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Why are so many plastic bottlecaps disposed of on beaches?

Take a space flight with Planetary Lifeguard over mountains of trash we call plastics.

Every year the world produces 400 million metric tons of it — almost entirely out of fossil fuels like oil and gas. Some go into essential products like contact lenses and medical equipment, but a greater percentage goes into sporks, cups, bags, takeout containers, items tossed just a few minutes after use. Most of this plastic will never be recycled, but now this environmental contamination must stop!

While public pressure to cut back on single-use plastics has escalated dramatically in recent years, disposable plastic food ware and packaging, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all plastic production, can only be phased out if there are robust, efficient reuse systems in place.   And to date there are not very many operational. 

So, what will it take to get companies to embrace reusable packaging?

First global treaty

Recently the major plastic industry group, the Vinyl Institute, hosted a conference to explore what would be the first global treaty to tackle the world’s mounting plastic waste problem. It was in April 2024, not April Fool’s Day.  It was serious.

Besides cocktails and hors d’oeuvres there were signs saying plastics save lives.

Unfortunately, the signs omitted what scientists have said about the chemicals used in plastics posing risks to human health and the environment, nor did it say how European researchers have identified 16,000 chemicals in plastics linked to cancer and harm to the human immune system.

Instead of signs saying the industry must combat its image as “the enemy,” perhaps the signs at the conference should have pointed out the plastics industry urgently needs to clean up its act.

Instead of pushing back against the industry’s possible inclusion in the treaty of caps on global plastic production, it should look for ways to cooperate with a broad coalition of nations seeking a safer environment with less plastics, but how do you motivate such a prolific industry to tighten its plastic belt?

Spearheading that effort are African nations blazing a trail in phasing out single-use plastics that constitute the bulk of plastic pollution. Almost three dozen countries on the African continent have bans against various forms of single-use plastics and packaging.

Targeting plastics production

Plastic production has also come under heightened scrutiny for the emissions of planet-warming gases it causes.  Unfortunately, recycling has failed to stem the flow of plastic waste piling up in landfills, entering the world’s rivers and oceans, and more ominously breaking down into tiny particles that have made their way into drinking water supplies and now detectable in human blood.

The fiery derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, last year of a train carrying vinyl chloride also underscores the hazards of some chemicals used to make plastics.

And how has the plastics industry responded?   It counters by highlighting the critical role plastics play in modern life and cheering are hundreds of fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists planning to join the treaty negotiations, a 40 percent jump from the previous round of negotiations, according to an analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law.

The not so bad side

It’s true how modern medicine relies so heavily on single-use plastics. Bags made of PVC can preserve blood for up to 42 days, of course, one of the signs at the Vinyl Institute cocktail party pointed out. Industry groups also have highlighted the role plastics play in preventing food waste and delivering clean tap water.  Three cheers for that come even from Planetary Lifeguard™ who intensely dislikes spoiled food.

The plastics industry has also found itself navigating a tricky global landscape. Some of the world’s biggest oil- and gas-producing countries are understandably aligned with the industry’s position.

At the final round of negotiations in South Korea, nations are aiming to hammer out a draft of the treaty by the end of the year. Besides reining in plastic production, scientists are urging negotiators to aim for a treaty that mandates testing of the chemicals in plastics.

According to the U.N. Environment Program, the world produces more than 430 million metric tons of plastic a year of which two-thirds are short-lived products that soon become waste.

To this Planetary Lifeguard says “What a waste! And unhealthy to boot, not to mention unsightly as those discarded bottlecaps are desecrating our beaches.

Ouch!

That’s right, my back hurts sometimes from picking up so many plastics left on the beach, which my wife Rita and I never want to see make their way into the beautiful ocean we live beside in sunny, sometimes a bit too plasticky South Florida.  

When not beachcombing Tom Madden is writing books like his latest, Planetary Lifeguard blowing the whistle on climate change or helping his daughter Adrienne run their 40+ year old PR firm TransMedia Group polishing pitches and press releases especially those promoting sustainable products for an atmospherically friendlier, saner world for us all to live in . . . happily ever after.

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