Why mount­ing plas­tic waste is a sup­ply-de­mand dilemma

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FUEL FIX - kather­ine.blunt@chron.com twit­ter.com/kather­ineblunt

The petro­chem­i­cals in­dus­try wants you to know that it’s se­ri­ous about plas­tic waste.

The com­pa­nies sup­ply­ing the base chem­i­cals for bot­tles, bags and other plas­tics are tout­ing their en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness, in­vest­ing in re­cy­cling and other sus­tain­abil­ity ef­forts as plas­tic gets wrapped up in the de­bate about cli­mate change and pol­lu­tion.

Thanks to so­cial me­dia, con­sumers have never been more aware of the mil­lions of tons of plas­tic cir­cu­lat­ing in the world’s oceans. A video of a sea tur­tle with a straw stuck in its nose has been viewed on YouTube nearly 33 mil­lion times and shared on count­less other plat­forms, serv­ing as some­thing of a ral­ly­ing cry as gov­ern­ments around the world con­sider ban­ning straws, bags and other sin­gle-use plas­tics.

The petro­chem­i­cals in­dus­try is far from the only one in­volved in the sup­ply and con­sump­tion of plas­tics, but its re­cent fo­cus on ocean waste adds mo­men­tum to mount­ing ef­forts by reg­u­la­tors, man­u­fac­tur­ers, con­sumers and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists to tackle the prob­lem. Opin­ions dif­fer on how to do it — most petro­chem­i­cal pro­duc­ers stop short of sup­port­ing out­right bans on plas­tic, for in­stance — but there’s con­sen­sus that ac­tion is over­due.

A se­ri­ous ques­tion re­mains, how­ever. What will it ac­tu­ally take to roll back decades of pol­lu­tion and halt the cas­cade of ocean waste — both in de­vel­oped coun­tries that con­sume the most plas­tic, as well as de­vel­op­ing ones where grow­ing de­mand far out­strips waste man­age­ment ca­pac­ity?

The in­tense fo­cus on bags and straws in some ways dis­tracts from the vast scope of the prob­lem. Those items play a sig­nif­i­cant role in ocean waste, but so do flipflops, di­a­pers, sham­poo bot­tles — you name it. On top of all that, tiny plas­tic beads and fibers from cos­met­ics and cloth­ing wash down the drain and, even­tu­ally, into the ocean, cre­at­ing a swirl of mi­croplas­tics that only gets worse as the big­ger stuff breaks down.

Much of that plas­tic, big and small, con­gre­gates in the Pa­cific Ocean, form­ing a “garbage patch” span­ning hun­dreds of thou­sands of square miles. A re­cent re­port by the In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency noted it could be three times the size of France, though it’s all but im­pos­si­ble to mea­sure.

Es­ti­mates like that un­der­score the de­gree to which so­ci­ety has come to de­pend on dis­pos­able plas­tics, which have made pos­si­ble a world of con­ve­nience and in­ex­pen­sive con­sumer goods, not to men­tion fresher food. Petro­chem­i­cals pro­duc­ers and plas­tics man­u­fac­tur­ers have, over the years, stream­lined bot­tles and pack­ag­ing to use less plas­tic, but con­sump­tion con­tin­ues to rise.

At the end of the day, it’s a ques­tion of sup­ply and de­mand. Both will have to de­cline in or­der to ad­dress the waste cri­sis.

Petro­chem­i­cals com­pa­nies are start­ing to pre­pare for a day when re­cy­cling and re­use is com­mon world­wide, as are man­u­fac­tur­ers and re­tail­ers. But bil­lions of con­sumers will have to fol­low suit be­fore that day comes.

What will it ac­tu­ally take to roll back decades of pol­lu­tion and halt the cas­cade of ocean waste?

KATHER­INE BLUNT

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