Climate

Plastic, Part II

This is where this is going to hurt – if you are already aware of the awful, heart-wrenching and disgusting impact of our listless waste expenditure, please shed a tear and head for the next title head, for next week. If you are curious, buckle up, brave one.

Nowadays, we like to say the time we’ve spent on the planet, in the universe, is a speck on a speck on a speck. This makes the time we have spent eradicating the biodiversity of our planet even more grossly astonishing. Divide that speck of our existence into an infinitesimally tiny shred of speckness, and realize that’s the amount of time we took to destroy—on a global average, 52% of our world’s biodiversity. Don’t believe me? Check out this study, take note that Latin America and the Carribean have taken a whopping 94% loss in natural biodiversity since the 1970s.

Like all things human, we even treat extinction as a competitive sport. We’re edging the Great Cretaceous extinction, with their star runner Chicxulub Asteroid, pulling ahead with 75% of all species over a few months time. Can we beat it? It has yet to be seen..

So what is the role plastic plays in all of this destruction?

By now, most people are aware that most plastics are non-recyclable and not biodegradable. However, it isn’t just their impossibility to be recycled that gives them the mark of the beast.. The entire process of plastic, from its very conception to its forever undead future, is what makes it so thoroughly evil.

 Compare this to the many other things we find damaging to the environment, and it will become clear the impact plastic makes is far more substantial. 

Let’s start at their conception. 

In order to make plastic, we need the stuff plastic is generally made of. Hydrocarbon monomers (ethylene, propylene, etc) are just the stuff you’d need. Well, those precious hydrocarbon monomers do not occur as individuals on planet Earth. We have to “refine” or “distill” them from parent resources. If you’re an American, those parent resources should come as almost no surprise,Crude oil and Gas.

 Once again, Scooby and the gang pull the mask off of the monster, only to reveal a naked man clutching a barrel of oil, hissing menacingly. 

The process of refining crude oil, natural gas and coal in order to get other products is called “cracking.” I do not understand the exact process entirely, as it stretches beyond tentative chemical grasp, but it is essentially heating the oil, and then distilling it.  After distilling the heated oil, petroleum products, —like our favorite monomers, are produced. Then, those chemical monomers undergo a polymerization process to transform them into workable polymers.

It looks something like this, or evil baking. 

We crack a considerable amount of oil to get what we need to make plastics. Keep in mind that the process of cracking also requires energy, which is coal, gas, or in some cases electric.

In 2010, the US Energy Information Administration reported nearly 412 billion cu ft of natural gas, and 191 million barrels of LPG and NPL —these are products of cracked natural gas, were used in the production of plastic. A study was completed in 2015 on the carbon output of just 24 plastic processing plants in the US, and found it met the compared output of over 3.8 million vehicles. By 2030, plastic production’s estimated greenhouse effect will be around 1.34 gigatons.

In 2020, the US used 6.63 billion barrels of crude oil, which was a considerable drop due to the pandemic. Of those 6.63 billion, an estimated 12 million barrels of oil went into plastic production.

By the way, the EIA suspiciously has stopped reporting plastic pollution numbers, claiming it is not in their wheelhouse, though it is very much indeed their wheelhouse.

The factories that produce plastic, or the third step of the process after obtaining the oil and refining it, is also a harmful human experiment.

Workers in plastic manufacturing plants are exposed to extremely hazardous materials. Toxic fumes from the injection processes of moulding plastic are particularly damaging to the health, and without correct protection, training, and fastidiousness, workers can easily dip from safe to life-altering damage in moments.

Countless lawsuits have been filed against plastic manufacturing employers by their employees over the many years. In 2002, popular plastic manufacturing plant Pantasote was sued for negligence after several lifelong employees died from exposure to producing vinyl chloride. Workers claimed that the life-ruining toxin was so abundant that cars in the parking lot would be coated in a visible layer of the stuff after each shift. 

Motorola was sued in 2015 for knowingly exposing employees to cancer forming toxins that not only provided significant damage to their health, but also caused serious birth defects in infants. This was the 5th time Motorola had been sued for such an offense. 

The lawsuits against Asbestos inhalation and plastic chemical induced Mesothelioma cases are innumerable. The list goes on.

While it is true that we have rioted and sued for safer factories, greater workplace standards and more educated employers on OSHA safeties, hazardous jobs are not a thing of the past. As I scroll through the lawsuits over the years, I cannot help but recognize the obvious, unchanging trend, year by year, from these factories: expose and exploit now, pay off dues later —if they even manage to get to said dues in time, afterall, you can’t sue if you’re already dead.

Outside of the factories, the products themselves are threats to human health. It has become more and more understood that plastics will “leech” chemicals into the very products they are designed to protect. Additives and other residual chemicals on plastic aren’t exactly “bound” to plastic polymers, and are at a high, uncontrolled risk of degrading and leechingg.

BPA (Bisphenol-A), Styrene and phthalates are all offenders in this department. Several types of polycarbonate packaging contain BPA —and this stuff leaks like no other. It is estimated that nearly every person in the US has BPA in their system. Needless to say, this is a unnatural, unhealthy and unnecessary chemical in our bodies.

All of these “leeches” lead to issues like hormonal disruption, increased risk of cancer, and brain impairing conditions, especially for infants. 

