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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Review: Plastics - A Toxic Love Story

Plastics is much less technical than I would have liked. It doesn't cover in great detail how plastics were invented, nor does it discuss, for instance, how the details of recycling plastics work. It does spend some time discussing the effects of plastics on your health, but again, without a lot of detail. What it does point out that I didn't know about, was the lack of regulation over chemicals and safety:
while twenty thousand chemicals have been introduced since 1976, the EPA has been able to require intensive reviews for only two hundred, and it has used its authority to restrict only five. The hurdles are so high, the agency could not even successfully ban asbestos, an undisputed carcinogen.

In Europe, the burden of proof is on safety rather than danger. European regulators “act on the principle of preventing harm before it happens, even in the face of scientific uncertainty.” Guided by that precautionary principle, Europeans began limiting DEHP and other phthalates while American regulators continued debating the risks. (The EU, for instance, barred the use of DEHP in children’s toys in 1999, nine years before the U.S. Congress passed similar legislation.) A new directive known as REACH (for Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals), adopted in 2007, requires testing of both newly introduced chemicals and those already in use, with the burden on manufacturers to demonstrate that they can be used safely. The agency charged with implementing REACH targeted DEHP as one of the first fifteen “substances of very high concern” to be regulated. (Pg. 106-107)
By the time we get to the Pacific Garbage patches (there are actually several garbage patches, distributed all over the world's oceans), we start to get a surprisingly balanced view of things:
The lighter, like every other piece of plastic debris they hauled up in their nets, was coated with a fine slime of microbes, including bacteria and phytoplankton—organisms that are essential to the health of the ocean. To his surprise, Karl found that the plants attached to such plastic objects are copious producers of oxygen, churning out even more from their polymer platforms than is normally produced in open ocean. The finding suggests that, at some level, the multitude of plastic debris may be “improving the efficiency of the ocean to harvest and scavenge nutrients and produce food and oxygen,” (Pg. 134)
The author (and the scientist quoted above) stopped short of saying that plastics in the ocean is a good thing, but as with many things it's not immediately obvious that plastics are an unmitigated evil. For instance, in comparison to paper bags, plastics actually have a lower carbon footprint: they're lighter and therefore the cost of shipping is much lower, and paper itself has issues:
Life-cycle analyses—studies that analyze a product’s cradle-to-grave environmental impact—have consistently found that, compared to paper bags, plastic bags take significantly less energy and water to produce, require less energy to transport, and emit half as many greenhouse gases in their production. Author Tom Robbins called the paper bag “the only thing civilized man has produced that does not seem out of place in nature,” but that’s true only if you ignore the tree-felling, chemical-pulping, intensive-bleaching, water-sucking industrial production that goes into making that natural, potato-skin feel of a brown paper bag. (Pg. 158)
The book also disabused me of the idea that landfills are about decomposition. They're not. They're truly about waste disposal, and the goal is for landfills not to decompose, as that would add to their carbon footprint. The author's passion clearly lies with the environmental activism movement, and it's clear from her coverage of it, where she points out how quickly lip service the plastics industry fades once the spotlight on them disappears, and why the structure of the industry is such that it's difficult to get consistent action from them without government regulation:
The only players with significant financial resources to invest in recycling are the resin producers, the major oil and chemical companies, he said. But their top priority is “to make and sell virgin plastics.” As long as oil and gas prices are reasonably stable, there’s no financial incentive for the Dows, DuPonts, and ExxonMobils to get into the recycling business. Nor do they want to alienate the beverage companies that buy their raw plastics to make bottles. Meanwhile, the companies that make plastic products—which might be expected to have an interest in using recycled materials—are too fragmented a constituency to put together an all-out campaign for more recycling, said Rappaport. “The guy making trash bags has nothing to do with the guy making bottles. He’s got nothing to do with the guy making toys. It’s so fractured that nobody can get enough critical mass and money together” to put into developing the recycling infrastructure. (pg. 192)
Her visit to China's recycling center was also enlightening. Once again, the recycling happens there easily because the workers are getting paid $200 a month, which explains why plastic recycling doesn't happen on the coasts of the US --- China can outbid any US-based recycling center, and shipping from the US to China is incredibly cheap because container ships would be going back to China empty otherwise.

I started out the book rather negative, but by the end of the book realized that I learned a lot more than I expected. Recommended.
 
 

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