Discovery Channel. It’s a terrifying deep dive into the scourge of plastic pollution, from the gyres of junk to be found swirling in our oceans to the mountains of unrecyclable materials clogging the world’s solid waste plants to the microplastic particles finding their way inexorably into our food supply.
While we’ve grown used to thinking about climate change brought about by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as the most pressing existential threat of the 21st century, the accumulation of plastics in our environment is a problem that’s arguably growing even faster. Half of all the plastic ever made – 8.3 billion tons since 1950 – has been generated in the past 15 years. And it’s not going anywhere, except for the small percentage that gets incinerated, spewing toxic chemicals into the air we breathe.
The Story of Plastic vividly depicts places all over the world where mounds of disposable diapers line riverbanks, where people live in poverty and rapidly declining health alongside gigantic landfills of non-biodegradable debris, where nearly half the daily catch in a fisherman’s nets consists of plastic rather than fish. Just recently, a team of Italian scientists has for the first time identified nanoplastics in human placentas, crossing the barrier from mother to fetus.
The film punctuates its tale with a timeline of advertising campaigns that the petrochemical industry has used over the decades to tout the wonders of plastic, and then to shunt onto consumers the responsibility for its disposal. From the Keep America Beautiful anti-littering campaign of the 1960s to the recycling mania of more recent decades, the onus has been on all of us to cope with the industry’s need to keep producing more and more plastic. Some of today’s most widely used plastic materials are made from ethane, a byproduct of hydrofracking; so, as people try to cut back on their use of fossil fuels for heating and transportation, the economic pressure is on to keep finding new ways of selling it in new markets, rather than to make less of it.
But people on the consuming end are beginning to push back. China has closed down its imports of recycled plastics, and the stuff we used to separate out with a feeling of being virtuous no longer has anywhere to go. “I don’t think we can recycle our way out of this problem. We need to reduce and reuse,” Martin Bourque, executive director of the Berkeley Ecology Center, says in the film. Thanks to the efforts of environmental activists like him, local bans on plastic bags, straws and takeout food containers are gradually becoming more common, both in Europe and the US.
It’s a slow process, however. Only nine American states to date have passed bottle bills, despite the fact that deposit bottle returns account for most of the successful plastic recycling efforts in our country, and only eight have passed statewide plastic bag bans. We need a shift in emphasis to putting the responsibility for reducing plastic waste on the manufacturers, says Judith Enck, who gave an online presentation on January 13 to viewers of The Story of Plastic as the first virtual program presented by New Paltz-based Mohonk Consultations.
You may know Enck’s name from her tenure as the administrator of Region 2 of the US Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, or as a regular participant on The Roundtable, the freewheeling public affairs discussion broadcast on weekday mornings by WAMC-FM. Enck has also served as deputy secretary for the environment in the Governor’s Office, policy advisor to the state attorney general, senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group, executive director for Environmental Advocates of New York and the Non-Profit Resource Center and past president of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.
After leaving her post at the EPA, Enck decided to focus on the plastic waste crisis, observing that most national environmental organizations weren’t making it a top priority. She’s now the president of Beyond Plastics, and teaches about the subject as a visiting faculty member at Bennington College. “Confronting the Waste Crisis,” her presentation for Mohonk Consultations, is a sort of cram-course version of her Bennington curriculum. It can still be viewed online at https://mohonk-consultations.org/news/confronting-the-waste-crisis-plastic.
What can the average New Yorker do to fight the plastic problem, if the stuff we’re tossing in the recycling bin isn’t ending up being recycled anymore? Enck advises us that it’s not our fault that practically everything we buy comes packaged in plastic. Piecemeal solutions won’t help much. “We really need systemic change,” she says. “Don’t feel guilty. Work with us to change the laws, so we have choices.”
Fortunately, there’s comprehensive legislation proposed at the federal level that will hold polluters’ feet to the fire. The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act was introduced in February 2020 as HR-5845/S-3263 and has been languishing in committee, but Enck believes that it will pick up momentum under the Biden administration. Now would be a good time, she says, for Hudson Valley residents to contact senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and their representatives in Congress to urge them to become co-sponsors (representative Antonio Delgado has already signed on). In the New York State Legislature, the Right to Reuse Bill, which would allow consumers to bring their own reusable containers into stores and restaurants for filling, is also pending.
To learn more about the work of Beyond Plastics and how you can get involved, visit www.beyondplastics.org. The Story of Plastic is available to watch on the subscription DiscoveryGo streaming service, for rent on Amazon, on Apple TV and on Xfinity video-on-demand. You can view a trailer for the film at www.youtube.com/watch?v=37PDwW0c1so&feature=youtu.be.