The Future of Plastics Has Been Bright; Can We Keep It That Way?

It has now been more than 50 years since the iconic moment in The Graduate where Mr. Maguire tells Ben that “there’s a great future in plastics.”  Truer words have never been spoken.  The release this week of “Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste by the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine demonstrates just how prescient Mr. Maguire was. 

Reckoning states that from 1966, one year before the Graduate was released, to 2015, global plastic production increased from 20 million metric tons to 381 million metric tons.  By any measure, that’s a lot of plastic.  And as Reckoning makes clear, much of that plastic ends up in the oceans:

Despite limitations in complete quantification of plastic waste to the ocean, it is clearly ubiquitous and increasing in magnitude.

To skip to the bottom line, Reckoning recommends that:

The United States should create a coherent, comprehensive, and crosscutting federal research and policy strategy that focuses on identifying, implementing, and assessing equitable and effective interventions across the entire plastic life cycle to reduce U.S.  contribution of plastic waste to the environment, including the ocean.

I agree with this as a broad recommendation.  And yet we have to remember that there’s a reason why use of plastics has grown so dramatically.  They really are miracle products.  We’re not going to address the impact of plastic pollution unless and until we acknowledge how useful they are.

I feel very much like a broken record, but any “coherent, comprehensive, and crosscutting … policy strategy” has to include mechanisms for identifying the costs imposed by plastic pollution and internalizing those costs into the price of plastics.  If we can do that, we can continue to enjoy the benefits of plastics while at the same time addressing their environmental costs.

2 thoughts on “The Future of Plastics Has Been Bright; Can We Keep It That Way?

  1. This is NOT just a waste problem–it is another dimension of our excessive dependence on fossil fuels, from which plastics are made. A complete life cycle assessment might suggest that we should be advancing technologies (including
    but not limited to incentivized recycling and materials substitution) which reduce the need for the “climate unfriendly” extraction and processing associated with plastics.

  2. While waiting for appropriate internalization of the cost of plastics, we can reduce their use- plastic free deodorant (no plastic packaging), plastic free detergent (laundry, dishwasher, dish soap), shampoo bars, old-fashioned soap bars, etc. As a new year’s resolution, select 3 items and don’t buy any more plastic.

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