When people think of plastic pollution, a few iconic images most likely come to mind: a turtle with a straw being yanked from its nose, a dead sea bird splayed open with a belly full of plastic, a faraway beach covered in plastic discards stretching as far as the eye can see.
Image: Chris Jordan
On the one hand, these images bring awareness to the massive amount of single use plastic accumulating all over the world and the negative impacts this is having on our planet.
On the other hand, these pictures paint the plastic crisis as a waste management problem.
If you and I just recycled more, or if other countries handled their trash better, plastic wouldn’t be such a major environmental issue.
In other words, the onus of the plastic pollution crisis is placed on consumers (you and me), municipalities and communities abroad, rather than exposing who is actually at fault: executives and shareholders of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries.
If the full scope of a problem isn’t known, how can the problem be solved? The short answer: it can’t.
Below are lesser told truths about the plastic crisis that are hardly addressed by mainstream media. However, if we are ever going to gain control of this global problem, we need to look at the root cause-the fossil fuel industry-and call out the people in charge.
Plastic comes from fossil fuels
Aforementioned, the media's coverage of the plastic pollution crisis predominantly focuses on plastic trash. The trash is definitely a problem, but it’s only part of the problem. In reality, plastic causes destruction to the natural world and human health, long before it's a chip bag or candy wrapper floating in the ocean or washed up on a beach.
Plastic is made from chemicals (petrochemicals) that are a by-product of processing fossil fuels (oil and gas). Environmental damage begins when fossil fuels are discovered. Drilling and mining operations forge roads, build drill platforms and set up camps to access the underground fuels. More often than not, there is little regard or oversight for the land and life on and around extraction sites.
Destruction continues during the extraction processes, when harsh chemicals are injected into a drill site, releasing toxins into the air, soil, and water supplies of nearby communities. Once extracted, fossil fuels get transported via pipeline, supertanker, train or truck to processing facilities. These modes of transport are risky and can break, leak, ignite and derail, leaving oil or gas to spill into communities, food and water sources, wildlife habitats and our oceans. These more common than not, spills kill an untold number of plants, trees and animals.
Processing plants, where the fossil fuels are transported to (most always strategically located in low-income communities with little political power) spew toxins into the air, causing respiratory illness, cancers, asthma, miscarriage and myriad other health problems.
This is, of course, a mere glossing of the havoc and horrors resultant of fossil fuels being above ground. The extent of the damage and suffering they can cause, alongside the many processes they undergo, is hard to understand unless you happen to live in proximity to a processing plant, drill site, spill, etc.
- 2022 Peru Oil Spill
- 2022 Amazon Oil Spill
- 2010 San Bruno Gas Pipe Explosion
- 1989 Valdez Spill Environmental Damage Persists
- Cancer Alley Louisiana
Plastic makes the rich, richer
This is the reason single use plastic exists. Plastic is a product, made and sold so the executives and shareholders of fossil fuel and petrochemical companies can increase their profits.
These industries already make billions of dollars from their main revenue sources: oil, gas and coal.
Plastic is just another revenue stream. Put in even starker terms, our planet and our well-being are being destroyed so a small group of extremely rich people can become even more rich.
- Oil industry executives receive incentives
- Pay gap widened between oil CEOs and their workers last year, even after bailouts and layoffs
Plastic doesn’t have to exist.
Powerful people within fossil fuel and petrochemical companies decide to produce single use plastics, meaning they can also decide not to produce them.
The leftover bi-products from fossil fuel processing that get turned into plastic could be disposed of in a more responsible way. They don’t have to be made into earth polluting single use plastics.
Recycling is not a solution to plastic waste.
In 2020 NPR and PBS Frontline investigated the plastic recycling "industry". The findings concluded producers of plastic basically invented the “idea” of plastic recycling so they could continue to sell more plastic.
Of all the single use plastic that’s made, a very miniscule amount actually gets recycled. 90-91% of the plastic we use everyday and put into collection bins, is not recycled.
You may diligently put your yogurt cups and laundry detergent jugs into your blue bin, then roll it out to the curb every other week to be collected– but again, this doesn’t mean your plastic is being recycled.
Most likely your plastic discards are going to
A. the local landfill in Arlington, Oregon.
B. to a waste station where it's sorted, baled and shipped to another country…and then landfilled.
Image: Nita Blake-Persen
That is, if the country it ends up in is fortunate enough to have a municipal/formally established landfill. Otherwise plastic waste ends up in the ocean/local habitat/village streets. Or it’s burned resulting in air pollution that causes respiratory problems for locals who didn’t produce the plastic waste in the first place.
- Waste Land
- Plastic Wars: Industry Spent Millions Selling Recycling — To Sell More Plastic
- No 'Away': Why is the US Still Offshoring Plastic Waste Around the World? — Plastic Pollution Coalition
- A whopping 91% of plastic isn't recycled
You and I pay for the hidden costs of plastic.
Plastic makes products appear cheap at the register, but you and I pay a hefty price for plastic through hidden or indirect costs. Some examples are:
- taxes and fees for waste management services. Again, we the people pay to dispose of all the plastic that a very small group of people are getting inordinately rich from.
- Our tax dollars subsidize the fossil fuel industries, the same industries that are destroying our planet and causing immense suffering from widespread climate disasters.
- We pay for plastic with our health. We drink water, eat food and breathe air full of toxins and microplastics from plastic manufacturing, products and waste.
You and I can influence the necessary change that needs to happen.
The oil and petrochemical companies that produce plastic exist to make money. Every day, executives leading these industries strategize how to increase profits. They have millions of dollars for marketing and PR to mislead and misinform the public.
The good news is, as consumers, we are not powerless. By reducing single-use plastic from our lives and adopting low-waste lifestyles, we too can use our money to stop plastic production. We can also contact our politicians at all levels of government and demand they create policies that curb the fossil fuel industry’s power. In fact, this is already happening all over the world.
In upcoming post, I will share information about actions you can take to be part of the solution to our plastic crisis. Stay tuned!
Disclosure Statement: Transparency is my responsibility to you. The purpose of this blog is education. At the same time, I am a business owner and will occasionally promote the products I sell. I do this to generate profit for Utility and to provide local, plastic free, healthy, environmentally responsible product options. As consumers we wield a lot of power in how we decide to spend our money. I want to help you garner that power so together we can protect our health, nature and society.