God forbid you try to rid your trash by burning it, too. Plastics and plastic additives — types of paint on wood for example, when burned, release deadly toxins. Inhaling any of these fumes will certainly shave off a few years of your life. The tricky bit to that too is that many things we consume come in containers we think safe to heat. Take Cup-O-Ramen, for instance. Heating Styrene, or what Cup-o-Ramen is contained in, releases toxic inhalants that lead directly to asthmatic cancers. California has officially recognized styrene as a deadly carcinogen. 

And to think that all of this —the harvesting of oil, burning of fossil fuels, threatening the lives of workers paid to do all of that, leeching chemicals into food and water — isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. 

The truest evil of plastic is its ultimate end product: Waste. Trashy waste. So much plastic caca. Pollution, It’s in the rivers, the bodies of birds, the oceans, the barnacles, the streets, at the top of Mount Everest for God’s sake. Yes, I’m serious.

A monologue about Mt. Everest trash

Everest is covered in garbage,Everest Summiteers Association, even after taking several tons of trash down in 2019, have quoted that nearly 30 or more tons of littered garbage is still left on the sleeping giant. A considerable amount is plastic. Side fact, in an effort to take down 15 tons of trash in 2017, seven bodies were found amongst the garbage. This garbage comes from the seasonal climbers who flock to the mountain in hopes to conquer the beast as some sign of personal achievement.

Now, if you’ve ever imagined climbing the world’s largest mountain, imagine climbing it, littering on it, then climbing back down without your litter. Some claim it’s impossible to take the trash with them. I say, we used to think climbing the mountain was impossible, and now you think taking your trash down after climbing the impossible mountain is impossible? If you brought it up, bring it down —cough cough Eat The Rich.

If plastic garbage is at the tallest peak in the world, you can only guess that it is at the greatest depths of the ocean. 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the oceans every year. Trash caught in rivers inland eventually reaches the ocean and deposits where it pleases. A large portion of this waste gets sucked in by ocean vortexes and congregates in large, plastic patches. The most famous being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Each ocean has its own Garbage patch by the way —there is no isolated pollution.

Here is an infographic on Garbage Patches: 

With their inability to break down, and instead just break apart into smaller pieces, plastic trash can be found in almost every place in the world. No place is left untouched. There are remote, uninhabited islands, such as Henderson Island, that are covered in washed up trash from around the world. Rivers you think wholesome have microplastics. Soil that looks to contain minerals actually contains microplastics. Even you, dear reader, consume 39,000 to 52,000 particles of plastic each year. 

What does not make it into a landfill, oceans or your own body, is either recycled —well, it isn’t, but that’s for next week, sold to China, who just dumps that crap in landfills, oceans or your own body, OR incinerated. Incinerating plastics is not only toxic and costly, it uses and produces greenhouse gases as well. From start to finish, plastic is just a real bitch on the environment. 

The culture that surrounds plastic is a contributor as to why we simply don’t even think to not use plastic, or attempt to recycle. Plastic is so convenient and cheap, you can simply throw it away and buy another. Throw-away culture is real. Particularly egregious offenders are single-use plastics. I’m talking to-go containers, silverware and straws. Half of all the plastic production each year, clocking in at 300 million tons, is single-use.

Those liberals and their stupid ban on straws!

We’ve all heard this cry before. If you’ve ever wondered about the validity of this claim, understand that banning straws is necessary because straws are used world-wide, single-use and are small. —I mean, small small, when you toss one of these puppies in the trash, since they aren’t recyclable, they head straight for a landfill where the sorting machinery used is simply not equipped to keep tiny fragments of things safe from other ecosystems. They inevitably escape and break into smaller, even more annoying to capture plastic pieces. They become those microplastics I spoke of. The ones that kill all walks of life by contaminating water, intestines of animals, and soil composition. They ultimately meet up in trash islands in the middle of the oceans, joined with their billions of brethren in a swirling dance of perpetual sentient death.

If you’re one of those people bothered by the straw ban, use a metal straw. Alternatively, you can sip with your 100% reusable, biodegradable lips. If these two suggestions aren’t good enough, I urge you to seek the advice of civil-rights activist and general lover of planet Jesus Christ of Nazarene, because you are throwing a tantrum only the light of God can save you from. If you catch someone complaining about either A. the ridiculousness of the straw ban or B. the uselessness of the straw ban, kindly remind them that complaining is snowflake mentality, and apathy is even more useless than the useless straw ban act! Remind them that metal straws are hip, and fashionable – if saving the planet just a little tiny bit isn’t hip enough. 

Finally, the wrap up

The planet is hurting badly because of our addiction to plastics – plain and simple. There’s so much more, dear reader, just so much more damage caused from this carelessness than can be possibly summed up into one article. It is horrific, which is a reason I would venture to believe that we as a culture don’t talk about it much. —It hurts to think about, It hurts to break up with convenience, It hurts to accept that we are what we pollute: trash.

But if we can remember what was said earlier, we cannot cry in a corner while everything dies around us. Apathy and complacency have no place in the circle of life, save for the grave. You can complain when you die. 

In the meantime, let’s try to be proactive about trying to fix what we can by reducing and recycling. If we brought it into the world and sure as hell can take it out. Ideally before it takes us out.

Next week, we’ll go into just how plastic reduction and recycling works, even more specifically for Lane County inhabitants.

Kyra Roesle

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